Bay Area Responds to Tohoku Disaster

October 24, 2012

The visions are inspiring.

Holding buckets in their outstretched hands, members of the Japanese Students Association “begged” for money and collected nearly $30,000. A group of Japanese mothers asked concert violinist Anne Akiko Meyers to do a benefit in a school auditorium and raised more than $50,000. And clip from an upcoming film shows Olympic ice skater Kristi Yamaguchi bringing cheer to traumatized children at a makeshift playground in Japan.

These were some of the stories told by community and campus leaders who sprang into action after the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster that struck Japan’s Tohoku region on March 1, 2011.

Exactly one year later, the Dilena Takeyama Center for the Study of Japan and Japanese Culture convened the group to examine the San Francisco Bay Area’s response to the disaster now dubbed “3.11.” We asked the more than two dozen leaders to share stories, insights and predictions. For most of the participants, our event offered the first opportunity to sit down together and exchange thoughts.

The 9.0 earthquake, 133-foot high tsunami waves and the Level 7 meltdowns at the Tohoku Nuclear Power Plant pummeled a vast region. The disaster killed 15,850 people, left 100,000 homeless and destroyed or damaged 125,000 buildings. The World Bank estimated the total economic damage at $235 billion.

The Bay Area’s response has been noteworthy. Local foundations alone contributed $8.3 million to Japanese relief efforts, accounting for nearly half the grants made by California foundations, according to the New York-based Foundation Center, which monitors philanthropies. If the Bay Area were a state, it would have ranked seventh among states, said Janet Camarena, head of the Foundation Center’s San Francisco Office. The figure doesn’t include monies contributed by non-foundation organizations, such as the Japanese Community and Cultural Center of Northern California, which raised more than $4 million, and Give2Asia, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that raised $5.6 million. The funds collected by an untold number of private efforts—from bake sales to marathons—send the tally even higher.

Many of the grassroots efforts seemed to run on passion. When a group of Bay Area working mothers—all originally from Japan—“felt helpless” when they starting hearing the news of the unfolding disaster in Japan. Then they seized on the idea of the benefit violin concert.

 “Our mom’s group all came from different walks of life and professions,” said Kaoru Miyanouchi, herself a violin performer and teacher. “We came together to bring different skills, and we didn’t sleep for months to plan this event.”

The public’s response stunned some of the organizers. “We were very surprised when people thanked us when they gave us money,” said Miki Fukai, president of the Japanese Students Association, whose members solicited donations on campus and in downtown San Francisco. JSA member Nobuaki Momoi added, “I was surprised by the love for Japanese people in the Bay Area, and we are very grateful for that love.” The donations were given to the Japan Red Cross.

What were some of the reasons for the intensity of the activity and the scale of the success in the Bay Area? Based on the comments made by the participants, several forces converged:

  • The region’s cultural and economic ties to Japan are historic, vibrant and passionate. The large Japanese American population took root around the 1900s, and is continually replenished with individuals and families attracted by jobs, schools and the American lifestyle. The Silicon Valley’s high-tech industries has fostered enhanced economic interdependency, and the Bay Area’s schools are a magnet for Japanese students—there are 200 at SF State alone.
  • Organizations such as the Japanese Community and Cultural Center of Northern California and Give2Asia have established themselves as credible and trustworthy community-based organizations. Through past experience, including raising money for the 1995 Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake, they were able to quickly mobilize and distribute aid to known organizations who could put it to use.
  • The rise of the Internet and social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter, made it possible for individuals, companies and organizations to reach out to potential donors on a global basis. “You can do something from your own home,” said Hitoshi Hokamura of the Evernote Japan software company, which donated one month’s earnings—$120,000—to the cause. Working from the Silicon Valley, he and other Evernote colleagues tweeted customers, friends and strangers around the world to make donations to JCCCNC.

Filmmaker Dianne Fukami believes we are witnessing the unique role played by the Japanese American community, now in its fifth generation, as part of the connective tissue linking the U.S. and Japan. This is the focus of her documentary-in-progress, “Stories from Tohoku: With Heart and Hope.” In a 10-minute clip screened for the group, I was most touched by a scene showing Kristi Yamaguchi, the ice skater and philanthropist, playing with children who had lost their homes. They were in a temporary playground that looked like it was carved out of a glade of trees.

I agreed with Dana Lewis’s observation that the disaster stirred one positive reaction by rekindling American interest in Japan. Lewis, the outgoing president of the Japan Society of Northern California, said that for some time Japan has been overtaken by China and India with their larger and more vibrant economies. Despite recent economic woes, Japan remains an important American trade partner and political ally.

While there were many success stories to celebrate, our roundtable participants also issued several sober cautions and warnings. Among them:

  • Emotional issues. Dr. Reiko Honma True, a psychologist, warned of the continuing need to help Tohoku residents, including children, deal with the emotional trauma stemming from the disaster. She has helped to organize training programs for teachers, doctors and emergency workers so that they can recognize when people need help.
  • Discrimination. Fears about radioactive contamination around the Fukushima nuclear power plant have given rise discrimination against Tohoku residents, bullying of children in schools, boycotts of agricultural products and fear of traveling to the region. Many cities have banned the disposal of Tohoku debris within their borders.
  • Energy. Consul General Hiroshi Inomata reported that Japan has made progress in closing the “supply chain” gap critical to U.S. manufacturers, but it still must contend with the problem of how to replace the electricity generated by nuclear power plants that are increasingly unpopular with the public.
  • Big Needs. Given the scale and breadth of the destruction, some of the participants said that it could take at least a decade to rebuild the region, create new jobs that will lure back young families and address the human tragedies and trauma left by Tohoku disaster.

Nevertheless, most of the participants expressed optimism because the disaster has touched off a wave of energy, creative action and social entrepreneurship, particularly among younger people.

“When we were there, we were surprised that so many of the relief workers we had an opportunity to meet were so young,” said Lori Yamaguchi, who heads sister Kristi’s Make a Dream Foundation. “I was expecting maybe an older generation, but it was actually a group of young kids who were energetic and leading the charge in these areas and with the YMCA and other NGOs that we met with.”