Genki Mail brings hope to young survivors

PACIFIC TIES — Japanese elementary students read notes of encouragement from American students with joy at Kesennuma Elementary School in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, on June 28. Kyodo News photo

KESENNUMA, Japan — Japanese children in the disaster-hit northeast of the country are feeling encouraged by more than 7,000 notes of hope that were written by elementary students throughout the United States and distributed to shelters and schools in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.

“I am happy to know that people in America have been thinking of us,” said a fourth-grade boy at Kesennuma Elementary School in Miyagi Prefecture after receiving a so-called “genki note,” referring to the Japanese word meaning “cheerfulness,” from a student in Hawai‘i.

Yukitaka Uritani, president of the Asia Africa Cooperation Environment Center, a Kobe-based nongovernmental organization, created the Genki Mail project.

“Most people think about donating money, but the children need more than material things. They need something else to be encouraged,” said Uritani.

After being injured and losing everything he had in the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, Uritani’s mental health suffered, with his office in Kobe being destroyed except a fax machine.

In the tray of the fax machine, however, he found notes of encouragement from friends in other countries and this strengthened him.

The experience inspired him to launch the Genki Mail project, and he collected notes of encouragement and distributed them to quake victims’ families and survivors in the western Japanese city.

“I’d lost everything, but those messages gave me a meaning to life, and I wanted to do that for other survivors,” Uritani said.

After the March 11 earthquake, Uritani contacted the Center for Global Partnership, an arm of the Japan Foundation, and asked for help in getting letters from American children.

Through a concerted effort with the U.S.-Japan Council, word of the project spread rapidly, and thousands of letters began pouring in.

Uritani recruited the help of 15 volunteer translators in Kobe. Each note was stamped with a code showing the recipients exactly where it came from, so they can respond to their new American friends.

“I’d love to send a reply thanking them and say that we’re doing our best to stay strong,” said a second-grade girl.

Uritani hopes that this project is far from over. “I never dreamed that this project could be so big. I hope that this starts a long relationship between the children in the United States and Japan,” he said.

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