HELPING NORTHERN JAPAN RECOVER: A community effort raises $3.5 million for disaster-hit regions


THE DESTRUCTION — People look at an area ravaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, from an elevated spot on July 11, four months after the disaster. photo by Kyodo News

THE DESTRUCTION — People look at an area ravaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, from an elevated spot on July 11, four months after the disaster. photo by Kyodo News

The great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami ravaged the eastern shoreline of Japan while many in the United States were asleep on March 11. Japan had been prepared for earthquakes and tsunami, a fact of life living on an island nation on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, but nothing of this caliber.

The earthquake struck off the coast of Sendai, a major port city in Miyagi Prefecture on the northeastern portion of the nation. The violent shaking was recorded at a magnitude of 9.0 and caused damage even in the nation’s capital of Tokyo — more than 200 miles away.

The earthquake, now considered among one of the world’s four most severe earthquakes to be recorded since 1900 and the worst in Japan’s modern history, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, had done limited damage to the country. However, the onslaught of a massive tsunami brought true destruction.

The tsunami rose as high as 40 meters high (131.2 feet) in height and traveled as far as 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) inland according to Kyodo News, sweeping away cars, boats, homes and lives.

As of July 16, more than 15,000 people have been confirmed dead and 5,000 more remain missing, according to the National Police Agency of Japan. While many who have family outside of the affected areas have moved out, others remain stranded in evacuation shelters.

Takeno (Chiyo) Suzuki, who serves as a coordinator for international relations (CIR) for the Miyagi Prefectural Government in Sendai, said the issues survivors must face have changed since March 11.

“The hot, humid summer is raising various issues we must all overcome, which will include moving the remaining 12,000 people in evacuation shelters into temporary housing and addressing the sanitation situation in the coastal regions,” the former Nichi Bei Times intern and Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival co-chair said in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continues. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, the meltdown caused by the earthquake and tsunami is classified at the same level of severity as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The nuclear disaster has become a major issue that has dominated the Japanese media and government.

According to Kyodo News, a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) radius of the power plant has been evacuated and the government has subsequently banned entry to the area. The government also suspended the sale of all beef from Fukushima on July 19, after contaminated meat made its way to the markets, according to the news wire.

People from across world, who were moved by the depiction of destruction broadcast via the Internet and TV, have come together. The Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) in San Francisco’s Japantown has spearheaded one such effort.

The JCCCNC provided details on their fundraising efforts at a forum held on July 10 to update the community on the fund. A group of 20 or so community members attended the presentation.


The Community Steps Up

Paul Osaki, executive director of the JCCCNC, woke up on March 11 and saw the news. He went into work that morning and knew what he had to do.

“We have to start a relief fund,” he said to his staff. They were right behind him. Little did he know, many more people were also ready to help.

As of July 10, the JCCCNC’s Northern Japan Earthquake Relief Fund (NJERF) has raised nearly $3.5 million.

In 1995, the JCCCNC helped to raise $600,000 following the Kobe Earthquake. Most of the donors were previous contributors to the nonprofit. The JCCCNC’s pledge to work directly with nonprofits in Japan to administer the relief and aid drew a number of contributors.

At the time, the JCCCNC worked closely with the Osaka and Kobe YMCAs and helped provide supplies and funds over several months.

The 1995 fundraiser occurred before the Internet was as common. This time, through the use of Facebook Causes, an application on the popular social networking site that helps groups fundraise, the fund received unprecedented attention from the community, as well as complete strangers from across the nation. Osaki said at the forum that 80 percent of the people contributing to the fund are from people they do not know.

What drew people to the fund, Osaki imagines, is the promise the JCCCNC made to its contributors. Osaki pledged to do his best to get 100 percent of the money to the affected areas in Japan. The previous experience the JCCCNC had with the Kobe and Osaka YMCAs also may have encouraged donors to contribute to the fund.

Another break came on March 18, when NBC Bay Area helped to arrange a telethon, which they sponsored.

“The phones rang off the hook from the morning to news to end of the evening news,” said Osaki. “Volunteers came in to take calls from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.” That night, the fund raised $417,000. Among the contributions was a $25,000 check from the Clarendon Elementary School and community.

The fund went on to collect donations from drives held around San Francisco’s Japantown. One such event was an interfaith ceremony held one month after the earthquake. Members of the Christian, Buddhist, Konko and Tenrikyo faiths participated in the event, which allowed for spiritual reflection on the disaster. People were also able to hang origami cranes on a public display to show support.

The fund continued to have a strong presence at other Nikkei events, including the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival held in April, and served as the sole beneficiary of the San Francisco Giants Japanese Heritage Day held on June 3.

The fundraising efforts differed from the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 by asking for monetary contributions over goods. The previous fundraiser necessitated the establishment of a storehouse for goods in the JCCCNC’s gym. Volunteers had to separate and organize supplies, which were then flown in cargo planes to Japan. Japanese officials realized that financial contributions would more effectively aid relief work this time.


And People Helped

More than 11,000 donors have contributed to the fund thus far, Osaki said. The donors ranged from professional groups such as the Asian American Bar Association, to other nonprofits and ordinary individuals. Thus far, more than 100 events have been held to raise money for the fund.

The groups ranged from children selling their toys at a garage sale, to benefits that contributed more than half a million dollars through fundraising benefits.

Naoko Dalla Valle, proprietor of Dalla Valle Vineyards in the Napa Valley, was one such donor. She gathered a group of Napa Valley locals to organize a fundraising event. With an exclusive ticket price of $1,000 each, as well as an auction and donations, some 120 people raised half a million dollars.

“I wanted to show Napa Valley cares,” said Dalla Valle.

Dalla Valle was born and raised in Kobe, Japan. She left Japan in the 1970s and moved from the West Indies to the United States in 1982 with her husband Gustav Dalla Valle. When the 1995 earthquake hit her hometown, she was unable to help. So following the March 11 disaster, she tried to do whatever she could.

Dalla Valle had already raised $73,000 for the Red Cross prior to the NJERF. While she had never worked with the JCCCNC, she figured she could raise another $200,000 to $300,000 with its fund. She solicited a Chilean winemaker friend and together set up an auction. Dalla Valle and her friend each respectively donated a trip to Japan and Chile. The trip to Chile was auctioned off for $62,500, and the Chilean winemaker matched the bid to contribute a total of $125,000 to the fund. The trip to Japan was similarly auctioned off for $65,000.

Minami Tamaki LLP and Inspirational Opportunities for Youth and Seniors’ (IOYS) matching fund initially announced it would match 50 percent of all contributions up to $50,000, shortly after the earthquake, but quickly surpassed the goal.

Lynda Won-Chung, president and founder of IOYS, wanted to use her nonprofit to help those in need in Japan. The nonprofit aims to help seniors and children in small ways, but Won-Chung was moved to action after seeing a group of seniors staring blankly at the destruction on TV. Her mother had recently passed away, and she thought she heard her saying, “Go out and do something.”

Won-Chung approached the Minami Tamaki law firm, where she is employed, and partnered with them. More than $490,000 was raised through community outreach with other corporations, nonprofits and individuals who also offered to match contributions.

“Money just kept pouring in,” said Won-Chung. The fund took up as much as half of the law firm’s time during the first few weeks. However, the outpouring of support made Won-Chung think it was “a worthy investment of time.”


Relief, Recovery and Rebuild

COMING TOGETHER — Community members also came together for spiritual healing at an Interfaith Service held on April 11 in Japantown’s Peace Plaza (far right). photo courtesy of the JCCCNC

Aid from the JCCCNC’s fund will extend beyond immediate relief. Osaki explained that the government of Japan estimates that it will cost $300 billion to rebuild. To provide ongoing relief, the fund has slated the money to be distributed over an extended period of time. Osaki described the fund’s dispersal in three categories: “relief, recovery and rebuild.”

The relief portion of the fund was implemented immediately after the disaster. The JCCCNC earmarked $130,000 to the Kobe YMCA so that they could use their expertise from the 1995 earthquake in northern Japan. Another $200,000 was sent directly to the Sendai YMCA.

During the latter half of April, the fund switched to the “recovery” phase. It provided funds to nonprofits that were helping survivors. Osaki mentioned the Japan Overseas Christian Medical Cooperative Service and Kokkyo Naki Kodomotachi, a splinter group of Doctors Without Borders, which focuses on the care and needs of children. He explained that they worked with groups primarily based in Tokyo, since the disaster-hit areas did not have these sorts of groups.

The Shanti Volunteer Association also received money to help with future recovery efforts and job creation. Osaki reported that the group has already established a presence in the disaster area and plans to stay there for the next two to three years.

“Many of the groups we’re working with are those that normally help underdeveloped nations,“ said Osaki. Those groups are now retooling their expertise to help at home.

The fund also provided support to the Morioka YMCA in Iwate Prefecture and Tochigi YMCA, a neighbor to Fukushima. The two YMCAs were the closest to the hardest hit areas from the earthquake.

More than $600,000 was set aside for this phase.

The fund is currently undergoing a second recovery phase. It has since contributed a combined total of $750,000 to Sendai, Kobe and the National YMCA and another $250,000 to the Association for Aid and Relief for Japan. Osaki wished to support the Association for Aid and Relief due to their pledge to focus on Fukushima’s needs, especially for the physically and mentally challenged.

In total, roughly two million dollars have been spent thus far. It is expected that the remaining funds will be used for the “rebuild” phase. Osaki believes the best use of the money is to support the mental health needs of survivors. To that end, $850,000 is earmarked for mental health, with the bulk of it reserved for training therapists from Japan. Osaki plans to invite 12 relief workers to the United States on Sept. 18 for training in handling the psychological needs of survivors and volunteers. The program also aims to give onsite training for volunteers in Japan following the training in America.

“The people of Japan do not have the necessary resources to cope with this traumatic experience,” said Osaki. “During the Kobe earthquake, many people committed suicide following the earthquake.”

The fund will also support projects to provide children with crayons to help them express their thoughts on the quake, and a luau to be held in the city of Iwaki. Iwaki, a former coal mining town revived itself as a tourist hot-spot through the creation of the Spa Resort Hawaiians Center and hot spring bath. Sang-il Lee’s 2006 film “Hula Girls,” told their story. The Center was damaged from the earthquake, and was subsequently used as an emergency shelter for the locals. The city approached the JCCCNC to help sponsor a fundraising effort for their city.

Finally, one million more dollars is slated to be used for recovery and rebuilding, though Osaki stated there are no specific plans for those funds as of yet.


The Cost of Helping

The contributions donated have exceeded any expectations the JCCCNC once had. The nonprofit hired two people to support the fundraising efforts. Yunice Kotake arrived as a volunteer; she was hired after a few weeks to help write thank you letters and manage the NJERF e-mails. Kristen Koue, a former Japan Exchange Teaching Programme participant, joined a few weeks after Kotake. Koue was teaching in Japan when the earthquake hit. Concerned for her safety, her parents brought her home. The fund has also hired Jon Kawamoto, a career journalist, as the communications manager. Kawamoto helps maintain their new Website,

The fund’s success has also resulted in additional unexpected costs, including the need for a lawyer after copycats started using logos similar to the fund’s logo, which Rich Lee designed.

The fund is expected to cost the JCCCNC more than $200,000.

“We committed everything we received to the fund,” said Robert Sakai, who heads the finance committee for the JCCCNC. “We thought it was manageable at the time,” said Sakai, who owns Uoki K. Sakai Company.

The main expenses are the operation costs. These are estimated at $84,000, and mainly go toward paying the temporary staff hired for the fund. The JCCCNC anticipates needing another $80,000 for administrative costs, of which $50,000 will go toward an audit that the nonprofit will face due to the amount of money it raised. Outreach and promotion costs are expected to reach $34,000 and another $10,000 is needed for miscellaneous costs the fund incurred.

“When we get a check (from an event the JCCCNC helped plan), we’d sometimes also get a separate bill addressed to us to cover for food or something that we had previously not expected to be charged for,” said Sakai. “Since the check is addressed for the relief fund, we can’t touch it.”

The JCCCNC has thus far covered only $12,000 of this deficit. The bulk of the money has come from T-shirt sales to help cover the expenses incurred from the fund. Other contributions have come from community organizations and individual donors.

Sakai said that he hopes to close much of the deficit with a second drive for funds solicited from contributors to the NJERF, as well as from regular JCCCNC donors. He also expressed his hope in increasing profits from the community center’s annual fundraisers as well as offering to place the NJERF into a bank to collect interest while waiting for dispersal dates.

Sakai hopes to raise $160,000 with the additional fundraising. However, a $37,000 projected deficit will remain even if such funds are raised.

Nonetheless, he remains positive. “I’m addressing this with Paul (Osaki),” he said. “We’re optimistic on somehow closing the gap.


Still grateful

Dianne Fukami, president of the JCCCNC’s board, said that despite the financial strain, she believes the fund was the right thing to do.

“We all wanted to do something,” she said. “The JCCCNC is broad in its mission … it made sense to step up and coordinate the fund.”

Osaki agrees, and thanked every contributor and supporter. The JCCCNC now hopes to spread the word about their plans for the fund to remain transparent as they work to close the deficit and plan out the administration of the remaining funds.


The JCCCNC Earthquake Operations Fund will help cover the cost of stamps, paper supplies, printing and promotions, temporary staff, as well as maintain the relief fund for one year. To help cover the JCCCNC’s cost of maintaining the NJERF, make checks out to the “JCCCNC Earthquake Operations Fund,” and send them to the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, 1840 Sutter St., San Francisco, CA 94115.


2 responses to “HELPING NORTHERN JAPAN RECOVER: A community effort raises $3.5 million for disaster-hit regions”

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