A CALL TO ACTION: JCCCNC spearheads multimillion-dollar grassroots relief effort

On March 11, 2011, the world witnessed one of the most horrific and devastating natural disasters in Japan’s history. The country’s pain, sorrow and loss were felt worldwide.

Within hours of the disaster, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) established the Northern Japan Earthquake Relief Fund (NJERF) to provide support for the relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts in the affected areas of Japan. We wanted our relief fund to be more than just collecting money. We wanted to also turn individuals’ sense of hopelessness into hope by encouraging them to become actively and socially involved by organizing community and grassroots events to raise the money.

A Call to Action
Immediately, the phones began to ring off the hook — hundreds of calls that would continue well into the night and over the next several months. People wanted to know how to donate, volunteer, organize events and do anything that they could to get involved.

People walking into our office — strangers, tourists visiting Japantown, and of course many members and others familiar with the center — began dropping off donations … five, twenty, hundreds and thousands of dollars in checks and cash.

The Internet and social media also allowed the relief fund to reach out to people worldwide, much different than in 1995 with the JCCCNC’s Kobe earthquake relief efforts when no such outreach was available. With the power of the Internet, their relief messages started to connect with people from around the globe, allowing people to become citizen grassroots ambassadors and citizens of the world. The Internet allowed people to give online, and even send their hopes and prayers for Japan.

Relief, by the Numbers
The NJERF has grown to over $4 million, with more than 12,000 donors, more than 100 volunteer fundraising events and more than 25,000 people from around the world having joined our cause.

The fund was supported by businesses putting out donation cans, from thousands and thousands of strangers holding car washes, haircuts, garage sales, and even children selling their toys. The NJERF would go on to receive more donations and more hits on causes.com, the number one online social donation Website in the world — more than other well-known international relief organizations, including the American Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.

The relief fund, which has received millions of dollars in donations from around the world, has become the largest Japanese American community-based relief fund to support the unmet and critical needs that are often overlooked or unfunded. All donations — 100 percent — go to aiding the Japanese people.

From the start, our fund was a grassroots one. As Dianne Fukami, president of the JCCCNC, said, “it grew out of the concern from ordinary people, just wanting to find an organization that they could trust with their donations. They probably took a look at our Website and realized through our programming and commitment to the community and U.S.-Japan relations over the years that we were the right organization.”

The NJERF donations are going directly to aid several nonprofit organizations that are on the ground supporting the ongoing recovery efforts in the Tohoku region of Japan for the next two or three years. No funds are being allocated to the government or other pass through relief organizations where you are unsure where the actual donations are going.

ALOHA — Kristi Yamaguchi with children from Chuo Elementary School. photo courtesy of JCCCNC

In the fall, Kristi Yamaguchi co-led our 18-member Project Aloha delegation, which visited the Chuo Dai Elementary School in Iwaki City. While surrounded by school children, I experienced a moment I will never forget. A girl in the audience, around 7 or 8 years old, grabbed onto my waist with a great big hug and wouldn’t let go. She followed me around the gymnasium. Holding my hand, she looked up at me with the saddest eyes I have ever seen.

I later found out that she thought I resembled her father, who she lost in the tsunami. I will never forget her eyes, or that momentary, but powerful connection.

This was just one of the many emotional moments — of joy, sadness, and ultimately, kinship and love — that we members experienced while touring the devastated parts of the Tohoku region, including Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture and the cities of Kesennuma, Ishinomaki and Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. Delegate co-chair Jesse Kahaulua, the first foreign-born sumo wrestler, musicians, hula dancers and other JCCCNC members and staff traveled from Oct. 24 to Nov. 1.

A Mission of Aloha
Project Aloha, which the JCCCNC and the NJERF organized, was the first international delegation to visit Iwaki City, which is approximately 30 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Weeks before our departure, the U.S. State Department issued a warning for Americans not to travel within 50 miles of the power plant. “Of course we were all concerned about the nuclear crisis situation, but when we gave everyone the opportunity to pull out of the trip, not one of the delegates backed out. In fact, they all gave reasons of why it was even more important that we go,” Kristi Yamaguchi recalled.

“None of us had any hesitation about visiting Fukushima and sharing the aloha spirit,” added Diane Matsuda, the project coordinator. “I am saddened that negative rumors exist that deter visitors from traveling there and also saddened to hear that there’s a stigma in Japan against the Fukushima residents and school children — some people don’t want to be associated with them because of radiation fears. I am glad that all of our delegates were unified in wanting to do this (visiting Fukushima) as it sends a message that the area is safe, that all visitors are welcome and that the people of that particular area are not forgotten.”

Project Aloha’s mission was to bring the aloha spirit of warmth, smiles and joy to all we met in northern Japan. Although I was encouraged to stay home and nurse a back injury I’ve suffered, I knew I had to go.

Putting a face to the dollars is important, and letting the survivors know where the funds came from and how the money was raised brought tears to their eyes.

Seeing actual faces and hearing their stories made me realize that our work over the past eight months was really making a difference, making an impact that words and pictures cannot describe. We cannot stop now, the recovery effort is just beginning and many people are starting to feel forgotten by the world.

PLAY TIME — Children play at a makeshift playground in Kessenuma City. photo courtesy of JCCCNC

The highlights of our trip included: a luau, where the delegates treated 600 people living in shelters who were forced to evacuate from their homes to a Hawaiian buffet lunch, dancing and entertainment at the recently reopened Spa Resort Hawaiian in Iwaki, the inspiration for the movie “Hula Girl”; an outdoor musical performance given on a stage created out of the disaster’s debris at the Port of Onahama; a Halloween party at a makeshift playground in Kesennuma sponsored by Yamaguchi’s Always Dream Foundation; a visit to a baseball field in Ishinomaki, and visits to temporary housing facilities for seniors, as well as the Sendai YMCA.

All in all, the delegation met, entertained and brought smiles and hope to more than 3,000 people during our goodwill tour.

I hope to continue the relief fund for as long as possible to help with the recovery and rebuilding phases of northern Japan. Our goal now is to use the donations we received toward helping to rebuild the human spirit.

The Project Aloha delegates included: Brother Noland, Jennifer Hamamoto, Bret Hedican, Alex Kawakami, Lloyd Kawakami, Nick Kawakami, Donna Kimura, Diane Matsuda, Wayne Miyao, Sarah Noyle, Robyn Omura, Chantelle Su’a, Mark Tanouye, Vieni Vitale and Lori Yamaguchi.

Other NJERF projects include: Toward Recovery and Healing, a program to invite relief workers to San Francisco to learn about community based post-traumatic stress and mental trauma training needs; Crayons for Japan, a project funded by the Kristi Yamaguchi Always Dream Foundation, which provides art supplies and toys to daycare and children facilities that provide therapy and a positive outlet for them to express their feelings; Tomodachi, a joint project with the United States Embassy in Japan, Major League Baseball and the U.S.-Japan Council in Washington, D.C. to rebuild the town of Ishinomaki’s baseball field; the Tohoku Mental Health Conference in Sendai, which will provide free resources to any relief worker in the Tohoku region to learn about post-traumatic stress disorder; and Future’s For Youth, a program to provide scholarships to youth who either lost their homes or a family member or both, so that they can continue their college education and look forward to the future.

Paul Osaki is the executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community of Northern California. For more information about the Northern Japan Earthquake Relief Fund, call (415) 567-5505 or visit www.kokoro4japan.org. Donations to the NJERF Operational Fund will support the administrative costs of the relief effort.

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