The following article was published by Nippon Kan General Headquarters in Japanese and English for tbe Nippon Kan General Headquarters and AHAN International websites. This article was written by Gaku Homma, Nippon Kan Kancho, from the perspective of an international humanitarian activist and a Japanese National living in the United States for nearly forty years.
On March 11th, 2011, Japan was hit by one of the largest disasters in the country’s history; the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. It was a disaster of historical proportions that caused overwhelming damage and extensive loss of life. I first wish to express my sympathy to my Japanese countrymen and women for their suffering and devastating loss, and to express my gratitude to the first responders who dedicated so much of themselves to the rescue efforts immediately following the disaster.
Even though I live in the United States, I would also like to thank all of those in countries around the globe who worried about my safety and the safety of my family. My home in Japan is located on the Japan sea side of Northern Honshu and survived with little damage. Those who lived on the east side of Northern Honshu lost everything. It was days however before I was able to contact my family after the disaster and I too was very worried.
I first heard about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan on the international CNN news in Manila, Philippines where I had traveled to teach and work on AHAN projects in that country. I happened to be at a restaurant where waiters and staff began approaching me, offering their concern and condolences for my country and my family.
The following day I arrived at Narita airport in Japan. One look at the airport told me that conditions in Japan were severe. Even at the Narita airport hundreds of miles away from the center of the disasters, ceiling tiles lay scattered and broken and air conditioning conduits hung twisted from their former mounts. Hundreds of travelers that had already passed through immigration to depart Japan were stranded as flight after flight was re-routed or canceled. Employees and supplies for the concession shops and restaurants at the airport were also finding themselves stranded as movement at Japan’s Narita international airport began to grind to a halt.
My first instinct was to proceed into Japan from the airport to see how I could help and to try to find word about my family. The airline personnel strongly discouraged this however, warning me that with so many foreigners leaving Japan on a rapidly dwindling number of available flights, the chances of being able to rebook a flight out of Japan were not good and getting worse. I made the decision to continue on to the United States…
Upon my return to the US, I learned of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and the mass exodus of foreigners from Japan. The flight situation had become so desperate that some airlines were limiting passengers and only the people from their own country were being allowed to board the flights out. I felt that I had made the right decision to return to the United States, even though my heart was heavy with the suffering in Japan.
Though I live in the United States, I am a Japanese citizen and for the last 100 days since the earthquake and tsunami, I have been dealing with many mixed thoughts and emotions about this tragedy.
Through live news reports on TV and on the internet I watched the aftermath of the disaster. I saw “in real time” areas of the east side of the Tohoku region that I have visited many time with American students from Nippon Kan, wiped completely off the map. In today’s world, the news is immediate and incessant and I felt bombarded with sadness as I watched the situation unfold. Since I am from the Tohoku region, it brought even more sadness to me to hear victims being interviewed who had survived the initial disaster speak in my home town dialect. It brought the tragedy even closer to home.
Every spring Nippon Kan works with the Denver School system to host a series of Japanese cultural tours for elementary school children. This April and May, about 1000 elementary school students from all over the metro Denver area came to Nippon Kan to participate in these tours. On these tours I do a calligraphy demonstration, and I usually ask the children what word they would like to see written in Japanese kanji as they gather around. For the first time, the children requested to see the kanji for “tsunami” and “earthquake”. I was surprised that the news of the tsunami and earthquake in the Tohoku area of Japan was known to and had affected the lives of these school-aged children in Denver.
The tragedy in Japan was viewed by people around the world; a tragedy that highlighted for the world, many things about the behavior and character of the Japanese people. On one international news report, a badly injured elderly woman was pulled out of the debris days after the earthquake. The first thing she said to her rescuers as they lifted her to freedom was, “I am sorry for causing trouble for you”. Many Americans I am sure who saw this report were very puzzled by her response. “Why on earth”, I am sure many asked, “Would she apologize for causing trouble by being rescued”? This is a part of the true Japanese character that I understood, but I could see why it would be difficult for others outside of Japan to understand. Realizing this caused me to pause with reflection.
The way that the Japanese people have reacted to this disaster is very characteristic. Victims, while shocked and frightened did not panic. Victims stood politely in lines to receive their rations of food and water. People organized quickly; methodically forming group structures to help others attain aid. People did not complain. Supplies were distributed in an orderly, polite and calm fashion. There was no looting, plundering or panic which I think surprised and impressed the international audience watching as this story unfolded from afar.
I felt a sense of pride as I watched these news reports. “This is the soul of the Japanese, and these are the Japanese people”. The pride I felt brought me to my feet…
There is now a famous story about that day when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. It is a story that victims in Japan call “Kami no Koe” or in English, the “Angels Voice”. It is the story of a young woman who worked in a small town government office in one of the areas most affected by the tsunami. As the Japanese regularly conduct civic defense and emergency procedure training drills, she had been assigned to give warning to the townspeople by microphone over the loud speaker system in case of emergency. On this fateful day she stayed at her post, going to the roof of the government building to man the microphone warning system, repeating the warning to move to higher ground, over and over again until finally the tsunami swept her away. It was her duty and responsibility and her job, and she did not abandon her duty to save herself from the oncoming waters. For the Japanese people, this is easy to understand. For an American audience, this sense of duty over one own preservation is a little difficult to comprehend. This sense of duty to others is a part of the Japanese spirit and this story about the women with the “Angel’s Voice” has become famous in Japan and a symbol for the Japanese people.
Another story about the disaster that has caught international attention is the story of one local newspaper whose printing operation was completely destroyed by the tsunami. Instead of giving up, the staff of this small local newspaper began to write out local news stories and announcements by hand and posted them around what was left of their town on public posting boards. The reporters and editors of this newspaper were victims of the disaster themselves and suffered horrific personal losses but their responsibility in their eyes was to inform the public. To honor this responsibility, they dutifully performed, using whatever materials they could find to deliver the news. I heard on the news, that these hand-written newspaper postings from the days immediately following the disaster had already been sought for collection by a well known American museum.
The fact that an American museum would be interested in handwritten newspapers is somewhat puzzling to the Japanese. “What is so special about that? They did what they had to do…” would be the general Japanese sentiment. From the Japanese point of view, the fact that these artifacts might be worthy of collection by an American museum is more unusual than anything the newspaper staff produced after the disaster.
In one way, this disaster in Japan has brought the heart and commendable behavior of the Japanese people into the spotlight not only in the US, but all over the world. It has been an opportunity for me as a Japanese living abroad to reflect on, identify and feel connected to the spirit of the people of Japan; a new connection that I think other Japanese people living abroad might have felt as well.
My forthcoming observations might cause some misunderstandings but bear with me as I will try to explain some of the other observations I have had since this disaster struck Japan 100 days ago, today. If we are to learn from this experience I feel it is important to discuss some of these other issues as well.
I would like to talk about some of the reactions and the ensuing support efforts in the United States and other countries abroad that followed the aftermath of this disaster in Japan.
It was of course a media sensation, and for days there was 24-hour coverage world-wide about the disaster that had caused so much devastation in Japan. The coverage began on CNN and the US media remained vigilant for days and even weeks following the epic events. It reminded me a little of days following the 911 tragedy in New York City in 2001, watching the planes hit the World Trade Center towers over and over and over again. The news was a tsunami of its own and the overwhelming media coverage led to a ground swell of swift action by the United States to bring support and aid to Japanese victims.
When the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, Nippon Kan General Headquarters and AHAN International responded with simple measures to the outpouring of concern and the “call to arms” to support rescue efforts in Japan. We put up posters at Nippon Kan and Domo Restaurant and even at the Denver Rescue Mission, expressing appreciation for the assistance by the U.S. in the aircraft carrier sent to aid Japan in “Mission Tomodachi” (tomodachi is the Japanese word for friend). We also held a small fund raising bowling tournament for the Japanese Red Cross and raised a Japanese flag to half-mast in the Nippon Kan garden for one month; the first time a Japanese flag has been raised at Nippon Kan in sixteen years.
Our response might sound minimal to some, but I knew from experience that large new disasters grab everyone’s attention short-term, and this can leave less support and attention for others who, no matter what new disaster is occurring in the world, still need help every day just to survive.
Through the spring, Nippon Kan General Headquarters and AHAN International purposefully maintained its focus on quiet, steady support of the AHAN Learning Centers in Asia, the homeless in Denver and other AHAN activities already in progress. Since Japan was in the headlines and every day, more and more fundraising campaigns both locally and nationally were being organized for aid to Japan; I felt Japan was being taken care of, and it was even more important than ever for us to protect the ones already in our care.
Please link here to my article “Between the Steps” written in 2005 which further describes Nippon Kan General Headquarter and AHAN International humanitarian support protocol and philosophy.
Government or United Nations support organizations that campaign for aid donations are the most viable vehicles for donating to aid relief. Watching the reactions in the United States however to the disaster in Japan, I began to question the motives of some private corporations and businesses. For some, this disaster seemed to become more of a vehicle to promote their own reputations through public relations than to provide aid to Japan.
Since I am the owner of a large Japanese restaurant in Denver, I was contacted by many individuals, businesses and organizations to become a sponsor for a variety of Japan Aid fundraising activities. I was asked if I would support concerts, bazaars, t-shirt and wrist band sales as well as to give away free meal gift certificates and offer free catering. I received so many requests for support that it became a little intimidating.
I received over fifteen letters by mail and countless emails offering to spread “our good name” if we supported their Japan relief campaign. I was told that “Since I was Japanese”, I should sell their t-shirts and wristbands at my restaurant. The requests became high pressure sales pitches that made me uncomfortable. Some individuals even brought their wares to my restaurant, demanding that I sell them!
One person came to my restaurant with a box of t-shirts that he wanted me to sell. My response to this solicitation was; “Making a t-shirt costs at least $5.00, plus additional costs for your time. If you are selling those shirts for $20.00, less than $15.00 will go toward aid. I would rather just donate $20.00 directly to Japan. Why should I sell those shirts for you? Where is your effort in this cause?” His reaction was one of disappointment as if he had lost a chance to capitalize on this special circumstance.
Buying campaign paraphernalia from verifiable organizations like UNICEF or the RED CROSS might be a worthy use of donation dollars, but supporting unknown organizations and businesses that “hop on the band wagon” when disasters strike may not be money well spent. There is a difference in the viability of experienced humanitarian organizations and “instant activists”. Kind, generous people looking for ways to help can fall prey to opportunists during times like these and caused me to beware.
Buying a t-shirt or a wrist band to support a worthy cause can sound like a good way to contribute to helping intended victims but end up only lining someone’s pockets instead. My advice is to just donate $20.00 directly to a reputable organization rather than contributing to a “middle-man” with something to sell.
After the disaster in Japan some people asked me why I was not doing any fundraising campaigns at my restaurant like other restaurants were doing. My answer was that although some restaurants seemed to be very sincere in their efforts to raise funds for Japan relief efforts, other restaurants intentions seemed to be a little more calculated. A few restaurants received a great deal of media attention for their efforts to raise funds for Japan relief that cast their restaurant into the limelight. Their sales increased as customers came to participate in their highly advertized campaigns. Funds were raised for Japan relief efforts which is commendable, but for these restaurants, there were benefits as well. These restaurants received the benefit of the increased business from customers patronizing their restaurant for the cause, and since donations are tax deductible in the United States, they also received a tax credit for any portion of proceeds donated to Japan.
As a restaurant owner, I have privately donated to Japan relief efforts but I have purposefully not involved my restaurant in any specific campaign for Japan. Domo Restaurant has been involved in a long standing program, “Dine at Domo and Feed the World” that supports AHAN, the international humanitarian branch of Nippon Kan General Headquarters. This program does not involve soliciting or driving customers or the media into active campaigns as Domo Restaurant is a social business of Nippon Kan. One of Domo’s purposes is to generate support for AHAN international projects and a portion of all Domo proceeds year-round are used to construct schools, provide rice, school and medical supplies to children in countries around the world.
Because of our long-standing commitments to these projects, I felt that our support should not be diverted because of the disaster in Japan at this time. The needs of these children do not change because of the tragedy in Japan nor should their support be diminished because of this tragedy.
There is a tendency to rank in value a donation by how much attention it draws in the media. I believe that it is not the dollar amount that is necessarily the most important, but the intention, effort and sacrifice it took to raise a donation. A child saving his allowance and giving up a new toy to donate to others is more valuable in my mind than a donation made as a tax write off by a large company. It is the spirit of the giving that needs defining. Wining and dining for a cause might result in needed fundraising dollars, but looking from afar it seems symptomatic of a larger imbalance in our world. What I have seen with my own eyes of hunger and poverty in the world has made me think twice about going out to dinner for sushi or Korean BBQ. The money I save by not going out to dinner just one time for sushi is enough money to provide meals for fifty children in Bangladesh for three days.
In the 100 days since the disaster in Japan I have seen both ends of the spectrum. I have seen opportunists take advantage of this situation by promoting a concert or selling a product more to promote their own reputations than to help others. I have also seen honest, sincere, serious people working tirelessly to make a difference. It became a crowded field for awhile with a variety of intentions competing with one another; all in the name of a very good cause.
Now, 100 days later, I wonder what has happened to all of the frenzy and activity. There is nothing on the news these days about Japan and the tragedy in Japan seems to have disappeared from our lives as much as it has disappeared from the daily news.
Despite my observations of a few who might have taken advantage of this situation, I truly appreciate the real show of support from Americans for Japan during this crisis. Now that this initial period is behind us, we can assess what is most needed now and how to support those efforts. The “hop on the band wagon” crowd has moved on, and it is my hope that we can learn from this crisis and the initial response to it so we can move forward with a calmer approach toward support and encouragement for the Japanese people still working to rebuild their lives.
As a Japanese living in the United States, one thing that surprised me about this disaster in Japan was the reaction by the Japanese Nationals and Japanese Americans living in the U.S. As I have been involved in humanitarian work both here in Denver and globally for over twenty years, I have never seen this community rise to the occasion and work so hard in tandem with the American people to support a cause with such vigor and presence! I commend this community for becoming so active in this effort for Japan.
In my experience I also think it is important for the Japanese living abroad to take a wider view of their support. In May, a series of hurricanes struck the US leaving death and destruction in its wake. I did not see any efforts from the Japanese community to assist in this disaster with a call for aid.
The United States responded to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami within three days by dispatching the US carrier in Operation Tomodachi. As Japanese National living in the United States, I feel it is very import for us to remember the importance of acknowledging this immediate assistance by the United States.
A real patriot and loyalist must also have good international sense. I commend and thank all Japanese people living in the United States for the actions they have taken to rally support for assistance for Japan, but we also need to understand where we stand in a larger international community. We must acknowledge and understand the support that has been given to us and be prepared and ready to support others in our international community as well in their time of need.
There are many things we can learn from this disaster in Japan so that we might be better prepared for a next time. There are so many people in the world that have lost loved ones and who suffer from the tragedies of war and poverty that never receive support of any kind. There are so many that are isolated in despair and living without hope. It is important as we live our lives, not to forget these people and should remember that just a small amount of the effort and energy put towards aiding the victims in Japan would bring a world of relief to so many others in need.
I can understand the elderly Japanese woman who responded to her rescuers when they pulled her from the wreckage of her home by saying, “I am sorry for causing any trouble”. It was her way of expressing her sincere appreciation. There are many Japanese victims I am sure right now with the same humbleness of heart.
It is our mission at Nippon Kan General Headquarters and AHAN International to express this same kind of sincere gratitude to all of those who have supported Japan during this time of crisis. We will do this by continuing to service our humanitarian and community service projects in Denver and around the world.
Nippon Kan General Headquarters and AHAN International have been providing assistance to others for the last twenty years with funds limited to what we could raise ourselves. We have sought to create our own funding through social businesses locally here in Denver and the development of self-sustaining operations abroad. Nippon Kan General Headquarters or any of our AHAN International projects have ever been dependant on the support of any foundation or individual philanthropist.
In closing, I would like to express my thoughts, from my experiences, to the victims themselves of this disaster in Japan.
When I first came to the United States, I could not speak English and had no money. I was not relocated abroad by a large Japanese company with an expense account and benefits, nor was I an international student from a family with means. I survived when I first came to the United States be eating welfare rations discarded by others and grasses collected from the river banks. I had no one to rely on and no social network of protective services like current immigrants have. I was even homeless for a short period of time.
The reason I was able to survive such harsh conditions and continue forward for the last thirty eight years was one belief that I held on to. In sad, lonely, tough times, in times when I was ready to give up, I turned instead to sharing and caring for those even less fortunate than I. Those thoughts and actions were a tremendous help to me on many levels and I believe eventually developed into what has become the core principle of Nippon Kan and AHAN.
My advice may be a little hard for victims in Japan to understand at this stage. I understand that you have suffered through a major tragedy and that your lives have been changed forever, but please remember that there are many, many people in the world who suffer their entire lives in more miserable conditions than you are now and well know the pain that you feel. The world is looking to bring Japan aid, and the victims in Japan can be a model for the world by showing how the Japanese people share and care for others in the worst of circumstances. My experience is that if you turn to help others, someone will turn to help you. Giving others comfort and hope helps brings recovery from hardship in oneself.
It has now been 100 days since the earthquake and tsunami disaster in East Japan and the initial shock and reactions have settled down. Today there are still thousands living in shelters and the Japanese people are working together to rebuild and care for each other. The images we see of Japan show the world the true nature of the Japanese heart and spirit and we all can draw strength and courage from the way Japan is dealing with this incredibly difficult situation. I believe that the way the Japanese rebuild their lives will leave an impression on and a lesson for the world.
I wrote this article believing in the spirit of the Japanese people and hoping that recovery comes quickly to Japan. Thank you very much.
Nippon Kan Founder
AHAN International Founder
June 18th, 2011