Jul 22

Challenges facing the US-Japan Earthquake Relief Response

I had the privilege yesterday of being invited by Jim Gannon (Ehime-ken, 1992-94), Executive Director of the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE/USA), to attend a unique information and idea exchange titled “Funding Meeting:  US-Japan Cooperation on Supporting the Japan Disaster Response.”

The gathering, organized by JCIE/USA and the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership (New York), was held in a meeting room at the Institute of International Education in Midtown Manhattan, consisted of representatives from about  40 to 50 organizations involved in raising funds to support relief efforts for Japan.

It began with presentations from key representatives from Japanese civil society–Yoshifumi Tajiri of the Japan NPO Center and Japan Civil Network for Disaster Relief in East Japan (JCN), Yoichiro Abe of the Central Community Chest of Japan (CCCJ) and the Joint Committee for Coordinating and Supporting Voluntary Disaster Relief Activities, Tae Namba of the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia (AMDA) and Tomoko Wakabayashi of the Association for Corporate Support of the Arts (Japan).

Two discussion panels followed.  The first was titled “Challenges and Concerns of US Funders and Partners.”  Moderated by Jim Gannon, it included presentations by Irene Hirano, President of the US-Japan Council, Betty Borden, Director of Policy Projects for Japan Society (NY), Scott Sugiura of Give2Asia and Mari Kuraishi of GlobalGiving Foundation.  The second panel was titled “Strengthening US-Japan Collaboration for Recovery” and was moderated by Japan Society of Boston President Peter Grilli with presentations by Noboru Hayase of Osaka Volunteer Action Center and Jim Gannon of JCIE/USA.  Many others participated in the subsequent discussions and exchange of information and ideas.

Key Takeaways:

A couple key takeaways from a JET Alumni perspective were:

1.  Figuring out effective ways to support the relief efforts in Japan is tricky stuff. It’s not a straightforward task to simply provide grants and financial support.  Among other reasons, Japan apparently does not have as strong or established of a “civil society” as we’re used to having in the U.S.  i.e., There is not a large non-profit sector.  And there is not as much organizational experience seeking and applying for and reporting on grants and donations.  To paraphrase one attendee, no one was knocking on their door seeking grants in the way people did following disasters in Haiti and elsewhere.

Language and cultural barriers were also cited.  As was the fact that for many small NPOs and other organizations that have stepped in to do good work, they don’t have the bandwidth to focus on grant seeking and reporting requirements. Or if they do, it comes at the detriment of doing the work that needs to be done.

The other major challenge cited was the expansive geographic scale of the disaster.

Additionally, several attendees commented that one of the areas where significant assistance is needed (among many needs) is mental health.  Depression and suicide rates are high in the affected region, particularly among working age males trying to support their families in a dire employment environment.  (Read this letter from Japan Society of Boston President Peter Grilli, who recently traveled to Japan, for additional information and perspective.)

2.  Progress is being made. For all the challenges, it sounds like organizations were figuring things out and gaining experience as they moved forward, and there was a lot of discussion about information sharing and providing additional forms of support in ways that would aide the process.

3.  JET Alumni are involved in a variety of ways. There were five other JET alumni in attendance, including Jim Gannon, Paige Cottingham-Streater (Japan-US Friendship Commission), Renay Loper (Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership), Bhaird Campbell (Japan Society of Boston), Jonathan Schwab (Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of New York) and Jennifer Quiambao (Asian Cultural Council).  Additionally, a several other attendees said that they had JET alumni working in their offices when I mentioned my connection with the JET Alumni Association.

Thanks again to Jim for giving me, and in essence the JET Alumni Association in the U.S., a seat at this very significant table.  And a reminder that the relief and rebuilding effort continues and that, as with our JET experience, patience and persistence yields great growth over time.

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