May 2

Jim Gannon (Ehime-ken, 1992-94), Executive Director for the Japan Center for International Exchange.


By Renay Loper (Iwate-ken, 2006-07). Renay  is a freelance writer and international education professional currently seeking FT opportunities. Visit her at Atlas in Her Hand.

JET alum Jim Gannon (Ehime-ken, 1992-94) is the executive director of the Japan Center for International Exchange in New York. A Columbia graduate who previously worked for the for the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, he penned last year’s “JET Program on the Chopping Block” article, which helped alert and educate JETs and JET alumni to the threats facing the future of the JET Program. Since then, he has served as an invaluable resource to the JET Alumni Association, providing informal advice and perspective and serving on the JETAA New York Board of Directors.

How has your day-to-day work with JCIE been affected by the Tohoku catastrophe?

It has been a whirlwind since the morning of Friday, March 11, although fortunately all of our friends, family, and coworkers in Japan are safe. On the Japan side, JCIE has been working for decades to strengthen Japan’s nonprofit sector.  That gives us a strong base of knowledge in this area, plus we have extensive experience channeling philanthropic contributions from overseas to Japanese organizations, and have also have been working closely for years with the country’s major humanitarian organizations, which have now mobilized to respond to the disaster. Meanwhile, on the U.S. side, JCIE is one of the few Japanese nonprofit organizations with a strong American presence which can receive tax deductible donations. This has put us in a unique position to be able to help.

On day one, we were asked to advise major U.S. humanitarian organizations trying to get into Japan to help, and we have since been working long hours to contribute on various fronts. To take advantage of our understanding of who is who in Japan’s nonprofit sector and the capacity to fundraise in the United States, we established a set of funds to aid Japanese nonprofits on the frontlines of the relief and recovery efforts. The amount of money committed to these by American donors has reached almost $2 million, and most of that is already reaching Japanese communities. The main fund, the Japan NGO Earthquake Relief & Recovery Fund, splits donations up 50-50 between immediate relief efforts and the types of long-term recovery efforts that are absolutely vital, yet typically underfunded, and we will be increasingly focusing on supporting the long-term recovery. In addition to this, we have also been working with a wide range of U.S. foundations, companies, and experts to discuss how to better coordinate the U.S. philanthropic approach to the Japanese disaster. So, my plate has been very full, but we felt we had an obligation to do this given our unique capacity in this area.

What is the mood of the country, generally speaking, since the events?

Difficult to answer, since I have not been there since the disaster. However, my conversations with colleagues and friends indicates that, while people are on edge due to the continuing aftershocks and the radiation risk, there is a deep conviction of the need to rebuild, and extraordinarily selfless efforts by people from all over Japan to do what they can to help. But I can’t talk definitively on the mood from my own experience.

What are JCIE’s priority areas for rebuilding?

In terms of short-term relief efforts, it is critical to empower communities in Japan to help themselves, and this becomes even more important when talking about the long-term recovery. It is essential for local nonprofit organizations—a group that extends far beyond the Red Cross—to be able to play roles if communities are going to be equipped to rise to this challenge. But Japan’s philanthropic sector is weak, and government and business often overlook the nonprofit sector in Japan. This is why we are placing priority on getting funding and other support to a wide range of organizations that are Japanese-run and that are truly nongovernmental and nonprofit in nature.

Many people believe there is positive in every situation and if we look hard enough there is a silver lining to all things. In the day-to-day, and even in the long run, what might some of those be in light of the tragic events?

This is an awful tragedy, and it is hard to find a silver lining amidst so much suffering. But this tragedy can have the inadvertent effect of strengthening Japan’s nonprofit sector, which is playing such an invaluable role in the response. Still, things can go the other way and lead to a weaker sector—it all depends on how we respond. Also, the tragedy has brought people from around the world together, for example, showing the true strength of the U.S.-Japan relationship.

Lastly, I am sure this past month has been quite a challenge. What are some things you have learned as a result of the experience?

I have been overwhelmed by the depth of compassion and decency among people in the United States and elsewhere who want to do something to help. Since we opened our fund to help Japanese groups responding to the disaster, we have been contacted by dozens of individuals and organizations around the country who are spontaneously organizing fundraising events and want us to send the proceeds to Japan: A middle school in New Jersey raised hundreds of dollars by folding and selling peace cranes; anime voice actors in Los Angeles held an amazing event for anime fans; and benefit concerts have been organized in New York, Michigan, and California by people who felt they had to do something to help.

The most touching of all may be the California couple who phoned us recently to inform us of their plans to refuse wedding presents for their June wedding and to instead dedicate their wedding registry to Japan’s recovery by asking friends and family to donate through our fund. Somehow, these extraordinary acts can energize you and make you work longer hours and attempt more ambitious things to help than you would normally think possible.

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