A Glass Half Full: Japan’s Disaster Response at One Year

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

By James Gannon
Executive Director, Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE/USA)

One year after Japan’s massive 3/11 disaster, talking about the recovery of the Tōhoku region is a “glass half full, glass half empty” proposition.

On the one hand, extraordinary progress has been made, especially considering the apocalyptic scenes that confronted us in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. Millions of tons of rubble have been removed, tens of thousands of temporary housing units have been constructed, and shops are starting to reopen in cities and towns that had been completely decimated.

One reason is that Japan’s philanthropic response has been record-breaking. A recent media report estimated at least $6.25 billion (500 billion yen) in domestic charitable giving for the disaster; however, that figure is surely an underestimate, and the overall amount of local giving is probably several billion dollars higher. And one upside of globalization has been the invaluable role of overseas philanthropy: a recently completed JCIE survey finds that private American donors have contributed $630.2 million for Japan—the most generous outpouring of U.S. philanthropy in history for a disaster in another developed country.

In contrast to Japanese donations, which have tended to go to government agencies or cash grants-in-aid for disaster survivors, the bulk of giving from the United States has flowed to nonprofit organizations. As a result, American contributions may have accounted for as much as one-third of all support for the Japanese nonprofit response to the 3/11 disaster, an amount that has had an extraordinary impact.

But, in many ways, the glass is still half empty. More than 300,000 people are still displaced; towns in Fukushima grappling with radioactive contamination face a bleak future; and efforts to rebuild, revitalize local communities, and heal the hidden wounds left by the disaster are only starting to gain traction. The media attention that has accompanied the first anniversary will soon turn elsewhere, but the region will still need help recovering for years to come. While much of the burden will fall on local and national governments, there are numerous areas where the nonprofit sector—and overseas funding—can continue to play an important role.

One constant refrain in the disaster zone is the need for more effective mental health interventions. Women who lost family members, men who are ashamed that they can no longer support their families, and children traumatized by the disaster are all grappling with psychological trauma. In response, numerous Japanese nonprofits have established salons and other kokoro no kea (literally, “caring for the heart”) programs to give survivors opportunities to socialize, but these tend be rudimentary in nature, with little input from experienced mental health professionals, and they often fail to engage people at risk who are unlikely to seek out support on their own. Overseas funders can make a difference by encouraging and supporting more specialized and nuanced approaches.

Greater support is also needed for economic revitalization. A number of innovative programs have been launched to jumpstart local economies. In Kamaishi, for instance, the Fuji Social Welfare Council has started renting food trucks to unemployed chefs who lost their restaurants so they can get back on their feet. The trucks also help stimulate economic activity by gathering where new shops are opening in order to attract local residents. Meanwhile, numerous groups are pioneering new methods for small donor support of fisheries and oyster farmers in return for promised portions of future harvests. However, these efforts are only a drop in the bucket, and much greater investment is required.

A third area where funding from the United States and elsewhere can have a particularly significant impact is non-governmental organization (NGO) capacity building. Hundreds of small nonprofits have been established in the wake of the disaster, and while many will eventually fail, others have the potential to prosper and produce the next generation of Japan’s nonprofit leaders. However, the nonprofit sector can only live up to its potential if it becomes more professionalized and if the infrastructure that supports it is strengthened.

Here, funders and nonprofits from abroad have much to contribute, both in terms of capacity building support (since little will be forthcoming domestically) as well as expertise. What are decidedly not needed are programs that will provide nonprofit leaders with skills that are too advanced for the milieu in which they operate. But what will be useful are initiatives that use funding targeted for disaster recovery to strengthen the sector and help make nonprofit activities in the Tōhoku region more viable. Also, carefully designed project support—namely multi-year grants that provide sufficient salary assistance and overhead along with the flexibility to adapt to the evolving needs on the ground—will encourage nonprofits to grow in a sustainable manner and thus enable nonprofit leaders to gain on-the-job training.

One year out, it is clear that overseas philanthropy has done a great deal to alleviate suffering and to help lay the groundwork for the Tōhoku region’s recovery. The people there realize that they cannot rely on support from abroad indefinitely, but there are still numerous ways it can help make the difference between recovery and stagnation.

James Gannon joined JCIE/USA in 2001, and he oversees a wide range of programs designed to strengthen the underpinnings of U.S.-Japan relations and encourage deeper international cooperation in responding to regional and global challenges. Previously, he conducted research with the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and taught English in rural Japanese middle schools as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. Gannon received a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame, conducted graduate research at Ehime University in Japan, and has a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He is also a fellow with the U.S.-Japan Network for the Future, operated by the Mike and Maureen Mansfield Foundation, and he has written about U.S.-Japan relations, Asia’s evolving regional order, and international affairs for a wide range of English and Japanese-language publications.

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