Responding to 3/11: Helping with the Japan Disaster

Thursday, May 12, 2011

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

In Japan, a few terms have become commonplace when speaking about the string of disasters that struck two months ago. Many now just say “3/11” to refer to March 11th and its aftermath. This is because the psychological shock has been similar to that of 9/11 for the United States, even if the nature of the disaster and its implications are profoundly different.

Another term that comes up repeatedly is “unimaginable.” This is often applied to the sequence of events—the fourth-strongest earthquake in recorded history, followed by a ten-story-high tsunami, and exacerbated by the nuclear crisis that has caused panic around the country. It also describes the damage. Deaths are likely to exceed 25,000 souls, more than 300,000 buildings are damaged, and the economic toll may top $300 billion. This makes 3/11 the most devastating natural disaster ever to strike a developed country.

In light of this, it is moving to witness the extraordinary desire that Americans have to aid Japan. Still, some confusion has arisen because the playbook we usually resort to for disasters in places such as Haiti does not apply for a country like Japan. This makes it especially useful to keep four points in mind.

1) While Japan is a rich country, it still needs the world’s help. The Japanese government can handle the “hardware” portion of reconstruction—rebuilding bridges, repairing schools, and providing temporary housing. However, a vibrant civil society is needed to provide the “software” that helps communities cope and recover. The number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Japan has doubled over the past decade, but the civil society sector is still the country’s Achilles heel. This is because domestic philanthropy has remained remarkably weak, even as the demand from nonprofits has soared. Now, Japanese civil society is at an important turning point. Targeted aid to Japanese nonprofits is likely to yield enormous benefits on the ground, plus it can play an important catalytic role for the future development of Japan’s nonprofit sector.

2) Our instinct is to help with immediate relief, but the smart money tends to focus more on the recovery stage. Local communities are an integral part of any sustainable recovery, and the best way to empower them is by supporting community groups and other NGOs. So far, though, most overseas philanthropy for the Japan disaster been targeted at the immediate relief effort. Meanwhile, the vast bulk of domestic giving in Japan is going toward funds that will make cash payments to the victims and their families. This leaves the NGOs that will deal with the spectrum of issues associated with the recovery—mental health, economic revitalization and job retraining, rebuilding social networks, caring for the elderly and children who have lost their families, etc.—with the greatest need.

3) While there is a role for overseas NGOs, Japanese organizations are best equipped to drive the recovery process. In Japan, the potential is already there for a stronger civil society role and NGOs are poised to make greater contributions if they can only attract sufficient financial and human resources.

4) There are effective ways to support Japanese organizations engaged in recovery efforts. A handful of U.S.-based 501(c)(3) organizations are working to regrant funds to Japanese groups, and they can be useful resources for American foundations. (These include the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE/USA), the Japan Society, and Give2Asia.) Foundations that are accustomed to international giving can go one step further and make grants to a range of intermediary organizations in Japan that are preparing to redistribute funds to NGOs and community groups for recovery efforts (i.e., the Japan NPO Center, JCIE/Japan, etc.). In some cases, it even makes sense to give directly to NGOs that will be working on the ground, although there is a need for more information on which ones are most effective in operating in Japan and not just in marketing themselves in English.

The struggle to recover will be long and arduous, and it is bound to reshape Japan’s nonprofit sector, how its broader society works, and the web of linkages that undergird its alliance with the United States. Fortunately, as we emerge from the initial shock and confusion of 3/11, it is becoming clearer that thoughtful American philanthropy can be effective in helping Japan in its time of greater need.

For more information about relief and recovery efforts, including the work of Philanthropy New York member organizations, please visit Philanthropy New York’s dedicated webpage for the Japan disaster,

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. Mr. 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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