Japan: Difficult Shift From Aid Donor to Recipient

Suvendrini Kakuchi

HAVANA TIMES, April 13 (IPS) — April has traditionally being the time for ‘hanami’ or cherry blossom festivals here when millions of Japanese hold parties under the pink flowering trees in parks and streets lit up gaily by lanterns.

But, one month after the earthquake and tsunami of Mar. 11 which left almost 30,000 people dead or missing, a widespread donation drive has supplanted the festive hanami spirit in Tokyo and other major cities.

“The terrible Tohoku disaster has galvanized the nation to launch a nation- wide charity movement,” Kyoichi Kobayashi, a social critic and author here, told IPS. “The drive is an entirely new experience for the people who have gotten used to an affluent lifestyle that marks Japan’s post-war economic might.”

Indeed, from Hokkaido, Japan’s north island, to Okinawa, the southern tip in the archipelago, hundreds of local volunteer groups, companies and organizations have launched frantic aid projects or are working as volunteers to help the stricken populations in the disaster zones.

For example, the international movie festival held annually in Okinawa by Yoshimoto Kogyou, a leading entertainment company, turned from its original purpose of boosting the Okinawan economy into a charity for Tohoku instead.

Governor Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo, the nation’s capital and lynchpin of the local economy, has asked people to voluntarily refrain from hanami parties to show their solidarity with the pain of Tohoku. “This is not an era in which people at this time of year may drink viewing cherry blossoms, even during day time.”

Such unusual steps, according to Kobayashi, are a clear example of how Japan, after decades of being a country that gives charity given its rich economy, is now trying to cope with being a country that needs help.

The massive destruction including the ongoing nuclear radiation emergency, explained Kobayashi, has exposed and turned into a bitter lesson, the lack of preparation in the country despite its vulnerability to earthquakes.

“The chaos we witness in Tohoku – thousands of people still stuck in evacuation centers and the lack of food and water – is sobering,” Kobayashi said. Japan has gone “in a few seconds” from a country that was – till recently – the world’s top aid donor, “to becoming a recipient itself.”

Indeed, the emerging new mood in Japan is a scenario best described by the country’s leader himself. Prime Minister Naoto Kan, published a message in newspapers worldwide Monday. He wrote of ‘Kizuna’, or bonds of friendship, shown by more than 130 countries and regions after the disaster and pledged that Japan will “recover from their own efforts and with the help of the global community.” Japan will “come back even stronger… to repay you,” Kan said.

International relations expert, Takeshi Inoguchi explains that outpourings of financial donations from countries like Rwanda and Sri Lanka – who are struggling to overcome domestic hurdles of their own – have been welcomed in Japan. “The Japanese view such generosity as important signs of encouragement during their bereavement and are very grateful,” Inoguchi said.

Bilateral donations covering 117 countries were offered through the Japanese Red Cross and totaled more than 33 million dollars (Yen 2.8 billion) according to figures released here.

Inoguchi also pointed out that, apart from warm international expressions of support and armies of volunteers entering Tohoku, there are other encouraging developments arising from the dire situation.

A case in point is China’s support and help. Prior to the quake, Sino-Japanese relations were tense due to territorial issues, but leaders in Beijing have been at the forefront of the aid effort in Japan.

The Asahi Newspaper noted Tuesday that China reacted “calmly” to the discharge of radioactive material from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea so close to its borders.

China’s reaction comes in sharp contrast to the vociferous name calling that went on in September 2010 after a Chinese skipper was arrested, and later released, by Japan after he rammed into a Japanese navy patrol vessel close to the Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by both countries.

Help is also coming from Russia with which bilateral relations have been tense since November when Russian leader, Dimitry Medvedev, visited the Northern Territories, which are occupied by Russia but claimed by Japan.

Russia has sent 161 workers and also announced an energy support measure at a time when Japan is facing black outs.

Meanwhile, Mokoto Torri, a Tokyo resident who decided to abandon hanami celebrations this year, told IPS “the disaster is terrible”. But, pointing dejectedly at the long line of trees, in full pink bloom, lining the streets, he said, “I wonder whether I am doing the right thing after all.”