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Thursday, July 14, 2011

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Special delivery: Students at Kesennuma Elementary School in Miyagi Prefecture on June 28 read messages of encouragement from American students. KYODO

Genki Mail sends notes of hope to quake-zone kids


KESENNUMA, Miyagi Pref. — Children in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures have received more than 7,000 messages of hope written by elementary school students throughout the United States under a project started by a survivor of the 1995 Kobe quake.

"I am happy to know that people in America have been thinking of us," said a boy in the fourth grade at Kesennuma Elementary School in Miyagi Prefecture after receiving one of the "genki notes," referring to the Japanese word meaning "cheerfulness," from a student in Hawaii.

The Genki Mail project was created by Yukitaka Uritani, president of the Asia Africa Cooperation Environment Center, a Kobe-based nongovernmental organization.

"Most people think about donating money, but the children need more than material things. They need something else to be encouraged," Uritani said.

After being injured and losing everything he had in the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, Uritani fell into depression. Everything in his Kobe office was destroyed except a fax machine.

In the machine's tray, however, he found notes of encouragement from friends in other countries and this strengthened him.

The experience inspired him to launch the Genki Mail project, and he collected notes of encouragement and distributed them to quake victims' families and survivors in Kobe.

"I'd lost everything, but those messages gave me a meaning to life, and I wanted to do that for other survivors," he said.

After the March 11 earthquake, Uritani contacted the Center for Global Partnership, an arm of the Japan Foundation, and asked for help in getting letters from American children.

Through a concerted effort with the U.S.-Japan Council, word of the project quickly spread and thousands of letters poured in.

Uritani recruited 15 volunteer translators in Kobe. Each note was stamped with a code showing the recipients exactly where it came from, so they can respond to their new American friends.

"I'd love to send a reply thanking them and say that we're doing our best to stay strong," said a girl in the second grade.

Uritani hopes the project is far from over. "I never dreamed that this project could be so big. I hope that this starts a long relationship between the children in the United States and Japan," he said.

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