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Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012

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Heart to heart: Japanese American Leadership Delegation alumni and members of Katariba, a nonprofit group running an after-school program in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, hold paper hearts with messages from young American students dedicated to the people of the Tohoku region, in a classroom at Onagawa Elementary School in September. RICH LEE

Tragedy tightens trans-Pacific bonds

Staff writer

The Great East Japan Earthquake underscored the importance of "kizuna," or human bonds, in helping disaster survivors. To social entrepreneurs in Japan and the United States, it helped forge stronger interpersonal relations among the two countries' nonprofit groups, an area often overshadowed by the political and business sectors.

Since last year, a group of Japanese-Americans with backgrounds in the nonprofit sector have collaborated with Japanese social entrepreneurs on the ground in the devastated Tohoku region.

They aim to help Japanese NPOs build up their organizations as well as fundraising strategies, while also learning from the experiences of their Japanese counterparts who are practicing innovative social business models that meet the needs of locals in the devastated areas as they rebuild their communities.

"We see this as a real partnership, a real collaboration where the American side and the Japanese side are going to get a lot from this relationship. We can help each other and we can learn from each other. And we can inspire each other," said Kaz Maniwa, a San Francisco-based lawyer who leads the Japanese-American group.

The group consists of former participants of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation, a program sponsored by the Foreign Ministry and the Center for Global Partnership of the Japan Foundation. It was started in 2000 to build and strengthen ties between senior Japanese-American and Japanese leaders in politics, business and other fields.

But the alumni delegation was voluntarily organized by those eager to commit to working exclusively with nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations in Japan, according to Maniwa, who chairs the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California and has also worked with other NPOs.

"NGOs play a much bigger role in American society than in Japan. It's very normal for people in America to donate to a large number of charities and to NPOs, and also to volunteer their time to organizations," Maniwa said.

"One of the things we would like to see is an increased role of the NPOs in Japan, where people donate more money to NPOs and also to volunteer their time to their organizations."

With this ambition, the JALD alumni group's project began before the March 11 disasters. In May 2010, Maniwa and Tom Ikeda, another member of the group, met with Hideyuki Inoue, an associate professor at Keio University whose research focuses on social entrepreneurship and social innovation.

At their meeting, Inoue informed the Japanese-Americans that an increasing number of young Japanese were dedicating themselves to making positive changes in society by establishing nonprofits and venture businesses.

In an interview with The Japan Times, Inoue said such young people differ from previous generations involved in social movements.

"Unlike the past social movements where participants demanded action by the government or big businesses regarding things they saw as problems, the young social entrepreneurs today move by themselves. They have innovative ideas and are eager to make a systemic change in society," he said.

Inoue, who is also the founder of Social Venture Partners Tokyo, a network of philanthropists who contribute their business skills and expertise to develop the capacity of existing NPOs, said such young social entrepreneurs are also business-minded, and use tactics to expand their activities to other communities.

"Apparently, the policymakers and business leaders (JALD alumni met) in the past had expressed pessimistic views about Japanese society and its young, but I told them that there are really exciting and interesting changes taking place in Japan," he said.

Inoue added that such young innovators often fail to realize that the value of their work can be appreciated in other countries as well, but they needed to broaden their views and connect with the resources overseas to broaden their activities.

Thus, Inoue had been in talks with Seattle-based nonprofit group named iLEAP: The Center for Critical Service, to develop a forum to offer both Japanese and American social entrepreneurs leadership training programs that can also become opportunities to network with their counterparts and enhance their skills and ideas.

Looking back, Inoue said the meeting with the JALD alumni and the plan to establish a forum had coincided, but the earthquake and tsunami on March 11 added urgency to their collaborations.

In July, 10 young Japanese social entrepreneurs took part in the training program offered by iLEAP. The JALD alumni also participated in one of the workshops, and this became the first opportunity for the Japanese-American group to meet with the Japanese NPO leaders to learn about the role of NPOs in Japan and the issues they face.

The following September, the JALD alumni delegation made a weeklong trip to Japan, which included visits with the NPOs they met in Seattle and that were working in the Tohoku region. The visit focused on NPOs working in Onagawa, Ishinomaki and Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, and other areas.

"There's such a difference in seeing the devastation with your own eyes. . . . It's one thing to see it in pictures and TV, and to have the event explained to us in detail from people who were actually there as eyewitnesses," Maniwa said after returning from the visit in September.

"As a group we were very moved by what we saw, and the human reaction of seeing people's homes and lives destroyed. But I think it was really nice to see that people we met with were not bitter," he said. "Obviously, it was a major loss, but they felt like they want to rebuild their fishing villages, they want to rebuild their farms."

The nonprofit groups they visited included Katariba, which operates after-school study classes in Onagawa for students from elementary to high school. It also runs a bus service between their schools and temporary housing units.

The school not only gave students who were behind in their studies a chance and space to study, but also jobs to teachers whose cram schools were washed away by the tsunami.

Another young social entrepreneur they met put together a food relief distribution network on the day after the quake and demonstrated management skills.

He later started a restaurant that employs both mentally and physically disabled people. It was a new example of a hybrid of profit and nonprofit businesses, as it gave people a living wage so they could maintain their dignity, and the restaurant broke even.

"The people we met were young, dedicated Japanese who were very passionate and idealistic about what they were doing. They were focusing totally on helping other people in the area. They are not concerned with any kind of personal gain. They're just doing it because they want to do it," Maniwa said. "It was very inspiring to see who we felt are really future leaders of Japan. Their dedication to their people and commitment was something we love to see."

Inoue, who coordinated the group's visit to Tohoku, said the Japanese NPO leaders were also thankful their efforts were valued and appreciated by their counterparts in the U.S.

The experience with iLEAP's forum in Seattle also helped them expand their horizons, and some have even come up with new strategies to connect with overseas donors, he said.

The JALD alumni said they will continue to work closely to develop the connections they have made with the Japanese NPO leaders who are to form an executive committee to plan further collaborations, including new joint projects.

"It's a continuing story, the whole idea of building relationships between the NPOs. There's a really deep feeling of caring for each other. We are really excited to continue working with these people," Maniwa said.

In the meantime, a new group of Japanese nonprofit leaders will attend iLEAP's leadership training seminar from Jan. 11 in Seattle, and some of the JALD alumni plan to participate.

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