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Mar 23, 2011

Japan's Recovery

From The New York Times:
On a normal Monday, Motoatsu Sakurai would have focused on a board of directors meeting scheduled for the next day at the Japan Society, on East 47th Street. He might have reviewed cultural programs, like a series of films now running about Japanese mobsters, known as yakuza.
This, however, was anything but a normal Monday for Mr. Sakurai, the society’s president since 2009. He may not have a normal Monday, or any other normal day, for some time, despite his desire to “continue business as usual.” The earthquake and tsunami that have buckled Japan’s knees will see to that.

For the moment, Mr. Sakurai, a retired business executive and a former Japanese consul general in New York, is in effect chief collector in the city for the Japanese relief effort. The Japanese consulate, on Park Avenue, has no mechanism for accepting contributions. “The Japanese government doesn’t have a kind of pocket to receive aid,” said Yasuhisa Kawamura, a deputy consul general.

So the consulate asked a few organizations, principally Mr. Sakurai’s, to serve as collection agencies. By late Monday afternoon, the society had received $160,000 in donations on its Web site, www.japansociety.org.

In his office, Mr. Sakurai scrolled through a long list of donors on a computer screen. Most of the names — “my gut feeling is 90 percent,” he said — were not Japanese.

“Everybody is very much touched by the sympathy and generosity of American people,” he said.

Some people gave $1,000 and similarly large sums. But most gifts were much smaller: $50 here, $25 there. They came from the heart, not from a deep pocket. On occasion, there was a donation of $18. It seemed an odd figure to Mr. Sakurai, until he learned that it meant the donor was probably Jewish. Jews often make charitable contributions in multiples of 18. In the Hebrew alphabet, letters have numerical equivalents. Eighteen represents “chai,” Hebrew for “life.”
1. These $18 donations were significant enough that Mr. Sakurai noticed them and tried to understand what they are all about.
2. Amazing kiddush hashem that so many people donated, non-Jews as well but here we focus on the Jewish aspect, out of concern to help the Japanese. The fact that so many of these donations were obviously from Jews raises the kiddush hashem.
3. We sometimes donate money, often donate money, and instinctively write out the check to a multiple of 18, chai, life. We probably dont even think about it most of the time. Almost every time I make a donation (not including the small change donations), it is to a multiple of 18. It's just what we do. In the case of the Japanese, reading it in the NY Times like this, it is a stark reminder that it really is about life.

In its postwar prosperity, Japan is unaccustomed to relying on the kindness of strangers. As Mr. Sakurai said, “We have always been on the giving side.” So aid-averse was Japan in the past that after an earthquake killed more than 6,000 people in Kobe in 1995, the Japanese government rejected most international offers of help.

Things are different now. To Mr. Sakurai, that is a positive glimmer in an otherwise bleak situation.

“It is very good for Japanese people to realize that Japan is not alone on the Earth,” he said. “When you put yourself in the other side’s shoes, you realize the importance of being on the receiving side as well as on the giving side.”
4. The Jews and the Japanese both qualify, in different ways, as what is described in the Torah as am l'vadad yishkon, a nation that dwells alone. The Jews have always been isolated, or mostly isolated most of the time, by the choice of the other nations. The Japanese chose to isolate themselves. Both are eventually learning that their fates cannot be ignored. No matter how much the Jews try to avoid it, our fate is to remain alone and isolated - no matter how much we try to fit in with the nations of the world, they reject us. The Japanese are not destined to be alone, and no matter how much they have tried to remain alone, fate is catchign up with them. They realize now they cannot remain alone any longer.

THE crisis in Japan provides a glimpse into New York’s own attitudes toward disaster elsewhere.

The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, a nonprofit group created nearly two decades ago to encourage private support for public programs, added a line on its Web site for donations to the Japanese relief effort (www.nyc.gov/html/fund/html/donate/donate.shtml). But New York officials themselves, from the mayor on down, have said next to nothing about the importance of standing by Japan in its ordeal. Contrast that silence with their many appeals for aid to Haiti after the earthquake there last year.

Maybe the explanation is simply that Haiti’s death toll was much higher than Japan’s and that Japan is rich while Haiti is unspeakably poor. But it doesn’t take a cynic to sense a political calculus at work: This city has a large population with origins in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean. It has very few Japanese who aren’t business people, diplomats and students here temporarily.

The Department of City Planning says that a mere 26,000 or so New York City residents have roots in Japan. Not a lot of votes in that group.

Once Japan gets past the crisis, New Yorkers might want to track its recovery. As someone who lived and worked in Japan for five years, I’m prepared to wager that the devastated areas will be rebuilt in what would qualify as mind-boggling speed for New York. The better part of a decade will not pass with little to show other than a hole in the ground, as was long the case at the World Trade Center site.

Peter M. Grilli, president of the Japan Society of Boston, agreed. Mr. Grilli knows Japan well, over a good many years. “Japan,” he said over the weekend, “always manages to recover with amazing resilience and solidarity.”
5. The Japanese are known as a hard working people, they are resilient, diligent and industrious. They always bounce back, and they bounce back even better. We can all  learn this from them. In the meantime they still need our help and prayers.

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