A little over five years have passed since the devastating March 11th Great Earthquake and Tsunami hit Japan’s Tohoku region and there is still debris being washed up on shores on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Recently, the remnants of a Japanese fishing vessel drifted close to the Oregon coastline, carrying with it around 20 fish that have been captive in the vessel since 2011. In the intervening years, boats, shipping containers, and even a motorcycle have all reached the North America’s Pacific coast, reaching as far north as Alaska. Throughout this time, people in Washington and Oregon have continuously been fundraising and helping raise awareness about the slow recovery and the damage done to the reputation of Japanese products from the disaster-hit area, owing to the strong bond between the Pacific Northwest and Japan.
In Seattle, artists with close ties to Japan, Yuko Tanaka and Amy McCaleb, started an annual fundraising event to support rebuilding of the Tohoku. Their program, “Smile for Japan!”, started in 2013 and brings together local musicians and other performing artists from both Japan and the Pacific Northwest. “Smile for Japan!” has grown larger each year and is now in the process of expanding its efforts into a series of events throughout the year in the Seattle area. To date, it has raised several thousand dollars in funds towards reconstruction efforts in the affected area. Peace Winds America is an organization based out of Seattle dedicated to improving preparedness in case of natural disasters around the Pacific Ocean, with the Japan-US partnership at the core of their efforts.
Another major effort was organized by the Japan America Society of Oregon. The Oregon Tomodachi Recovery Fund held a benefit fundraiser similar to Seattle’s “Smile for Japan!” and gave rise to the Oregon Tomodachi Recovery Team, a group of Oregonians who volunteer their time to help fundraise to support recovery efforts in Japan. Thanks to their efforts, the group has gotten recognition on Japan’s NHK national broadcast. Additionally, the Flight of Friendship project based out of Oregon has sent volunteer support and the Portland-based Mercy Corps held a benefit concert titled “From Oregon, With Love”.
The Pacific Northwest has had deep ties to Japan for over a century, which may have factored in to why the region has responded so vigorously. Washington was home to a large Japanese immigrant community in the early 20th Century. The state of Oregon is one of the leading states in educational exchange with Japan, boasting the highest number of Japanese language immersion programs in the country. The issue of tsunami recovery is especially important to both Washington and Oregon because both states are part of the Cascadia region that is also highly susceptible to tsunami damage. Washington and Oregon also rank high in number of shared sister cities with Japan, with Oregon ranking fourth in the US with 24 sister cities relationships and Washington ranking second with 34.
Lian Eytinge is research intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a student at the University of Southern California.