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Aloha for Japan Revealed Hawaii’s Heart

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Illustration: Odeelo Dayondon

Though it was an ocean away, the devastating earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis that ravaged northeastern Japan in March 2011 struck Hawaii in the heart.

People all over the world grieved over the magnitude of the tragedy, but it was Hawaii’s unique social, cultural and economic ties to Japan that prompted an unparalleled statewide response that raised more than $9 million over the past year.

“This one really hit home,” says Coralie Chun Matayoshi, CEO of the American Red Cross Hawaii State Chapter. “For Hawaii, this was practically a local disaster.”

TV images of unimaginable destruction briefly dazed Hawaii’s people, but then they quickly set to work. Within 24 hours, an Aloha for Japan campaign coalesced as a statewide effort under Gov. Neil Abercrombie, coordinated by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor. The name, logo and collaborative tone of the effort came from the GRP Home coalition of T-shirt makers, spearheaded by entertainer and entrepreneur Grant “Lanai” Tabura. By involving 160 Hawaii organizations – including banks and credit unions, insurance and telecommunications companies, schools, restaurateurs, food distributors and entertainers – the coalition raised more than $8 million in six months.

“This was by far the most money raised for disaster relief from Hawaii for outside of Hawaii,” says Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz. “I think it was one of the most extraordinary stories of generosity in Hawaii’s history.”

Most of Hawaii’s donations went to two organizations, the Red Cross’ Hawaii chapter and the Japan-America Society of Hawaii. The Red Cross received more than $4.6 million from Hawaii donors, Matayoshi says, and distributed the money to a matrix of rescue and relief organizations, including the Japanese Red Cross. JASH reported that it collected more than $4.2 million from corporate and individual donors, and from a slew of Aloha for Japan fundraising events.

A separate initiative by I-Lion Hawaii School, an Oahu branch of Sendai Ikuei Gakuen school in Japan’s Sendai region, raised funds for victims in that area.

Photo: Rich Lee

Among the biggest fundraisers was Lei Day for Japan on May 1, which marshaled the talents of top Hawaii chefs and entertainers. Another successful program was JASH’s Rainbow for Japan Kids, which raised $320,466 so children who lost relatives in the disaster could come to Hawaii for R&R. The first group of 20 children arrived in Honolulu during August for a two-week respite. A second group of 25 arrived in December and a third group was scheduled to arrive this month.

About 4,000 companies and individuals have contributed to fundraising efforts through JASH, says Ed Hawkins, president of the society.

As it had in 2001, following the deaths of Japanese crew members aboard the Ehime Maru off Diamond Head, JASH galvanized support from the many Japanese cultural, social and business associations in Hawaii. “This is our strength,” says Hawkins, who visited Japan three times last year. “We can take a tragic event and, through our networks and relationships, we can make something good out of it.”

Abercrombie and Schatz were among the officials who hunkered down in the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Diamond Head crater throughout the night of March 10, monitoring tsunami damage in Japan and the threat to Hawaii.

The next day, after the all-clear sounded, they put on their suits and called on Japan Consul-General Yoshihiko Kamo to express condolences for the lives lost and offer support for the recovery.

Seven weeks later, Kamo told Hawaii lawmakers at the state Capitol: “It is my pleasure to note that, during this past month, you have made us local Japanese deeply impressed by your kindness and thoughtfulness. I will take it as my important job to let as many Japanese as possible know how much the people of Hawaii helped and cared about us.”

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