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Reaching Out to Japan in Crisis

Lawyer Susan Onuma focuses on fundraising with Japanese American organizations

Susan Onuma was at home in Maplewood, N.J., last Friday when one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded struck Japan and the tsunami sirens began sounding the ominous warnings of an impending catastrophe.

Without giving it a second thought, Onuma, 55, an international lawyer and former president of the Japanese American Association (JAA) of New York, started raising money for a nation that was so suddenly devastated by disaster.

As with last year's earthquake in Haiti and 2005's Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, this triple whammy — a 9.0 earthquake, a tsunami and now a potential meltdown of nuclear reactors — is bringing out people from all walks of life who want to help the shell-shocked Japanese.

But none have been more affected than Japanese Americans.

News Maker

Susan Onuma. — U.S.-Japan Council

"When you see the [victims'] faces, because they look like you, you identify more with what is happening," says Onuma, who has family, friends and clients in Japan. She visits the country twice a year.

JAA is a not-for-profit charitable organization providing social services to the Japanese American community of 60,000 in the New York area. Its work is especially important as people here are trying to cope with events taking place half a world away in their families' homeland.

"If you watch the videos, it is so heart wrenching. In that sense, it's a general humanitarian reaction that you want to help," Onuma says.

Rural recovery difficult

Onuma is working with other Japanese American organizations that are planning fundraisers in the coming weeks.

And she is focusing particular attention on finding money and getting social services for the highly vulnerable rural elderly, many of whom are facing personal despair because their farms in the northeast Japan were flooded and their homes were destroyed.

The children of many of these farmers long ago moved to the cities, leaving their parents and grandparents to fend for themselves. "It will be harder for them to recover," Onuma says.

Despite an outpouring of assistance in just a few days, Onuma notes that there is still a sense among some people that Japan, unlike Haiti, can take care of itself. "Because it's not a Third World country, there's a perception of Japan as having a lot of money and therefore less may be given," she says.

As of today, U.S. organizations have raised a reported $24 million to aid Japan. (By way of comparison, more than $500 million was eventually raised in the United States for Haiti relief in the wake of the 7.0 earthquake that struck the island nation in January 2010.)

Needed: time and money >>

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