Pitt students fundraise for Japan relief

By Keith Gillogly

When the devastating earthquake and tsunami rocked the island nation of Japan earlier this… When the devastating earthquake and tsunami rocked the island nation of Japan earlier this month, Pitt junior Ken Nakajima fervently watched the news for the next two days.

“When I was watching, I was getting really depressed about the whole situation to the point where I almost became apathetic to it. It was like, ‘What’s the point of watching the news? What’s the point of caring if I can’t even do anything about it?’” he said.

But like an increasing number of Pitt students and groups, Nakajima decided to act. As a member of the leadership board of Pitt Asian InterVarsity, a Christian organization on campus, he began planning a paper-crane-folding event on campus to raise money for earthquake victims in Japan.

The 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck Japan over Pitt’s spring break. The initial quake, ensuing tsunami and more than 100 aftershocks damaged Japan’s northeastern coast, including a nuclear plant at Fukushima Daiichi. Several thousand people have died in the disaster, and a variety of groups — from the U.S. government to Pitt students — have begun relief efforts.

Such grassroots charitable initiatives are critical for the relief effort in Japan, said Brenda Jordan, Japan studies coordinator with Pitt’s Asian Studies Center.

As an institution, Pitt has mostly encouraged students to donate individually to relief charities. This differs from Pitt’s response to the earthquake in Haiti, when the Univeristy collected supplies.

Some Pitt students have said they weren’t aware of the University’s relief efforts.

“I haven’t heard of anything Pitt was doing,” said Pitt sophomore Brie Latimore, who volunteered for the Red Cross in high school. “I’m willing to volunteer.”

Students reach out

For the paper-crane-folding event, the Asian IntraVarsity group will have students write their wishes on pieces of paper that will be folded into cranes and hung on display in the William Pitt Union.

Japanese tradition says that a wish will come true if the wisher folds 1,000 paper cranes.

The group is asking for a $1 donation for each piece of paper and will have stations on the ground floor of the William Pitt Union and near Einstein Bros. in Posvar today. The group will be back with the drive next week, with stations set up Wednesday through Friday.

Nakajima said that they would like to get as many cranes as they can — hopefully 1,000.

“[The cranes] will serve as a reminder for people, and also it’ll serve as a symbol that students took initiative and that the students actually care about this,” Nakajima said.

Aya Okada, a Pitt graduate student studying international development, held a tea fundraiser with her charitable group, Purposeful Penny, yesterday in Posvar Hall.

Okada, along with four other students, founded the organization in 2009 with the idea that spare change, when added up, can make a difference.

“As students, we can’t do massive donations,” Okada said.

The group has previously raised money for children’s education in Uganda. Yesterday’s event was originally planned to benefit Uganda, but Purposeful Penny changed it to be a tea ceremony in light of the recent earthquake in Japan.

The group had tea samples from Japan, China and Russia. The members brewed Japanese matcha tea in the traditional fashion: The tea powder was mixed with hot water using a small wooden stick, called a chasen.

Okada said the group hoped to raise $300, but ended up with $835, which far exceeded their hopes.

University relief efforts

After the earthquake that struck Haiti in January of 2010, Pitt worked with the local charity Brother’s Brother to collect donated hygiene products for victims. Donated supplies were collected in 5-gallon buckets placed around the campus as part of Pitt’s Bucket Brigade for Haiti.

Because of the buckets’ presence, Pitt students were more aware of University efforts. This time, the situation is different, Jordan said.

Unlike the in Haiti, in which the 2010 earthquake primarily damaged the capital city, Port-au-Prince, and some surrounding areas, cities and towns all along Japan’s northeastern coast were damaged.

This makes the damage much more widespread and relief efforts much more difficult. Japan already has necessary supplies such as water and food — funding to move the materials is what’s urgently needed.

“We can’t collect blankets for Japan because, by the time you ship them to Japan, we could’ve sent money and they could’ve bought blankets,” Jordan said.

Jordan said the Asian Studies Center has been working with Pitt students, Brother’s Brother, and the Japan-America Society of Pennsylvania to put on a benefit concert, planned for April 23 at Bellefield Hall. The suggested donation for tickets is $5 for students and $10 for the general public. Proceeds will go to Brother’s Brother.

The concert will feature a variety of jazz, classical and other styles of music. Most of the performers will be Pitt graduates or current Pitt graduate students. Local jazz guitarist Joe Negri will also perform.

The concert was the idea of Yuko Eguchi, a graduate student in Pitt’s music department. Eguchi, who is from Tokyo, said she broke into tears after watching the coverage on the earthquake.

Eguchi said that when she was young, her parents used to play the song “We Are the World” for her. It taught her an important lesson.

“I learned that the music has a power to unite and connect people together, especially at a time of crisis,” she said in an e-mail.

Eguchi plays the shamisen, a Japanese three-stringed instrument with a long neck. She plans to perform at the event.

“We are doing this for the victims in Japan, but at the same time we’re doing it for the community here,” she said, noting that some members of the Japanese community in Pittsburgh have been saddened by the fact that they feel there’s little they can do to help victims.

If students can’t attend the concert, Jordan encouraged donating to Brother’s Brother.

The organization has raised about $145,000 for Japan so far and sends all donations to Japanese relief efforts, said Karen Dempsey, vice president of Brother’s Brother.

The fact that Japan has the third largest economy in the world has hampered providing aid in one sense, Dempsey said.

Brother’s Brother has worked with Haiti for more than 40 years; however, the organization and many other charities aren’t as established in Japan because it is a wealthier nation.

Still, even after the chaotic aftermath settles, the country will still need help.

“In Japan, it will be rebuilding things, and they’ll need a lot of help in the reconstruction phase,” Dempsey said.