Chicago's Japanese community organizes relief effort, shares stories

March 15, 2011

By Lynette Kalsnes

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(AP/David Guttenfelder)
Japanese earthquake and tsunami survivors make tea over a fire in the destroyed city of Minamisanriku, in northeastern Japan.

Japanese groups across the Chicago region are organizing relief efforts following a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan late last week. Organizers hope to help Japan recover – even as they themselves are still trying to locate family and friends.

NOTE: To donate to relief efforts, check out the list of local fund drives at the end of the story.

When Rev. Yugo Kobari saw the tsunami pictured on TV, at first, he thought he was watching a movie preview. Then he realized the images of destruction hitting his home country were real.

"I never ever seen those kind of horrible tragedy, massive earthquake, never ever had. It broke my heart," Rev. Kobari said.

Kobari, who leads the Chicago Japanese Mission Church, spent two days trying to reach family in Japan. His siblings survived, and so did his mother. But an uncle, who’s a fisherman, is believed dead.

"My brother’s house and sister’s house (were) almost destroyed," he said.

The danger isn’t over. His mother lives about 45 miles from a nuclear power plant that’s in danger of melting down.

"I asked them, can I go over there? They said if you come by yourself, you cannot do anything. I want to help them, but I cannot do anything."

His family told him all he can do is pray. So Kobari led prayer services Sunday, and will do so again Wednesday. His congregation also collected money. Now he’s beginning to organize a drive for food and blankets.

"This is my request to you that pray for Japan for a while," the pastor said.

Efforts like this are happening across the area. The Japan America Society of Chicago, the Japanese American Service Committee and the Japanese American Citizens League are all collecting money or plan to.

So is the Japanese Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Chicago. Spokesman Andrew St. John said Japan’s economy already was in rough shape before the disaster.

"It demolished things to the point where even basic infrastructure is gone," St. John said. "So the money will not only be used to help the relief efforts. But it will be used to keep people alive, and connect people with their families again and connect people back to work, jobs will be rebuilt."

The chamber’s Manager, Miki Yonekura, grew up in an area devastated by the tsunami. She still hasn’t heard from her sister, brother-in-law and their three children. Her parents and brother are OK.

Yonekura said when the earthquake hit, her brother knew there was danger of a tsunami. He immediately headed out to get his daughter. 

"He heard a lot of noise and people honking at him and yelling,  'Don’t go there, don’t go there.' He looked to his left side and saw a huge wave was beaching," Yonekura said.
 
Her brother made it to high ground, and then resumed his search. On the way, he saw bodies of adults and small children. He arrived at his daughter’s school, to find it empty. He went from shelter to shelter before he found her, safe.
 
Now they’re staying in their parents’ partially destroyed home.
 
"There is a small room actually they were able to lay down, so instead of their going to the shelter, they can keep their privacy in their broken house," Yonekura said.
 
She has some idea how difficult this is. She used to live in New Orleans. She and her husband lost their home to Hurricane Katrina.
 
They found the strength to rebuild here in the Chicago area. She’s hoping her family in Japan can do the same.
 

 You can donate to relief funds through these local groups:

Japan America Society of Chicago

Japanese American Service Committee

Japanese American Citizens League

Japanese Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Chicago

Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago

 The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago