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Second wave of Japanese relief efforts involve arts, traditions

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A second wave of relief efforts to help Japan is spreading across metropolitan Chicago. Volunteers hope to spur donations by touching people through food, music and ancient traditions.

Over at the Japanese American Service Committee on Chicago’s North Side, several drummers rehearsed. They were getting ready for a big benefit concert to aid Japan at the Chicago Cultural Center tonight. Yoko Noge's Japanesque will perform, along with several other big-name Chicago jazz and blues musicians.

They swung from side to side and beat on giant taiko drums. They crouched and hit the floor with drumsticks. They were dancing as much as drumming.

On the walls, children’s drawings showed the tsunami engulfing a car, and the earthquake shaking people from a building. The pictures ended with Japan rising again in butterflies and sunshine.

The troupe, called Tsukasa Taiko, hoped to aid this recovery by moving the audience to donate.

Nationally, the American Red Cross has collected more than $100 million. But a spokeswoman confirmed that response has lagged behind what was donated for Haiti, or after Hurricane Katrina.

"This is one of the times that we feel how much we love our old country," said Tatsu Aoki, the drummers’ artistic director. He said every morning, he's been watching Japanese cable.

"My wife and I, we just sit in front of the TV, a tear comes out, it’s very, very difficult to think about people there. I am eager to do whatever we can here to help," he said.

Aoki is a Chicago musician from Japan. He thinks arts and culture can play a role in the recovery.

"It gives hope to people," he said. "In the worst times, I’m hoping the music will ease a little bit of our pain and it can also encourage other people to be with it and get through this big, big trouble."

When the earthquake hit Japan, Chef Takashi Yagihashi, had a single moment of grace. He was able to reach his mother.

When he tried again, 10 minutes later, there was no answer. For three days, he had no word.

"I couldn’t do anything about it, I couldn’t hold my mother’s hands, or I couldn’t talk to her, are you OK, you’ll be fine. I wish I could be there. Yeah, that was very tough," he said.

When Yagihashi finally got through, his mother started weeping. She had survived World War II, and now this.

"She was crying because, 'I’m a very lucky person because it didn’t happen to me, I’m still alive, I still have my whole family.' She was very, very pleased that she still has and the sisters and that made me cry, too."

Yagihashi knew he had to do something to help. So he’s organizing a benefit dinner with top chefs for the Red Cross on April 18th at his Takashi restaurant.

Up in Glencoe, the Chicago Botanic Garden sent good wishes through an ancient tradition, the wishing tree.

The garden asked visitors to write their wishes on lacy slips of paper. They tied hundreds of thoughts and prayers to three Japanese maples.

Then the staff followed tradition by burning the wishes and sending them into the universe.

Kristie Webber, the director of interpretive programs, dug into big plastic bins full of wishes.

She asked a volunteer, "Would you be willing to read the kiddy ones?" She pointed out a child wished for peace for Japan, spelling "peace" as "peas."

One by one, the volunteers read the wishes, then tossed them into the roaring fire:

"I wish you get better and get yummy food and water, four-year-old Alex."

"I hope all of the Japanese children have good food, water and shelter, Francesca, third grade."

"Hearts ease in peace in the face of so much and so many challenges. I offer sincere condolences to the victims and bereaved families. Gods’ peace be with you."

Volunteer Susan Kuse had her own wish for Japan:

"That they know they’re not alone, there are those around  us that have hope, and we have compassion and love for them, and we wish them renewal and respect for where they have come and where they are going," Kuse said.

She said the ceremony filled her with gratitude.

"A lot of times, you read what’s on the paper, you hear what’s on the radio, but to be part of it touches you in such a very different way, to know that you are part of a far greater world."

When the wishes were gone, and only ashes remained, a staffer grabbed an extinguisher, and put out the fire.

NOTE: Other concert benefits include an April 6th performance at Northwestern University's music school; and an April 12 show at Jazz Showcase.

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