Smile for Japan aims to outlast earthquake’s scars

A house flooded by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. (Photo from flickr by Douglas Sprott)
A house flooded by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. (Photo from flickr by Douglas Sprott)

March 11, 2011 was an unforgettable day for Northeastern Japan. A 9.0 earthquake unleashed a tsunami that caused a level 7 meltdown at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant. 18,000 people were killed and there was extensive damage to infrastructure but to the natural resources, the extent of which we are still discovering four years later.

“I was in Tokyo,” says Japanese musician Kumiya Fujimoto. Terrified, she hid beneath her table while all around her plates and glasses flew from their cabinets and shattered.

“It changed everything,” she says, recalling that day.

Beginning with her own family, Fujimoto became very serious about disaster preparedness, creating plans for how to reunite after the unthinkable happened. She says many people were so traumatized that they chose to move away, while many others still keep empty places at their tables for the loved ones who left for work or school one morning and simply never returned.

“For myself, it was quite difficult to leave my family for a while because of a fear of sudden separation, which happened a lot during the disaster.” said Fujimoto.

Seattle based Japanese artist Amy McCaleb was also in Tokyo that day, though her experience was quite different. She was underground in the subway when the earthquake hit. They had just arrived at a station and the doors of the train were open so everyone was able to get off.

“At that point I didn’t really realize the magnitude of what had happened,” recounted McCaleb stating that like many people in Japan she was used to experiencing earthquakes. While this one lasted longer than the others, the subway tunnel stayed intact and everyone was able to exit without any injuries.

A member of a Japanese Search and Rescue team, still looking for survivors in Unosumai, Japan six days after the earthquake. (Photo by Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock via Flickr)
A member of a Japanese Search and Rescue team, still looking for survivors in Unosumai, Japan six days after the earthquake. (Photo by Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock via Flickr)

“It wasn’t until that night that I finally got online and I had gotten an email from brother who sent me the CNN footage from the tsunami. The earthquake itself wasn’t traumatic, but the following days of being bombarded with confusing information were.”

The local media in Japan told a story meant to calm everyone and downplay the damage whereas the international media emphasized the danger. McCaleb was left unsure of what to believe, how to proceed, or how to begin to process the extent of the devastation.

Two years later, in 2013 McCaleb and another Seattle based Japanese artist, Yuko Tanaka came together to commemorate the anniversary of the disaster by creating a fundraiser called Smile for Japan.

The first event, hosted at Sake Nomi bar in Pioneer Square, featured an eclectic international roster of musicians who played everything from violins and congas to the shamisen, a traditional Japanese instrument most famous as a musical accompaniment to Kabuki theater.

The proceeds from the 2013 event were donated to the Smile Ambassadors Program, to support children experiencing PTSD.  The following year proceeds were donated to Ohanashi Kikitai which translates to “The Group Who Wants to Listen.” They are an organization designed to support the elderly in recovering and processing the disaster.

“They’ve already made Japanese people smile by showing there’s people out there thinking about us today, especially on fourth anniversary as there must be big and small ceremonies held next year on the fifth anniversary,” Fujimoto said, reflecting on the impact of these small Seattle fundraisers.

Musicians pack the stage at Smile for Japan in 2013. Co-founder Amy McCaleb is to the right of the microphone and Miho Takekawa, another founder and organizer of the musicians is to the left. (Courtesy photo)
Musicians pack the stage at Smile for Japan in 2013. Co-founder Amy McCaleb is to the right of the microphone and Miho Takekawa, another founder and organizer of the musicians is to the left. (Courtesy photo)

This year, Smile For Japan will be hosted on March 8 from 4-7pm at the Oddfellows Hall in Ballard (at 1706 NW Market Street). There will be arts and crafts, food, drink, a raffle, and of course musical performances.

Kumiya Fujimoto herself will be flying in from Japan to Seattle to play Traditional Japanese music on her shamisen, which she has been playing for 25 years.

“There is still so much work to be done,” explained McCaleb.“Even people in Tokyo don’t realize there is still so much to be done. Eldery people have nowhere to go. There is still a lot of debris that needs to be taken care of. One of our goals is that we want to raise money, but one of our main goals is to keep the awareness going so that people won’t forget about Tohoku.”

This year the proceeds will be donated to an organization based in the Iwate Prefecture called Nozomi. Founded by Yuji Ebihara, Nozomi is committed to assisting the elderly who were displaced during the disaster and who as still stuck in temporary housing.

“They don’t have a lot of choice in the matter,” explains McCaleb. “They don’t have enough money to move into the government housing and the temp housing only lasts for two years so they get kind of stuck moving around a lot.”

This year’s event like the previous two promises an evening of delectable Japanese bar food and entertainment by world class musicians. “Only the people who come realize how amazing the music is. The musicians are just top notch,” says McCaleb.

You can find more information on this year’s Smile for Japan fundraiser at www.smileforjapanseattle.com.

This article has been updated since its original publication to correct the spelling of “Nozomi,” the founder’s name and its location. 

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1 Comment

  1. Hello Reagan,
    I’m the creator and facilitator of “Niko Niko Taishi – The Smile Ambassadors” program that you mentioned as the recipient of the first Smile For Japan fundraising event. I can not express how grateful I was and still am for receiving such generous support from strangers from so far away. It’s awesome to know that people outside of Japan still remember and care about the victims of the 3/11 disaster. Here. Thank YOU also for doing this story and for helping to keep the cause alive. One note, the link that you used goes to my company web-site and it may be clear for your readers if you used this one; http://www.nikonikotaishi.org. If you are interested, below are a few more relative links you can check out to learn more about the program.
    Thank you again!
    Love & Smiles,
    Guy Totaro

    NNT PROMO Video
    http://tinyurl.com/NikoNikoTaishiPV

    NHK WORLD NEWS Story about NNT
    http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/newsline/201307311300.html

    Facebook page
    https://www.facebook.com/NikoNikoTaishi

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