Volunteers involved with fundraising for the devastated town of Onagawa, Japan, are fending off criticism around use of the money.
Approximately $40,000 remains unspent in a city bank account, but volunteer Mary Nishio said her ad-hoc group wanted to respond directly to the community’s needs.
Nishio — who lived in Japan for 21 years — was in Onagawa “by fate” following the earthquake and tsunami and witnessed the devastation.
“In the very beginning, they were so very stressed and were dealing with issues far more pressing than someone wanting to give them money,” she said.
Having worked with the Japanese Red Cross following the Kobe earthquake in 1995, Nishio said she knew donating the money to the Red Cross would not get it to Onagawa, but instead it would be distributed throughout the country.
For Nishio it was important to support Onagawa not only because she had witnessed the aftermath first hand, but also because she knew the special bond the two cities had despite not having an official sister city relationship.
“Foreign students come to Nelson from Onagawa, but we also have a bond because of the Hampton Gray memorial,” she said. “That is a very unusual tie. I believe that is the only monument to a foreign soldier in all of Japan. The fact that Onagawa would put up such a memorial to a Canadian soldier who died bombing ships in the Onagawa harbour, to me is a sentiment there needs to be far more of.”
During an October committee of the whole meeting, local resident Claus Schunke — who has regularly voiced concerns about the fate of the funds raised for Onagawa — suggested the public may see the lack of direction as “misappropriation.”
But Nishio said the group has persistently contacted officials in Onagawa looking for direction and suggestions as to how the money should be spent.
“Every time we would find something they needed, we would find out shortly after that they had lots and lots,” she said. “We asked about scholarships and that was declined because Japan is a society that values the group. They do not single out individuals. They felt to give out only two scholarships to two people was not the thing they wanted to do.”
Nishio also suggested donating the money to the Onagawa hospital, which lost thousands of dollars worth of equipment after its first floor was flooded.
Officials declined the offer saying it would likely get lost with all the other funds and not have an identifiable source or intended destination.
Recently the committee heard from Onagawa as to a possible project: volunteers are working with the Japanese consulate and Toyota to send a flatbed truck to the community.
Many people who stayed in Onagawa following the tsunami lived in temporary housing, and Nishio said lately many Japan Times headlines have told of suicides among those living there.
“They need support now. I know the phases of the psychological responses following disasters and the fact we are responding and supporting them now is way more effective than if we had sent something in the beginning,” Nishio told the Star.
Onagawa has requested a flatbed truck to help with festivals, which are intended to address the isolation created because of temporary housing.
The truck could also be used to help evacuate residents if a typhoon or other crisis hits the community.
The $40,000 was raised through a variety of events and fundraisers, and includes a $10,000 contribution from the City of Nelson.