Private earthquake aid still lacks accounting

KOBE — Neither the Japan Red Cross nor a local distribution committee has any accounting of what happened to donations sent by individuals and groups of Americans to help survivors of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

In addition, the local branch of the relief organization is holding back nearly 700 million yen in donations received from 27 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies overseas in the wake of the quake, and plans to use the money not for direct aid to quake survivors but for future disasters. Red Cross officials in both the U.S. and Japan say that their accounting policies are in keeping with the rules established by the International Red Cross for disaster relief and that a detailed accounting of where the money went is not possible.

The Japan Red Cross revealed what they had done with the more than 1 billion yen received from overseas sister societies in a letter to the American Red Cross international services division, a copy of which was obtained by The Japan Times. Between January 1995 and last October, the American Red Cross sent more than 800 million yen, or 80 percent of the total. But a request for an account of how the money has been used was made only last month after the society received inquiries from The Japan Times as to where the money went.

Contributions sent by all of the overseas societies were labeled “kyuenkin,” or relief money. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, about 296 million yen of this was used to purchase blankets and other emergency goods. An additional 24.8 million yen was spent on mental health care services, while Vietnamese refugees in Kobe were given 20 million yen.

But in early 1996, the Japan Red Cross decided to stop spending money for direct relief, determining there was no longer a need to do so. At the time, there were around 1,000 people still living in nearly 50 evacuation centers. According to the letter, the current balance, more than 694 million yen, will go toward construction of a Red Cross medical center in Kobe. The center is expected to be completed by March 2000.

In a Japanese-language report dated March 1996, the Japan Red Cross said it would use overseas contributions for these purposes as well. A Japan Red Cross official in Tokyo said that, at the time of the Japanese report, “a final decision had not been made” on the use of the money. He said he did not know if the remaining funds would be used for other purposes.

Japan Red Cross officials and members of a local distribution committee say there were two different funds. “The money we received from the overseas societies is separate from the ‘gienkin,’ or contribution money, being distributed by a Kobe committee made up of Red Cross officials, local bureaucrats and the media,” said Akinori Fujii, a committee spokesman.

But Fujii pointed out that the committee received “some” money from individuals and groups living overseas. Masamichi Watanabe, a spokesman for the Japan Red Cross in Tokyo, said money given by American individuals and groups was included in the kyuenkin sent to the local Red Cross immediately after the quake.

But neither Watanabe, Fujii nor the American Red Cross could provide an account of what happened to these funds, sent by individual Americans, companies and civic groups specifically for quake relief. All three officials say it is not possible to provide such accounting of the funds because of the sheer amount of money received.

Tim McCully, an American Red Cross official, said that once the money was sent to the Japan Red Cross, “it’s out of our hands.”