National

'Genki' project goes global in bid to spread new year cheer to Tohoku

by Supriya Singh

Kyodo

Happy New Year! There’s no better way to say it than with people worldwide sending a note of good cheer to someone in the Tohoku disaster zone.

A group based in western Japan is calling on young people to send heartening “genki” letters to residents in the area still recovering from the 2011 quake, tsunami and nuclear disasters, building on the nebulous positive word that can mean anything from “energetic” to “good health.”

The Genki Mail project aims to get elementary and junior high school pupils writing a short note to an anonymous recipient. The letters and cards will then be taken to schools and shelters in Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures and handed out, said project leader Yukitaka Uritani.

“People around the world are concerned about you, you are not alone,” is the message the he wishes to convey.

“My aim is to have all kinds of people, such as the physically handicapped, the elderly, children and people from wherever, take part, as it is just about writing about your feelings,” Uritani said. He added, he hopes the campaign will spread “all over the world.”

Starting with the delivery of 30 letters from elementary school students in Kobe on March 20, 2011, nine days after the offshore megaquake, the project expanded to involve five U.S. college students visiting disaster areas with more than 7,000 notes in July that year.

On New Year’s Day in 2012, a total of 9,000 items of mail arrived from the United States, France and Mongolia.

The count fell to around 200 in 2013, so Uritani decided this year to call on the embassies of those three countries plus those of Canada, Chile, China, Finland, Norway, Peru, Russia and Thailand to seek support in spreading the word.

Letters in different languages will be translated by student volunteers at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies and Osaka University.

Uritani said he expects around 3,000 letters to come from these countries, for a grand total of 10,000 when genki notes sourced from Japan are counted in.

Uritani heads the Asia-Africa Cooperation Environment Center, a Kobe-based nongovernmental organization. He started the project in 1995 after losing everything in the Great Hanshin Earthquake. The disaster devastated Kobe and surrounding areas in 1995, causing survivors like Uritani lasting mental anguish.

Though his office was destroyed, a fax machine survived and somehow remained connected: In its tray he found notes with messages such as “Are you all right?” from friends in other countries.

The messages gave him strength and inspiration, and he began collecting notes of encouragement and distributing them to quake survivors in the port city.

While old people living in shelters are often happy to receive letters from children in other countries, at schools an effort is made to distribute letters to students of the same grade to facilitate communication, Uritani said.

Some of the Japanese children who received genki notes in 2012 replied with thanks and remain in touch with their international peers, he said.

Uritani’s organization also sends notes from Japanese children to the victims of tragedy in foreign countries. Examples include when mine workers were trapped underground in Chile in 2010; when an earthquake struck Algeria in 2003; and when Myanmar suffered from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. That time, donors also sent clothes, food and water.

“The mail sent to Algeria was then compiled into a book . . . which Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika presented to Japanese students in Kobe when he visited the city to express the gratitude of the people of Algeria,” he added.

“We have also sent letters to children in the conflict-ridden country of Afghanistan,” Uritani said.

Exchanging letters “makes everyone friends” and also “strengthens the friendship of the two countries,” he said.

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