They received letters of encouragement after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and now people from Tohoku are themselves extending that sentiment to survivors of quake-struck Nepal.
In recent months the Himalayan nation was shaken by two major earthquakes and is still struggling to get back on its feet. A Kobe-based organization that provided “genki mail” to cheer up disaster victims in 2011 is delivering messages to Nepalese victims as part of another major project.
So far, the Asia Africa Cooperation Environment Center has sent some 10,000 letters to eight countries, including Russia, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Colombia and Algeria, affected by natural or man-made disasters. Japan’s victims have received about 20,000 letters from abroad. Nepal is next on the list.
“In the beginning, getting water, food and tents are most important,” said Yukitaka Uritani, who launched the organization following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. “But with time, people realize the value of the spirit to live. Money and material can be beneficial only if there is a spirit.”
Emotional support is the key, said Uritani.
“Just one page with a heartfelt message can motivate people to continue living.”
Tomoko Matsukawa, 75, whose home was damaged in the 2011 disaster, said her spirits were lifted when she received words of cheer from preschoolers.
“I was really touched by the letters with pictures and messages telling me to stay well. They were simple letters, but they really encouraged me,” she said.
For Matsukawa, it was not only the beginning of heartfelt mail exchanges but a way of actually forming new relationships.
Matsukawa and her husband took shelter for six months in an elementary school after the 2011 disaster. She fondly recalls a wall in the school plastered with letters.
Now Matsukawa is paying back her debt of gratitude by collecting letters from a school in Ishinomaki in Tohoku to send to Nepal.
“I even sent them pictures of our new house and told them of our progress and asked them to visit sometime. Some of them came and stayed at our place for a night.”
Uritani, 68, plans to travel to Kathmandu in September with Japanese students to distribute letters to victims through the Nepal-based organization Asia Friendship Network. He is soliciting letters from around the world to be sent to his office in Kobe.
“Not only Nepalese children, I also want to help Japanese children,” Uritani said. “Japanese students will grow as they will be moved by what they will see and hear at the site.”
Shizuko Aizawa, 68, whose younger sister died in the Tohoku disaster, would get letters when she was staying in temporary housing in December 2011. She is lending a hand to help in the Nepal project.
“I will always be grateful for the thoughtfulness shown toward us, the victims, from people who are in no way connected to us. As gratitude for all the support I got, I think I must do as much as I can for anyone suffering.”
Tatsuhide Sugie, a 46-year-old elementary school teacher, has encouraged his students to write letters to Tohoku survivors for the last four years and is enlisting them for the Nepal project as well.
“The children themselves said that they wanted to do something when I showed them a slide show of the victims of the earthquake, and they also have shown the will to send letters to Nepal. Writing letters is one of the many experiences that allow children to feel proximity to the news,” Sugie said.
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