By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR IN CHIEF
An unprecedented gathering of Japanese American organizations, philanthropic and political leaders took place Tuesday in Little Tokyo in the wake of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan on March 11. The press conference at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center was convened by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Irene Hirano-Inouye, president of the Washington-based U.S.-Japan Council.
“This is an opportunity to come together and discuss how the people of Los Angeles can extend a hand of friendship more directly and with more impact,” Villaraigosa said.
Los Angeles County is home to the largest Japanese American population in the country. According to the Japanese Consulate, there are 177,980 people of Japanese heritage in Southern California and 238,611 Japanese Americans of multiracial backgrounds.
“The outpouring of support from diverse communities in Los Angeles is incredible,” said Hirano Inouye, who was in Tokyo during the earthquake. “Organizations and companies here were some of the first to mobilize fundraising efforts, which has been inspiring to communities across the country.”
Consul General Junichi Ihara reported that the death toll from the disaster has reached 11,000 with an additional 16,000 still missing. The Japanese government has placed the total damage at 20 trillion yen ($240 billion).
“The long-term consequences are far greater than one year,” Ihara said.
The consul general stressed his appreciation for the outpourings of sympathy and support for victims of the disaster; however, he said financial donations to relief organizations rather than material goods would be recommended for the time being.
“We are developing a multi-year rehabilitation plan and your continuous support will be needed,” said Ihara. “At that time, in-kind support is welcomed.”
Officials participating in the meeting included Councilmember Richard Alarcon; Koichi Kinoshita, president, Japan Business Association of Southern California; Toshio Terry Handa, president, Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California; Gene Block, UCLA chancellor; Brian Kito, Little Tokyo Public Safety Association; Chogi Higa, president, Southern California Japanese Prefectural Association; John Kobara, executive vice president and COO, California Community Foundation; David Ono, ABC7 news anchor; and Michael Kantor, former secretary of commerce and U.S. trade representative.
Kobara announced that California Community Foundation has set up an international fund and would be directing aid to Japan, waiving all of its fees.
“We have to add Japan to the list, we’re going to dig deeper and give longer to Japan,” said Kobara.
The breadth and diversity of the groups underscored the mobilization of Japanese and Japanese American communities in Los Angeles. Kinoshita reported that JBASC’s corporate members have started raising money for relief. He noted that Nissin Foods has donated a million free cups of instant noodles, as well as food trucks to prepare them for the victims.
“Before we are company employees, we are members of society,” said Kinoshita.
On the other side of the spectrum, Handa noted that the donations given to the Japanese Chamber represented small groups of individuals, many who would walk in their donations to their office. So far the JCCSC has raised $125,000 for UNICEF Japan.
Alarcon suggested to the mayor that the city host a benefit concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum for Japan relief. He noted that the city’s economic ties to Japan total $49 billion in trade through the Port of Los Angeles and he will be convening a meeting next month to discuss the local economic impact.
Villaraigosa directed the group to meet regularly to continue relief efforts as a long-term issue for the city.
“This is the nucleus of the organization that will suggest the best ways for the city to continue this very important work,” he said.