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Why did Americans donate $730 million to wealthy Japan?

Japanese residents offer a prayer for the victims in an evacuation zone near the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plants.
Japanese residents offer a prayer for the victims in an evacuation zone near the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plants.
Japanese residents offer a prayer for the victims in an evacuation zone near the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plants.

Three years ago today, a massive earthquake off the coast of Japan spawned a tsunami that devastated communities, killed nearly 16,000 people (with some 2,600 still missing) and damaged nuclear power plants at Fukushima.

The international aid and relief community responded with offers of assistance and a surge in fund-raising.

This was actually fairly controversial – partly because Japan is a rich nation capable of taking care of itself and also because the Japanese government initially asked the humanitarian community to not interfere with the disaster response.

One aid worker even contended the whole thing was just an ugly game the humanitarian community often engages in, exploiting a high-profile disaster to raise money.

Others contended Japan did need the assistance, immediately on the ground and long-term, because of the size of the catastrophe. Japan is rich, yes, but no nation is ever fully capable of responding to a catastrophe on this scale.

On the third anniversary of the tragedy, a US-based organization called the Japan Center for International Exchange has issued a report noting that Americans have given about $730 million to assist Japan in rebuilding and recovery – an amount that makes this “the largest philanthropic response ever in American history for an overseas disaster in another developed country.”

American Red Cross, Save the Children, Samaritan’s Purse, Catholic Relief Services, Mercy Corps and World Vision were the top American organizations donating to Japan in the wake of the disaster, the report notes. Most of that money went to support the Japanese Red Cross and other local non-profits in Japan, said James Gannon, executive director of the Japan Center.

I asked Gannon if he was aware that many might be upset to learn that one rich nation donated hundreds of millions of dollars to another rich nation when so many extremely poor countries and communities have much bigger needs. Shouldn’t we have directed that $730 million elsewhere?

From the JCIE report - putting the response in context
From the JCIE report – putting the response in context

“This wasn’t money that was likely going to go anywhere else,” Gannon said. Their analysis indicated that people donated to this cause because of ‘personal connections,’ or other direct interests between Japan and the United States. The outside assistance helped with immediate needs, Gannon said, but has also helped support the growth of the non-profit and localized humanitarian sector in Japan.

“Japan is a rich country but these disasters demonstrate that you can’t just count on the government to do everything,” he said. The American response to the Tohoku disaster (as it was known in Japan) has led to ongoing collaboration between American and Japanese organizations that is now benefiting the rest of the world, he said.

“Mercy Corps, for example, didn’t have a big presence in Japan until this happened,” Gannon said. The Northwest-based organization ended up partnering with  a local group, Peace Winds Japan, that has since blossomed into them working together on an aid project in Niger.

The $730 million is, of course, just a drop in the bucket compared to the Japanese government’s estimate of the $250 billion or so needed for recovery and rebuilding through 2016. But, as the Japan Center report notes, the benefit of these donations – beyond addressing the immediate needs during the crisis – can be seen as supporting the growth and collaborative nature of the humanitarian community worldwide.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.