Recollections, thoughts and memories from 10 years of Aid For Japan…
On the 11th March 2011, the Tōhoku region, northeast Japan, was hit by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. The earthquake and tsunami led to the deaths of around 25,000 people and left over 500,000 people homeless. Over 1,200 children lost at least one parent, and over 250 children lost both parents.
On my first visit to Tōhoku, I met children who had not only lost parents, but grandparents, siblings, as well as beloved pets and belongings. Adoption rates in Japan were, and remain, extremely low. The chances were that the children would spend their childhood in orphanages. In a culture where the nuclear family structure is so important, they would also likely face difficulties when it came for finding work, or looking for a partner later in life. I resolved to set up a charity to support these children. This was the beginning of my charity, Aid for Japan.
We organised summer residential courses in Japan, inviting English volunteers to interact and have fun with the children in Tōhoku. The courses provided a wide range of activities promoting confidence-building and English learning. Events included team-building exercises and learning about the cultural differences between the UK and Japan. Many of our international volunteers and the children became good friends. We also organised a successful home-stay programme in which orphans were invited to come and stay in the UK, which gave the children we supported a much needed break from challenging conditions at home.
It is now ten years on from the disaster. Several of the children we met in 2011 are now in their teens, and some are children no longer, having legally come of age in Japan. It has been wonderful to be part of their lives and to have watched them grow in confidence. But we have not wanted to disappear from their lives, and have continued to send small annual gifts, even to those who are now adults, as many of them still have fond memories of their visits to the UK.
This year, on the tenth anniversary of the charity’s being established, the money we raise will continue to support orphanages in the region in their valuable work, and to fund trips to the UK for those children who have not yet come of age, who we hope to welcome back to the UK in the near future.
Please follow the links below to see how you can participate in Aid for Japan’s Ten Year Anniversary events, and for a link to the donation page.
Thank you for your continued support!
Memories of being a host family for Maria
We’ve been a host family for Maria 4 times from 2016-2019 and it’s been lovely seeing her grow up over those years.
We first met her at Heathrow in 2016 – our son Alex had been in Japan with 2 other boys (David and Zac) on a trip organized by Akemi to help raise money for Aid for Japan and they flew back with Maria and Ryota, another boy the charity was helping. Maria stayed with us for the trip, and luckily we had Sumika from the charity staying too to help with communication as our Japanese is non-existent! When Sumika wasn’t around, we managed with a combination of Alex’s 1 year of Japanese and Maria’s ability with translation apps on her phone. Maria was (understandably) quite shy on that first trip, but she enjoyed a trip with us to Hampton Court, and as she was a big Harry Potter fan we took to her to Kings Cross to have her photo taken at platform 9¾’s.
In other trips we saw Maria increasing in confidence – if we were busy she went into London on her own, sightseeing and shopping. As she got older, she became very interested in style and clothing (I think she told me she wanted to become a stylist) and it was interesting to see she had developed a strong individual style of her own. Alex and I went with her to Camden Market (she wanted my opinion on getting some body-piercing!) and helped her track down a clothes shop in Soho that she’d found out about online.
On one of Maria’s visits we had a memorable trip to the Harry Potter studios (we’re all fans), and took her on the Eurostar to Paris for a night. Akemi had a student (Joachim) who had gone back to Paris for the summer, and he was happy to meet us at the station and spent 2 days showing us round and helping us track down photo sites for Maria’s Instagram. He was able to speak Japanese to Maria which made things much easier.
Alex went back to Japan for the summer in 2018, and stayed with Sumika during his time in Tokyo – Maria came to stay with her too and he enjoyed catching up with her.
It has been lovely to get to know Maria, we’ll be happy for her to stay again any time in the future. Although we can’t speak Japanese, her English improved every trip, and we got by with translation apps. I learnt what food she liked (not English food!) and when we were in the house she enjoyed helping with baking and playing with our cat. Even though we couldn’t chat very much, she was happy to spend evenings with us rather than staying in her room.
Sarah and Alexander Duggan
Little Dom’s Big Adventure
There are few days I remember as well as the 11th of March 2011. I was working that day and first heard the news of the Earthquake and Tsunami over the radio. I remember how I felt the spanner I was holding slip out of my hand as I ran to my phone to try and call my friends in Japan only to discover the same thing millions of others had – I couldn’t get through.
Later in the day when I could get to a TV I saw the images of the wave and the destruction I just sat on my bed crying and feeling utterly useless.
Seeing the images of buildings, businesses, livelihoods, lives and families being ripped apart in just a few minutes cut into me deeply.
At that time there were many things in my life stopping me from flying to Japan to help out but I vowed I would help out in some way in the future.
In 2013 I heard about Aid For Japan helping out the orphans and thought “This is how I can help!” and began planning a solo motorcycle journey from the UK to the east coast of Japan called “Little Dom’s Big Adventure” to help raise money and awareness for the charity.
Before setting off on Little Dom’s Big adventure the furthest I had ever ridden on a motorbike was to a friend’s holiday home in northern France. Every time I mentioned what I was planning to do people were shocked at the distance involved but strangely it was never a worry to me.
The only real worry I had was about who I would meet and any hostility that I may encounter on the way (after all I was going to cross the border of 2 countries at war!).
Having spent my whole life in the UK (aside from a few holidays to Japan and 1 trip to France), the stereotypes of people from other countries were well ingrained into my mind – Germany (still bitter from the WW2) Ukraine (former soviet country – everyone is poor and they will all try to rob you) Russia (everyone is miserable, drunk and they all want to kill you)!
Thankfully in the battle of worry which was raging in my mind I had a counter offensive. I had been to meet a number of famous overland adventurers and read the books of those who had dared to venture to the less travelled parts of the world. All of these people said time and time again that the stereotypes are all totally wrong!
As it turned out the overlanders were correct! in Germany nobody was bitter towards me, Ukraine – is a well-developed modern country who’s people are VERY friendly and kind and in Russia I found warmth and kindness on a scale I’ve never seen before! Travelling across so many different countries and meeting with so many different cultures taught me that in the end, after all the differences, opinions, religions and beliefs are set aside everyone is trying to achieve the same thing – a good and happy life for everyone.
We all love each other one way or another. Weather that be for one’s spouse or brother or sister or friend or even friend of friend or a total stranger on a motorbike from a far-off country we all have the capacity to show the love for each other which at the end of the day was the very reason I got on my bike in the first place.
Opportunities and Happiness
Christel and I still remember the shock and horror that we felt when, 10 years ago, we learnt of the earthquake and tsunami that had just hit Japan. The scale and the extent of the damage and loss of life were unlike anything we had ever experienced, seen, or even contemplated, up to that point in our lives.
When we met Maria for the first time, and, a few years later and after Akemi-sensei had explained to us her circumstances, we felt it was our responsibility to help. Of course, we could not repair or undo the damage that the tragic event had done, but perhaps we could support and bring some opportunities and happiness to Maria. She had left quite an impression on us, and we came to deeply care for her after meeting/hosting her in London every year after that and until we moved to Tokyo.
We have now known Maria for several years and we see her in Tokyo on a regular basis. She used to be a quiet, withdrawn kid, but she has grown to be an outgoing, capable young woman that we are proud of. This is, at least partly, thanks to what Aid for Japan did for her and for many other children, and that is simply amazing.
Matteo and Christel
Photos: Roger Payne – Head of Mid Sussex Martial Arts School
Aid For Japan extends its gratitude to all those that contributed stories and memories.
If you would like to help the children in Japan, then please follow this link to donate: https://www.justgiving.com/AFJ-TsunamiOrphans or visit our dedicated Donations page.