Foreign aid promised for Japan quake zone, but where is it?

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 12:05 PM
Foreign aid promised for Japan quake zone, but where is it?

By Jon Herskovitz and Chisa Fujioka

KAMAISHI, Japan (Reuters) - Scores of countries have pledged aid to the victims of Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami, but little of it is visible in many towns and villages devastated by the disaster. In some areas, as victims return to what remains of their homes, an unorganized and often chaotic array of help awaits them -- from boxes of donated clothes to free pet food, almost all donated by fellow Japanese.

Roads are wrecked in many areas, and there are acute shortages of fuel. And sometimes, people face problems in finding aid shipments.

"Word of mouth seems to work best," said Machiko Kawahata as she, her daughter and granddaughter looked for clothes at a drop-off point in Kamaishi, a coastal town in northeastern Japan.

No guards were around, no city officials on hand as victims took what they wanted from hundreds of boxes.

"All we have had is the clothes on our backs. But they are good enough. They've kept us warm through all of this," Kawahata said.

"We will make do and we will make it through this. If one place offers us half a rice ball to eat, then that is all we will eat."

Offers of aid and support have poured in from scores of countries, including search and rescue teams, and clothes and blankets to ward off near-freezing temperatures in the quake zone. Over $10 million in financial help has been promised.

While generous, it's a far cry from the aid that poured in immediately after a tsunami in 2004 battered large swathes of South and Southeast Asia. Within eight weeks of that disaster, governments, aid groups, businesses and individuals had pledged $8 billion to $9 billion for tsunami relief.

But that disaster affected developing countries, while Japan is rich. Its $5 trillion economy is the world's third-largest.

There's also a sense that Japan's traditional pride in self-reliance doesn't adapt easily to accepting foreign aid. Some aid workers recalled that rescue dogs brought in after the 1995 Kobe earthquake were put in quarantine for two weeks, although no such issues have been reported in the past week.

Many officials signal that Japan can look after itself.

"Disaster relief requires a huge amount of money, but Japan's private sector has plenty of funds," Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano told Reuters last week.

"Household assets amount to 1,400 trillion yen and half of it is high-liquid cash and bank deposits. Of course there are uncertainties. But my gut feeling is that the Japanese people, with their efforts, can overcome them."

Yosano said he estimated economic damage from the disaster would exceed 20 trillion yen ($248 billion).

Japan's foreign ministry has said rescue teams from 14 countries have started operating. But a ministry spokesman declined specific comment on aid reaching the country.

International aid groups say they have distributed blankets and medicine, but given Japan's capacity for dealing with major catastrophes, most non-governmental organizations are focusing on getting to especially remote areas or on providing specialist help to the elderly or young children.

QUITE DIFFERENT

Francis Markus, a spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said aid efforts in Japan would be quite different from those after the 2004 tsunami.

"There will be useful and significant amounts of financial support from outside, but there isn't likely to be the same kind of set-up as after the tsunami when many organizations set up operations in a more or less autonomous way in those countries," he said.

"The message we are hearing (from Japanese authorities) is: This is a very big task and there are ways in which you can help us."

Asked if the crisis over radiation leaks from a damaged nuclear plant was diverting attention from aid, Markus said: "Obviously the nuclear crisis has been a complicating factor in the human situation, but I wouldn't say the government has been distracted."

U.S. forces, many of them based in Japan, have mounted the biggest of the foreign aid efforts. A total of 110 tonnes of relief goods have been taken by helicopter to distribution points, a U.S. Navy statement said.

But the statement added: "Helicopter crews reported that three sites visited yesterday (Saturday) required no assistance -- a positive sign that ground-based relief efforts are starting to meet the needs of displaced persons.

"They also report an increased presence of Japan Ground Self Defense Force and medium to heavy equipment at such sites."

In places like Kamaishi, many people were finding things on their own. A Buddhist temple offers drinking water and rice, a fish market has clothes and there is a Japanese Red Cross distribution center just behind the bank.

For many in the town, their minds were fixed on salvaging what they could from devastated homes and restoring some semblance of normality.

"There is no electricity and water, but asked which we want more, I'd say water. We want to clean up our house, recover what's left," said Kimio Arai, 66, a truck driver in the town of Ofunato, to the south along the coast.

His mother's house in the town was still standing, but the ground floor was completely submerged and all their belongings -- tatami mats, dishes, chairs -- were brought out into the yard.

Asked if he wanted more help from abroad, Arai said: "What could they do?"

"Where would they take all of this stuff?" he said, pointing to what used to be a quiet stretch of homes and houses now a pile of overturned trucks and cars, twisted metal, wood pieces from houses and logs washed up from the shore. ($1 = 80.610 Japanese Yen)

(Additional reporting by Kazunori Takada in TOKYO; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)