How Can We Help Japan?

The Japan disaster is personal. If you read the previous post you know that my son, in-laws and friends live in Japan.

But it’s personal for other reasons. I’ll always feel indebted to Japan. The people of Japan forever changed the fortunes of an ignorant, immature 19-year kid from the North side of Chicago (um, that would be me 34 years ago). And my Japanese hosts did it with a patience that I didn’t at all deserve. They helped and nurtured me from adolescence to adulthood, no small feat as I was a royal pain in the arse. For this reason alone, these are my people!

And right now I feel helpless because I can’t help them. Can you tell it’s eating at me?

So it’s time to shift gears and do something; if not for the wonderful Japanese folks who hosted and put up with me for over ten years–then for my own sanity.

In this sense my motives are truly selfish. I am choosing to take action for my own peace of mind; unfortunately I haven’t yet figured out what action that might be. And this brings us to the point of today’s post: to solicit your ideas.

But before going there, let’s talk a little story first.

What Do I Do For a Living?

Just got back from a gig on the mainland. Did four seminars in two and a half days, that’s three half days plus one full day. (This doesn’t count the thirty-plus hours spent making my round-trip trek.) The entire trip took four days. As you might guess, I’m pooped as I type this.

So what’s my gig? Some folks call me an “intercultural trainer”, but my work is much more encompassing, and rarely do I “train” in the classical sense. “Educator” fits much better, as my sessions are designed to expand minds–to offer clients a deeper perspective by helping them view the world through the cultural lens of their counterparts.

On my business card my title is “Consultant”. The title doesn’t quite capture what I do either. People consult with me but I avoid giving clients answers. The deal is that I help them define the problem, then they come up with their own answers.

My wife calls me a “cross-cultural marriage counselor”, and that’s about as good a description as I’ve heard. I’m tempted to put the title on my business card.

My goal in every seminar I administer is not to tell people what to do or how to act. Instead I focus on helping them understand the current situation from a perspective they never before considered: through the eyes of coworkers (or customers) on the other side of the cultural fence. Based on this new perspective, I challenge them to reflect and decide for themselves the appropriate way to adjust.

I’ve been using this approach most of my career. And I’ve found over the years that once people get a glimpse of themselves through the lens of another culture, most know exactly what to do and how to adjust. (And yes I offer guidance when asked for it, but rarely do I lay down hard-and-fast rules–more on this in a future post.)

An Emotional Gig

One of my seminars on this recent trip was open to the public (as opposed to working privately with clients “in-house”). Participants were Japanese expatriate managers from various Japanese-owned companies around the Midwest. This particular seminar was geared toward helping them better understand the cultural values, motivations and behavior of their American counterparts, and challenging them to reflect on better ways to communicate and cooperate.

If we stick with my wife’s “cross-cultural marriage counselor” metaphor, then in this session only one “spouse” was present. (I actually do joint sessions that bring Japanese and Americans together, but this type of session is only practical when done internally at a single company.)

As far as my teaching style, most folks would say my seminars have a talk-story flavor (to use the local Hawaii vernacular). Telling stories is the best way I know of to engage and connect with an audience.

My stories always have a moral, but I try to keep the tone light. And when I’m “on my game” I’ve even been accused of being funny. As amazing as it sounds, I have a knack for making a roomful of anal, poker-faced Japanese engineers crack up, humor that only a factory-rat would appreciate. (I’m an ex-factory-rat.) My goal is to deliver a high energy seminar that’s enlightening and fun.

A Dilemma

And therein lies the dilemma I faced: how to reconcile the somber reality of Japan’s current crisis, with my happy-go-lucky, lighthearted teaching style.

Contemplating how best to approach the gig, I didn’t catch a wink of sleep on my red-eye flight from Honolulu to my Midwest destination. (It didn’t help that a baby a couple seats away was screaming most of the flight.) The more I thought about Japan’s current situation, the sadder and more emotional I got.

After some reflection I decided that the best approach was to take time at the beginning of the seminar to express my heartfelt regrets, sorrow for what happened, then let the chips fall wherever. I figured if there ever was a situation to follow my heart, this was it.

And it turned out to be the right decision, although for the first time in my life I almost broke down in front of an audience. (And it’s really hard to cry when you’re speaking Japanese, at least for me.) My stoic participants tried their best to keep a stiff upper lip, but pain was written all over their faces. The heaviness in the room was, as they say, palpable.

I managed to bumble my way through the opening without choking up too much. It was far from a perfect delivery, but after I was done I felt at peace. And it put me in a zone: the rest of the seminar flowed. We even shared a few laughs. We connected, and it felt good.

In fact it felt so good, that doing nothing is no longer an option for me. I need to get as busy as I can helping Japan. Here’s what I’ve got lined up so far:

We will donate money, either through Japan America Society Hawaii (JASH), or through our local charter school. Japan Red Cross is also a safe option. Other honorable organizations are out there, just be careful not to get scammed. (Please do your due diligence.)

I’m happy to say that Steve Hirakami, the Principal of Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science (HAAS) here in Pahoa, approached us to ask if my wife and I would help HAAS spearhead a fund-raiser for Japan. It’s worth mentioning that my wife teaches Japanese language at HAAS, so Steve’s idea is to have students in her class take the lead. Of course we jumped at the opportunity. We’ll be meeting with Steve this week to discuss the details. We’ll keep you posted on developments.

We’ve also reached out to Japan America Society Hawaii, and even to one of our clients in Honolulu, a company that is planning a fund-raiser in the near future. Still don’t know if there’s a place for us to make a contribution, but we offered to volunteer our time in any way that might help the cause. Once again, more on this as we figure out how we might contribute.

That’s all we’ve got so far. My inclination is to find a way to reach out to other businesses here on the Big Island, or anywhere in the islands for that matter. I want to get the word out here in Hawaii that helping Japan is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also in Hawaii’s best interest to do so.

The Japan-Hawaii Connection

Japan is a beloved member of Hawaii’s ohana, with deep cultural connecting points that are so obvious they’re easy to miss.

The most obvious connecting point is the local Japanese-American population in Hawaii, now in their 4th generation. Some of the old timers are still around; they speak a style of Japanese from another era, often mixed with English and pidgin. Many Japanese customs (like removing your shoes before entering a home) have taken root with all ethnicities in Hawaii. And most local folks love Japanese cuisine.

Just as significant as the Japan-immigrant connection, are some striking similarities between Japan and local Hawaiian culture. It’s why I believe that the popularity of Hawaiiana continues to boom in Japan today; it’s why over 400,000 Japanese are studying Hula today.

Indeed Japan and Hawaii share much of the same cultural DNA. For this reason, Japanese “get” the concept of climbing the mountain, picking a flower for their lei, and thanking the gods for the beautiful gift. The Japanese “get” the idea of paying homage to Pele through dance (as demonstrated through traditional Kahiko Hula). They “get” the concept of honoring nature.

Both cultures were incubated on a chain of volcanic islands. Earthquakes, tsunamis and eruptions are a way of life stretching back to the arrival of their inhabitants. No surprise both cultures respect and accept the awe-inspiring power of nature, and share a desire to live in harmony with it.

Both cultures pay homage to its ancestors.

Interestingly both spiritual traditions feature a powerful female deity who gave birth to their islands. (“Amaterasu Omikami, meet Pele!”)

Both spiritual traditions are polytheistic, both animate the phenomenal world with spirits; both believe that man is a part of nature. (Japanese didn’t even have a word for nature until relatively recent times.)

Both cultures are resourceful due to, ironically, lack of resources. Logically both traditions were adept at conserving resources–not because it was fashionable, but for their very survival. It’s tough living sustainably on a resource-scarce island.

The aforementioned outlook on the awe-inspiring power of nature would seem to contradict the intense love both cultures also feel toward nature. And yet somehow, some way that’s how it worked out. Japanese nature-inspired aestheticism is world-renowned. Hawaiians honor nature through music and dance (and yes, Hawaiian aesthetics are pleasant to the eye as well.)

Tying all this together, the Japanese love Hawaii and Hawaii loves Japan. Hawaii’s close cultural ties with Japan make them cultural cousins, ohana. Aloha means embracing friends and family in good times and bad. This is Hawaii’s chance to step forward and embrace an old friend. It will need to be a long embrace.

Which Brings Me to My Point…

I’m looking for ideas. I want to figure out how I might apply my skills (as wretched as they may be) to raise awareness and, ideally, inspire folks to give or do whatever they can to help.

One way is by educating people–specifically here in Hawaii–on how important Japan is to us, and why we need to link arms and pitch in.

I’m particularly interested in hearing long-term ideas on how we might offer continuous support, help and goodwill until Japan gets back on its feet, because a one-shot deal won’t cut it over the long-haul.

Final Thoughts

The scale of this disaster is beyond human comprehension. There seems to be a perception floating around that Japan is such a highly developed and economically rich nation, that they don’t need our help. It’s not at all true but that’s the perception and that’s all that matters–which means we have to find a way to change the perception.

Here’s the reality: recovery will take years in Japan. The human suffering happening right now in Northern Japan is as real as the suffering experienced by the poor folks in Haiti and New Zealand. Japan clearly had an advantage in terms of its infrastructure, development and warning systems. But the scale of the disaster swept away most of those advantages like the monster tsunami that wiped out Sendai. Now the survivors hurt. And when people hurt, we all hurt equally.

The human suffering will be further compounded by the economic impact in lost productivity while Japan struggles to recover. The cost to rebuild will be astronomical and that doesn’t even take into consideration the after-effects of the nuclear crisis. To further complicate matters, where will Japan’s electricity come from to drive their economic recovery?

Even if you’re not the altruistic type, there’s a practical reason to help: we live in a connected, interdependent world. It’s in the world’s best interest to continue enjoying the talents and strengths of a vibrant, economically healthy Japan. By extension, it’s in the world’s best interest to jump in and roll up our sleeves.

Please keep your thoughts with the folks suffering in Northern Japan. They need all the help and support they can get. Thanks in advance for your willingness to help the cause. Feel free to comment here or email me at

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

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