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Japan quake and tsunami propel charity focused on orphan care

Japan’s natural disaster in March was only hours old when the Tokyo-based charity got on the line to the old man.

He’d just arrived in Uganda, an exhausting trip for a 77-year-old whose knees are so weak he sometimes needs a wheelchair to get around.

“Come back,” the charity implored its founder. “We need you.”

Two days later, Yoshiomi Tamai not only returned to Japan, but he headed straight for this provincial city 190 miles north of Tokyo. The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami was rising into the thousands. Parents along the nation’s northeast coast had been swept away by the surging water, leaving behind confused and vulnerable orphans.

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After almost 45 years of aiding grieving children, the grandfatherly figure excels at responding to a crisis. Since he began helping children left parentless from Japanese traffic fatalities in 1967, his Ashinaga charity has supported more than 80,000 children worldwide who have lost one or both parents.

These include young ones left behind after New York’s 2001 terrorist attack; Hurricane Katrina; earthquakes in Iran, Turkey and Kobe, Japan; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and famine and AIDS in Africa.

Ashinaga’s strength lies in its speed. While Japanese government officials debated a belabored response that would take weeks to deliver, the charity was in motion within hours, providing food, clothing and emotional aid.

The group later published a study showing the depth of the social damage, including the fact that, because they had remained in the disaster area, barely a third of guardians for tsunami orphans had jobs to support their young charges. The government is using the study in its own long-term assessment of how to help tsunami orphans.

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In Japan, many orphans are often cast into a life of hardship, raised by distant relatives who might as well be strangers. Tamai knows that such trauma scars the survivors. Like the teenage boy who watched his father drown and developed an extreme fear of the water. Or the grade-school girl forced to leave her trapped and mortally injured mother behind to save her own life.

“Even now I can’t stop crying when I remember,” she later wrote to workers at Ashinaga. “At the end, when I was leaving, I said to my mother ‘Thank you’ and ‘I love you’ again and again. Then I swam away.”

Ashinaga’s staff includes nearly two dozen older orphans who work as counselors and case workers. Tamai’s theory: Orphans can best grasp the plight of other orphans.

“We’ve all received his help and have returned to pay it forward,” said Yukichi Okazaki, the group’s general director.

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The name of Tamai’s charity, Ashinaga, is the Japanese translation of “Daddy-Long-Legs,” the title of the 1912 American novel by Jean Webster in which an orphaned girl is helped by a tall, mysterious stranger she sees only once.

True to the novel’s spirit, the group relies on anonymous benefactors. Although it does not help place parentless children in homes, it assists with both their immediate and long-term needs.

Ashinaga runs short-term counseling centers known as Rainbow Houses, which feature a rubber-walled “volcano room,” where orphans can hit punching bags to vent frustrations, and a “quiet room” to discuss their fears. It also operates an annual summer camp where orphans from around the world learn that being parentless is a problem without national borders.

For longer-term help, the group each year offers $22 million in no-interest loans for scholarships. More than 21,000 orphans have received vocational school and college degrees with Ashinaga’s assistance.

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Tamai, who lost his wife, Yumi, to cancer in 1989 and has no children, has spent most of his life listening to orphans. In 1966, soon after the death of his mother in a car crash, Tamai, then 32, took it upon himself to launch a crusade to change Japanese laws on compensating children whose parents had died in traffic accidents.

One of the first children who touched Tamai deeply was a 10-year-old boy who wrote a poem to his dead father. Sponsored by Tamai, the child recited the poem on live TV:

Please hold me one more time,

Play with me once more, my father,

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Tell me, please, father, why you left us behind.

The boy then broke into tears, unable to go on. Tamai said. “And the rest of us, everyone in the studio that day, cried too.”

The TV program was instrumental in prodding the government to provide greater assistance for young orphans. But Tamai soon saw a need beyond Japan, and he started expanding his work to children worldwide.

The idea for the Rainbow House centers came after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Ashinaga encouraged orphans from that disaster to use art to describe their loss. One child painted what Tamai calls a black rainbow of pain, a work that inspired Tamai to open healing centers in Kobe, Tokyo and Uganda.

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“We’ve tried to take that black rainbow and make it brighter,” Tamai said.

But the disaster in March has been the group’s biggest challenge.

Tamai knew that a streamlined response was needed. Before leaving Uganda, he’d seen televised images of bereft children left without homes or even clothes.

Ashinaga quickly identified 1,800 orphans for cash assistance of $6,500 to $12,500 each, not a loan for some faraway college education, but immediate monetary help that would not have to be repaid.

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After vetting applications, the group gives the money to the children’s caretakers, who supervise the spending of the donation.

“Children know what they want right now, not tomorrow,” Tamai said. “They’ve had their lives erased, so we’re trying to give them an immediate lift to get some of it back.”

Now Tamai wants to build a permanent Rainbow House center in Sendai. This summer, Tamai led a group of orphans to tell their stories as a way to attract donations for the project. The group visited New York, Paris and China, and has plans to travel to Los Angeles and other cities early next year to help raise $20 million still needed for construction.

These days, in the Sendai office that Ashinaga opened a day after the March disaster, the telephone still rings constantly.

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One recent caller, a childless single woman in her 40s who had taken custody of a 12-year-old nephew, needed parenting advice: The boy, orphaned in the tsunami, still cried at night. What should she do?

Then there was the mother of the boy who had witnessed his father’s drowning. The woman called to say her 17-year-old had overcome his fear of water and used his assistance money to train to become an emergency response diver; he wants to shield others from the fate of watching a parent die.

The old man smiles when he hears such stories.

john.glionna@latimes.com


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