What Local Recovery Looks Like After Japan’s Most Powerful Earthquake + Tsunami

Ten years after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated Japan, GlobalGiving’s former Chief Program Officer reflects on the locally led, long-term approach to recovery in the Tohoku region.


When the GlobalGiving team woke up on March 11, 2011, the world had changed. Overnight, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the northeastern coast of Japan near Tohoku, triggering a tsunami that destroyed towns along hundreds of miles of coastline and causing a number of nuclear meltdowns. An estimated 20,000 people lost their lives, and close to half a million were forced to evacuate their homes. GlobalGiving had already responded to several disasters around the world, finding and funding local partners in South Asia after the 2004 tsunami and in Haiti after the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake. The team was ready to respond to one of the largest natural disasters that Japan—and the world—had ever seen.

GlobalGiving’s goal has always been to find excellent local organizations that know the needs of their communities and to give them quick, flexible funding that will allow them to make the best decisions for recovery. We had been doing this work since 2004 and had networks in more than 170 countries, but Japan’s unique disaster situation and the nature of the nonprofit sector in the country presented challenges that we hadn’t faced in disaster response before.

Japan was a country that helped others rebuild after disasters.

Although it had a sophisticated international relief sector, its local domestic nonprofit field was quite nascent. Local nonprofits were unfamiliar with asking for foreign assistance, and there was little history of individuals giving to Japanese causes, either internationally or domestically.

But we found that the principles we had held dear from the very beginning at GlobalGiving—trusting local partners who know their communities and supporting them to do what they thought was best—worked just as well in Japan as it had in Haiti and South Asia. And more than that, people around the world wanted to support local efforts to rebuild.

From day one, we had several goals: to find effective, trusted Japanese organizations that knew the needs of the affected communities and could make smart decisions, and to support their work with funding that was flexible and easy to apply for. We also hoped to boost long-term efforts to reestablish livelihoods and invest in the Japanese nonprofit sector as a whole.

The GlobalGiving community rose to the challenge. By tapping into our networks, collaborating across international time zones (which often meant waking up for 3 a.m. Skype calls), and working compassionately with our new nonprofit partners who were themselves traumatized by the disaster, we were able to fund local organizations that transformed the rebuilding process in Tohoku.

And people from around the world came together to support survivors in Japan.

Approximately 50,000 people and companies from 112 countries made contributions to our Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund—one of the biggest outpourings of generosity that GlobalGiving has seen in its nearly two decades of international disaster response leadership. The very first donor came through a link on Twitter. A group of amazing artisans came together to create Handmade For Japan and sold their treasures to raise more than $100,000. Companies as diverse as Gap Inc. (and its brands, Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, and Athleta), Dell, Capital One, and Christie’s auction house rallied to support the effort via GlobalGiving.

The generosity allowed us to support local fishing communities with supplies so that people like Makoto Hatakeyama could return to their livelihoods. It helped the Friends of El Sistema Japan provide psychosocial support through music to children in nuclear-affected areas, and it allowed On the Road to build a community center and hotel in Ishinomaki for volunteers and community members to come together.

And the GlobalGiving team also strove to have authentic conversations about what the organizations really needed to be sustainable and to meet the needs they identified. The team brought on staff who were native Japanese speakers to create materials and host webinars to support local partners for long-term sustainability.

The lessons of this disaster continue to inform how GlobalGiving’s Disaster Response Team approaches each organization and community it works with. The core principles stay the same: supporting local communities, lowering the barriers for locally led nonprofits to get funding, not tying up organizations’ time with unnecessary bureaucratic work, and above all, trusting that the organizations know what’s best in their own community and giving them the freedom to make those smart decisions.

Fueled by the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund and a commitment to the long-term recovery and strengthening of their communities, organizations like OISCA International have been reviving the land and livelihoods that were destroyed in 2011. Ten years later, their efforts continue.

As I reflect on how the disaster impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands in Japan a decade ago and the successes in recovery since, I am proud of the support the GlobalGiving community provided—rooted in compassion, respect, and trust in the ability of local communities to lead their own rebuilding.

Support locally led projects that continue to fuel Japan’s earthquake and tsunami recovery. Donations up to $50 will be matched at 50% during the Little by Little Campaign March 8-12, 2021.*


*Terms and Conditions apply.

Featured Photo: School of Fun for Children in Fukushima by Academy Camp

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