Apr 2, 2011
SALEM — Japan’s struggle to survive an earthquake, tsunami and radiation from damaged nuclear power plants has riveted the world over the past three weeks.
In Salem, more than 6,000 miles away, the crisis has been followed even more closely. Here, the connection to Japan is personal.
“We had 19 (Japanese) exchange students over the years,” said Joanne Scott, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salem. “We came to know their families. … We had adults staying at our house doing tea ceremonies in our home.”
More than 130 Salem families have hosted students and adults from Ota-ku, a borough of Tokyo, and Salem’s sister city, over the past few years. In return, nearly 250 local adults and students have traveled to Ota, many staying in Japanese homes.
Since the March 11 earthquake, Salem residents have sent emails, made cellphone calls or connected over the Internet. To them, the people of Japan are friends, almost family.
So it wasn’t surprising when the Salem-Ota Cultural Exchange, which organizes the trips and home stays, announced it was canceling this summer’s 20th anniversary trip.
“It’s not because of safety so much; it’s really out of respect,” said Peter Dolan, chairman of the Salem-Ota Cultural Exchange. Dolan has traveled to Japan more than 20 times and was even married there with the Ota mayor as his best man.
“How can we be on vacation,” he said, “when they’re really struggling?”
A few days ago, the group sent out more than 400 appeal letters to host families and residents who have traveled to Japan over the years asking for donations to a tsunami relief fund. Similar appeals have been mailed to city and school employees.
The money will go to Ota City Hall, which will use the funds locally or in areas of Japan harder hit by the disaster.
“Who knows better (what to do with the funds) than the folks who live there?” Dolan said.
In recognition of the sister-city relationship, a Salem restaurant is hosting an event next week. On Thursday, April 7, a Boston-area band, The Austin Torpedoes, is holding a reunion show and fundraiser at The Lyceum, 43 Church St. All proceeds from that event will go to Save the Children’s “Japan Earthquake Tsunami Children in Emergency Fund,” according to the band’s website.
Salem State University, which has 23 Japanese students, is also doing its part. Among many events, the college’s International Student Association will be selling T-shirts at its International Cultural Night on Friday, April 8.
The cultural exchange between Salem and Ota, which began in 1991, grew out of the long affiliation between the Peabody Essex Museum and the Ota Folk Museum. The PEM has an extensive collection of Japanese art and artifacts.
Eighteen adults from Salem had signed up for this summer’s anniversary trip, which has now been canceled. However, adults from Ota are still scheduled to come here in the fall.
Like many area residents, Dolan has been in almost daily contact with friends in Japan. Among others, he has exchanged emails and phone calls with Toshiko Aoiko, a close friend who worked on the original sister city pact.
“She was married here in Salem,” Dolan said.
Although residents of Ota were not in the path of the tsunami and are some distance from the affected nuclear power plants, life has still been a struggle. They are dealing with earthquake damage, transportation and power breakdowns, and fears about safe drinking water and airborne radiation.
“They’re obviously nervous,” Dolan said.
Back here in Salem, their friends are looking for ways to help.
“People have called me not only to check on folks, but to offer their homes if there’s (ever) a need to evacuate,” Dolan said. “They have had these students in their own homes, and they consider them part of their families.”
How to help
The Salem-Ota Cultural Exchange, a tax-exempt organization, has established a tsunami relief fund to help its sister city and the overall relief effort in Japan. Donations can be sent to The Salem-Ota Cultural Exchange at P.O. Box 8622, Salem, MA 01970.
For more information, write to email@example.com.