Starting from Helplessness

On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 pm the Great East Japan Earthquake hit. I was a Japanese language teacher on maternity leave at that time. That day I had arranged to meet a colleague and it was the very first time I left my 10 month-old daughter with my mother. As soon as I got to Shinjuku, the earthquake struck. Glasses shattered everywhere in the café and the high-rise buildings nearby were shaking and bending at angles my eyes could not believe. I tried to contact my mother and husband right away, but the mobile phones did not work. I waited over an hour to use a public phone. It was dark by the time I was able to meet up with my husband. We walked home, and when we were finally able to see our daughter’s sleeping face it was nearly midnight. Reassured that our daughter was safe, I turned on the TV only to see horrifying images of what had happened in Tohoku. My heart ached for the people of Tohoku and the hardships they were facing that were beyond my imagination. Still frightened by aftershocks and the absolute force of nature, I slowly started to think about what I could do for the victims of the devastating disaster.

The next day, I called my students at the Japanese Language School.

“I don’t know what the media is saying,” one student told me.
“My parents back home are telling me to come right away but I don’t know what to do,” confided another.

Some of them were crying, and even the advanced-level students who had the ability to study at Japanese universities were at a loss about what to do. It made me realize how difficult it must be for foreigners to acquire the right information, and I could sense the building anxiety they all had.

Days passed and as we began to understand the extent of the damage I came across an article. It was about the mother of an 11-month old daughter in Miyagi who survived the tsunami by climbing onto the roof of a car and waiting in the snow for help, carrying her daughter with her. It brought tears to my eyes thinking how scared she must have been trying to protect a baby that was the same age as my own daughter. I wanted to go up to Tohoku and do something right away, but with my own nursing daughter I felt stuck and helpless.

The Birth of WaNavi Japan

In this moment of feeling absolute helplessness I met a foreign mother raising a 7-month-old daughter in Tokyo. She told me of the difficulties she faced trying to protect her daughter knowing only a little Japanese and how stressful it was with such little information and support being provided in English. She said it was sad to see her friends in the international community all go back to their home countries. What struck me most was when she told me that she had never received any earthquake preparedness training and that she didn’t know how to prepare for or react to an earthquake. I began to think that, although I couldn’t go all the way to Tohoku, I could do something to support international mothers like her.

Right away I contacted my friends who worked in various fields. They were all thinking they also wanted to do something to help Tohoku and by April we decided to conduct a workshop on earthquake preparedness. We did intensive research on how to prepare for and react to an earthquake. We also thought it was important for international residents to understand minimal earthquake-related Japanese, so we incorporated a survival Japanese lesson to the workshop content. A month later, we had all the contents ready.

On May 27th we held our very first charity earthquake preparedness workshop. All our participants wanted to do something for Tohoku in addition to donating money, so we had them write letters to the mothers in Tohoku. The money that was donated for the workshop was sent to Tohoku with these letters that we translated into Japanese.

“Thank you for changing a serious topic into an engaging learning experience “
“I was so relieved to be able to share my anxiety”
“I have more confidence now in living here in Japan”

The feedback from the participants planted a seed in all of us that we wanted to empower and support more international residents through our workshops.

A Growing Circle Sharing One Vision

As we conducted more workshops, the international mothers who participated in our workshops offered their expertise and Japanese mothers who had experience living overseas also offered their help. Very quickly we had more and more people from various backgrounds – language education, cross-cultural education, business, marketing, research, international cooperation, information technology, and law -who shared the same vision come together to realize our mission.

As we worked together, the border between the ones providing the service and the ones receiving the service became invisible. Our diverse and international team worked together to develop programs that really captured the true needs of the international community. We have now held our workshops at various international schools, corporations, universities, and embassies.

The common language at WaNavi Japan is English, but our nationalities are diverse. Although we are located here in Japan, it is a very international working environment. The process by which we create value through our differences requires extra communication, but we are enjoying every bit of it. We are currently working in the Tokyo metropolitan area, but we aspire to broaden our activities to other areas and to conduct them in other languages.

Many of our members have children. As we work closely with each other, we have come to realize that the balance of raising a child and working is a global challenge. For many of us, WaNavi Japan is a unique platform that allows us to put our expertise to use in creating high-quality products and services while also prioritizing family.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster, I lit a small light in the darkness. Seeing this small light, people with the same vision gathered and lit their own candles. Each member has her own story and is living wholeheartedly to make a better society. Together we envision a community in which our children enjoy and appreciate different cultures and backgrounds and live harmoniously. While each individual light may be small, we believe that by uniting with the light in others we will be able to make society brighter.

We look forward to sharing the light from your candle.

Motoko Kimura
Founder and Executive Director
WaNavi Japan