Bringing People Together: Assessing the Impact of 3/11 on US-Japan Grassroots Exchange

Atsuko Geiger

In this report, JCIE’s Dr. Atsuko Geiger finds that the massive disaster that struck Japan on March 11, 2011 triggered a flurry of US-Japan grassroots exchanges that have had a surprisingly large impact on bilateral relations. While there have been some historical cases of exchanges being launched after other disasters, the burst of activity seen after 3/11 has been unprecedented in both scope and intensity, reflecting the depth of preexisting US-Japan grassroots ties and building a broader foundation for greater people-to-people exchanges between the two societies. 

Key Findings

• At least 151 US-Japan grassroots exchanges between 2011 and 2014 were inspired by 3/11, or operated with a thematic focus related to the disaster. Of these, 83 were new exchanges, and the rest represented a refocusing and reenergizing of existing programs.
• More than $52 million—a stunning amount—has been mobilized in Japan and the United States for nonprofit organizations to run these programs, with funds coming from government agencies, businesses, and individual donors.
• These exchanges have been playing a substantial role in building a stronger base of grassroots connections between different sectors of Japanese and US society and in improving perceptions of the relationship at the highest levels of national leadership.
• A key challenge now involves the sustainability of these programs after such a large, onetime influx of funding. While some organizations have tried to budget funding for the next several years, it is unclear how many of these new initiatives can be sustained.
• While the funding bubble has allowed many longstanding US-Japan organizations to carry out programs to help their communities while supporting the Tohoku area’s recovery, there needs to be more focus on strengthening the institutional infrastructure of US-Japan grassroots exchange so that experienced organizations dedicated to bilateral exchange can continue to play this role in the future.
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