In the hours following the March 11 earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunami, Web and social media sites were inundated with messages of support and hope for Japan's citizens. And although Philanthropy Today has reported that donations to Japan are coming more slowly than they have after other recent disasters, like the 2010 Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, proceeds from a variety of products created in the name of Japanese disaster relief have contributed to the $161 million donated by Americans as of March 25.
From well-known designers including Tory Birch and Anna Sui, to thousands of lesser-known artists at Web sites like cafepress.com, New Yorkers are creating products and donating portions of the profits to Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief.
For ceramic artist Ayumi Horie, the day after the Japanese earthquake was the day she started plotting a creative way to raise money for Japan. On the phone from her Hudson Valley studio, Horie sounded sleep-deprived after working 18-20 hours a days int he days following the quake to organize an online auction called Handmade for Japan. Horie enlisted her friends Ai Kanazawa Cheung and Kathryn Pombriant Manzella, plus a team of 15 volunteers in New York and San Diego to recruit artists and maintain a social media presence with a goal of raising $25,000.
The auction included ceramic art, photographs and even oragami cranes folded by students in Jackson Heights, Queens. It turned into a three-day affair lasting from March 24 to March 27 that raised more than $75,000. One hundred percent of the proceeds went to Japanese aid via GlobalGiving, a Web site that works with grassroots organizations in disaster-stricken regions.
Horie said that while online auctions are often used by people seeking a bargain, that was not the case in this situation. "People’s selflessness actually came through in this case, which was really heartening," she said. Though the auction is over, Horie said she may partner with a Japanese organization to continue fundraising efforts -- after she and her fellow fundraisers get some sleep.
New York's fashion community is also seeking to raise funds for Japan. At a sample sale at the Bowery Hotel scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, April 2 and 3, New Yorkers will be able to buy clothes by Theory, Marc Jacobs and Alex Wang in the name of Japanese aid. The $5 admission fee is a donation, as are all of the proceeds from sales of clothing from more than 60 New York-based fashion designers.
But Rob Walker, author of "Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are," is somewhat skeptical. In a recent article for Slate, Walker referred to what he calls the "propaganda of concern."
"It starts to feel a little like this tragedy is nothing more than the latest trend that everyone wants to get in on," he wrote. Walker worries that the ease of donating through texts and online purchases speed up what he calls the "concern cycle," where people donate and quickly move on to the next thing trending in the social media universe. "I think it’s ultimately helpful that it focuses people’s attention on it," he said of the relief efforts. "I hope that there is some way to sustain the attention."
Though Walker questioned what purpose a sleek graphic design poster or tote bag may serve in a year or two, he said he has tremendous respect for the creative thinkers raising funds for Japan. Like many Internet commenters involved in Handmade for Japan's auction, Walker hopes that the cause doesn't simply slip away. Walker proposed a new model: "If you get your poster when life is normal again in Japan," he said, it might be more significant.