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A tsunami of giving


In the wake of the recent disaster in Japan, associate professor Masato Yamamoto has taken small steps to help where he can.

By Adam Overland

Masato Yamamoto 165
Masato Yamamoto

March 29, 2011

Masato Yamamoto was a young doctor in Japan when, 16 years ago, one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded in that country struck with an epicenter just 20 miles from his home in Kobe. The Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 took the lives of more than 6,000 people—with well over half the causalities in his hometown.

"My house was not livable for two to three months…my situation was not so bad," he says. One week after the quake, Yamamoto ventured the 20 miles to the epicenter. "I went as a volunteer doctor, and the situation there was so devastating…after seeing that I said 'next time I see those things I need to do something. I felt I needed to do something.'"

The humility Yamamoto's comments hint at—that living without a home for two or three months "is not so bad," and that next time he felt he needed to do something, as though volunteering his services wasn't enough—says much about the man. In the wake of the recent disaster, he's taken small steps to help where he can.

Had the March 11 disaster not occurred, Yamamoto would have shortly thereafter been at one of the biggest academic conferences in Japan—the Japanese society of Internal Medicine. But the building where the conference was to be held is now in part being used as a temporary evacuation site, he says.

Yamamoto's work as associate professor and co-director of the Division of Basic and Translational Research in the Department of Surgery at the Masonic Cancer Center is all about doing something for people. His gene therapy group has most recently redesigned the virus that causes the common cold to become a killer of pancreatic cancer cells. The technique will soon go to human-trial testing, and if successful, might eventually save thousands of lives each year.

More than 11,000 lives have been confirmed lost so far and about 17,000 are still missing in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Yamamoto laments that he can do little while here, but he's taking the steps that he can with his friends and colleagues at the U. Since just after the quake, Yamamoto has been sending emails and making calls to enlist their help in aiding survivors in any way they can.

Scott McIvor 165Scott McIvorScott McIvor, a professor and director of the Gene Therapy Program at the Institute of Human Genetics, has signed on in the effort. "I've been a colleague of Masato's for a long time. We have a similar research interests, and so we've been friends since right when he arrived at the U (in 2006)," says McIvor. What's more, McIvor's wife is Japanese and her parents and younger sister still live in Sendai—the city where a massive tsunami reached the tops of trees. Video of Sendai has been shown repeatedly on YouTube and news channels in the days since.

"We had a pretty tense couple of days. We hadn't heard anything, but finally…my wife was able to contact a sister in Tokyo who had contact with their parents, nephew, and younger sister," says McIvor. "Everyone's okay, but life is pretty rough there right now."

McIvor was one of the first to be contacted by Yamamoto. Masato has since set up a donation box in the Academic Health Center (Discovery Room 11-187) and circulated letters internally at the U. "I'm trying to do my best here, but I can't do much because I'm out of the country now," says Yamamoto.

There are several different ways to make a donation to the relief fund for the earthquake victims, and Yamamoto has created an online guide for those who'd like to help. He did so in part to clarify that donations to the Japanese Red Cross, though not yet tax deductible*, stay in Japan. "In the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the American Red Cross couldn't send more than half the donations to Haiti, and that money went into the general fund," he says. "[It was] a sticking point for me—not all the money was sent to Haiti. For this situation, I want all the money I gather or donate within Japan. I want to focus on sending all the money to Japan," he says.


*Donations to the Japanese Red Cross are not yet tax deductible, but it is anticipated that Congress will pass a bill, as in the case of the Haiti earthquake, to recognize donation to a Japanese charity.