Called home, and called to action

Brookline philanthropist rallies help for Japan

By Brittany Danielson
Globe Correspondent / July 28, 2011

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Barely a month after a massive earthquake ravaged Japan’s northeast coast, Atsuko Toko Fish was jolted awake in a hotel room in Miyagi, Japan, by an aftershock. From a 10th-story window, she watched the sun rise over a mountainous coastline strewn with shredded remnants of buildings, boats, trees, and cars, swept miles inland by the force of a tsunami.

Fish, a Japanese-born resident of Brookline, had traveled to the epicenter of the quake zone. Thousands of victims packed shelters, heavy mud and wet garbage covered homes and businesses, and the stench of mold and rotting fish permeated the air.

As she surveyed the devastation, Japanese and American volunteers, wearing surgical masks and gloves, methodically sifted through debris and disorder, attempting to salvage what they could.

“All these years,’’ she said, “I thought I understood philanthropy.’’

Fish, whose husband, Larry Fish, is a prominent banker and former chairman of Citizens Financial Group, has long played a leading role in New England’s charitable efforts. But the natural and nuclear disasters in Japan have become perhaps her most personal cause. Employing the quick thinking and singular vision that have marked her leadership on issues from health care to domestic violence, she has spearheaded relief efforts in Boston, helping to raise money, awareness, and hope.

Days after her homeland was devastated on March 11, she was on the phone with colleagues at the Boston Foundation and the Japan Society. She began making preparations for her trip to assess the needs of earthquake victims. And tapping her connections with Boston’s nonprofit community, Fish and her colleagues quickly established the Japan Disaster Relief Fund of Boston, which has raised more than $640,000.

The first donation: $100,000 from the Fish Family Foundation, which was established by Fish and her husband in 1999.

“She’s always had a passion for helping other people and also a plethora of ideas of how to help others,’’ said Fish’s daughter, Emily, who traveled with her to Japan. “I think had she not been able to immediately turn to action, it would have destroyed her.’’

Fish is a reluctant spokeswoman, uncomfortable with bringing attention to herself. In recent interviews, she insisted that the focus remain the victims in Japan and the efforts of so many others to help them. She thought back to young Americans she met in Tohoku, who traveled across the globe to volunteer in the backbreaking relief efforts.

“Regardless of how hard the work was, they were not expecting a reward,’’ she said. “When you give back, you get back much more than what you gave. It can change your life.’’

Fish has lived in Massachusetts since 1983, when she moved here with her husband, whom she had met on a blind date in Tokyo five years earlier.

She worked for Governor Michael Dukakis and served in volunteer positions under governors William Weld and Deval Patrick to build and strengthen economic and cultural ties with Japan.

But Fish has made her biggest mark through philanthropy. She was honored as a 2008 Woman of Justice by the publication Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly for her work with the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence, a nonprofit that provides housing, food, and other assistance to battered women in immigrant Asian communities.

In 2006, with Mary Lassen and Catherine Crone Coburn, Fish launched a program to empower Japanese women, bringing them to Boston for a month of leadership training.

Patricia Deyton, who sits on the board of the Japanese Women’s Leadership Initiative, based at Simmons College, said that Fish’s drive and knowledge were instrumental in building the program, now in its fifth year.

“She’s has a vision and can articulate that vision. She’s passionate. She’s tenacious in seeking partners and seeking resources,’’ Deyton said. “She’s a humble person with a strong sense of mission.’’

Born to a prominent family in Tokyo that traces its roots to Samurai times, Fish’s father was a diplomat who often discussed international topics at the dinner table. Fish grew to adopt her father’s global outlook.

This broader view helped her break new ground in the tradition-bound Japan of the 1970s. When high-powered careers for women were in short supply, Fish became the first female sports television producer in Japan.

Fish credits her determination and tenacity to lessons learned as an athlete. As a young woman in post-World War II Tokyo, Fish played competitive tennis, winning her first tournament at age 15.

“In tennis you have to depend on your own skill and strategy. You cannot depend on other people,’’ she said. “Sports taught me you have to stand up and be strong. If I didn’t learn that I might not have gone to Japan to see the disaster.’’

When Fish arrived in Japan’s hard-hit Tohoku region in April, reconstruction efforts were in their earliest stages. There was no reliable transportation, no indoor plumbing and, often, no beds. Aftershocks happened daily, and radiation leaked from the Fukushima nuclear plant, just 30 miles away.

Bedding down in sleeping bags, speaking with earthquake victims and local officials, they donned gloves and masks to help clear mud, garbage, and debris.

When they returned to Boston, Fish began a whirlwind of events to raise money and awareness about Japan’s dire needs. She helped organize artists, musicians, and restaurants for near-weekly fund-raising events. She appeared on television and radio programs to promote the cause.

At the Japan Society of Boston’s recent annual dinner, Fish urged a rapt audience of more than 200 to keep rebuilding efforts at the forefront: “Let’s not make Japan yesterday’s news.’’

So far, the Japan Relief Fund of Boston has distributed nearly $400,000 to help send doctors to the hardest-hit areas, support a variety of health services, distribute food and supplies, clean and sanitize homes, and rebuild an entire community.

But with more than 250 miles of decimated coastline, 25 million tons of debris to remove, and fishing, farming, and manufacturing industries all but wiped out, Japan’s will be a long recovery, counted in years.

Fish is still overcome by emotion when she thinks of the 80,000 Japanese living in shelters, but she believes in Japan’s recovery. Standing amid the tsunami-tossed wreckage in Tohoku, a memory flashed: Her city, Tokyo, burned to the ground in World War II.

Within 20 years, she worked hosting dignitaries at the 1964 Olympics in a new and modern Tokyo.

Fish insists she is no hero. But she wondered aloud if her helping to bring two nations together at this moment of crisis was somehow predestined.

At her Brookline home, Fish said, she lights incense and a candle at her butsudan, a Japanese Buddhist family shrine, and thinks of her mother.

“My mother always told me one day I would represent my country,’’ she said. “I’m doing that now. It’s funny. I never planned to do this. But maybe it’s in my genes.’’


Japanese relief efforts

Japanese relief efforts

See videos and photos taken by Emily Toko in Japan during the relief efforts.

Japanese Disaster Relief Fund of Boston

Funds raised to date: $642,000
Donors include:
Fish Family Foundation: $100,000
Douzu Restaurant of Boston: $10,000
Concord-Carlisle High School: $15,354
O Ya Restaurant of Boston: $6,361
EMD Serono Pharmaceuticals: $5,000
Recipients include:
Boston-Japan Medical Initiative: $30,000
All-Hands Volunteers, a Carlisle nonprofit: $50,000
Volunteer Architects’ Network: $50,000
Japanese/US Evidence-Based Mental Health Response Initiative: $50,000
Health and Development Service (HANDS): $48,750
Institute for Cultural Affairs-Japan: $30,000
MIT Japan 3/11 Initiative: $40,000
Habitat for Humanity Japan: $50,000
Sources: Boston Foundation, Japan Society of Boston.