* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
* Daniel Bases is a Reuters correspondent based in New York *
Television images of a tsunami wave sweeping across rice fields in Japan's Tohoku region a year ago shook the normal early morning calm for Motoatsu Sakurai, spurring the New York Japan Society (NYJS) he leads to launch a relief fund that overnight transformed the cultural institution into an ad-hoc relief aid agency.
Housed just a stone's throw from the United Nations, the NYJS's efforts over a 105 year history focus on deepening cultural ties between Japan and the United States, making it more of a destination on the diplomatic and business cocktail circuit rather than one frequented by non-governmental relief organisations seeking funding.
"Rather than look for a taxi during the morning rush hour, I ran," said Sakurai, 67, explaining he normally walks the roughly two miles to the iconic Japan House.
The former Mitsubishi Corp. executive, who served as ambassador and consul general of Japan in New York, met with his senior staff in his unassuming office, unsure at first how the cultural institution should help.
They quickly hatched a plan to set up an online donation program that within 48 hours of the earthquake and tsunami, raised over $350,000, Sakurai said.
The relief fund has collected $12.5 million from more than 23,000 people located in all 50 U.S. states as well as 55 countries. Corporate donations to the relief effort have been minimal, coming primarily from matching gift programs many companies offer their employees, Sakurai said.
Normally the organisation serves the local New York area raising money from corporations by hosting lectures and panel discussions frequented by business titans, artisans, and the occasional celebrity.
"The Japan society is a fund receiving institution for its own purposes. So (giving aid) is not, to some extent, a major line of business," Sakurai said.
The costs to raise and distribute those funds, about $350,000 so far, is being borne by the society, allowing 100 percent of the donations to go to local relief efforts focused on mental health, child welfare and economic revitalization.
The NYJS has raised funds in the past for Japan disasters such as the 1923 Tokyo earthquake. It collected about $70,000 for the 1995 Kobe earthquake relief efforts.
Sakurai said the relief fund is being kept separate from existing operations. However, the worst earthquake to hit Japan in 140 years will influence the society's local programs for years to come.
Flush with donations, the NYJS used their connections to Japanese and American NGO's built up through its U.S.-Japan Innovators Network programs, started a few years prior for its centenary.
In the past, these costly programs were meant to address global issues such as the environment or disaster relief. Their aim was to develop best practices and ideas for tackling problems.
"Japan Society was in financial difficulty since the Lehman shock. When I came in 3 years ago we had 25 percent deficits. So we did a lot of cost savings. By the end of the fiscal year in June (2011), we achieved break-even cash flow," he said, adding that he expects the same in 2012.
"Personally I wanted to scrap these projects because it didn't create any money. I completely changed my mind. This was the most important areas we ought to develop. I am from a business side, so I was a little bit short-sighted," he said.
So far the NYJS has spent $5.6 million on 17 projects through 13 organisations.
One project involves setting up small mental health clinics in one of the hardest hit areas, the Fukushima prefecture. Japan currently doesn't have such facilities independent of large hospitals, Sakurai said, citing an example of how the disaster can be a way to change the status quo in Japan.
Through NYJS connections the "Kokoro no Care project," headed by Dr. Shinichi Niwa at the Fukushima Prefectural University Medical Center, is working with a variety of medical institutions and a healthcare communications company to provide up to date educational materials to the medical community.
Niwa's idea, Sakurai said, is a model that is less costly than building up hospitals, and can be done quicker. The first clinic, Kokoro no Care Center and Mental Health Clinic Nagomi, opened in Soma on Jan. 10.
Donations have dropped off sharply and there is no set time frame to spend the remainder of cash. Whether it is one year or five, the focus is on developing local entrepreneurs with long-term sustainable projects "because it is very very evident in Japan this recovery process will continue for more than 10 years," Sakurai said.