U.S. Comedians 'Stand Up' For Japanese Victims

As Japan struggles to come to terms with the devastating earthquake and tsunami which stuck its northeastern region last week, a global emergency relief response is picking up. Stand-up comedians in Los Angeles joined the effort by hosting a benefit for victims. One of the performers at the "Stand Up for Japan" event was Japanese-American comedian, Paul Ogata. Ogata has relatives in Fukushima, where a nuclear power plant is in danger of a full reactor meltdown. Host Michel Martin speaks with the comic about the emergency and its affect on his family.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

On the program today, we go around the world to get updates from Haiti, where another former dictator says he's heading back to the country in advance of Sunday's runoff elections; and to North Africa, where the ongoing unrest is taking a dramatic turn.

But first to Japan, where the official death toll has risen to more than 3,300 people following last week's devastating earthquake and tsunami off Japan's northeastern coast. That number is expected to rise in the days ahead. And in the meantime, survivors need everything: food, water and shelter. In a few minutes we'll hear about what the international community, especially the Red Cross, is doing to help.

And the nuclear crisis continues. Authorities have told residents within an 18-mile radius of the quake-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant to stay indoors. We turn now to someone with family ties near the power plant. His name is Paul Ogata. He's a Japanese-American comedian born and raised in Hawaii, but he lives in Los Angeles now and he's with us from NPR West. Paul Ogata, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. PAUL OGATA (Comedian): It's good to be here.

MARTIN: Have you been able to reach family in the Fukushima region, and how are they?

Mr. OGATA: They're doing OK. There's one cousin we haven't heard from yet, but mostly everyone else is - they're safe right now.

MARTIN: Obviously this is a tragedy for the world, but for people who have family and ties to the region, it obviously hits home particularly hard. May I ask how you are doing and reacting to all this?

Mr. OGATA: Well, it's been a rough several days since the tsunami and the earthquake happened. It's, you know, personally I think I've lost some weight just stressing about what's going on in the world. But I have faith that, you know, mankind is better than this and we will find a way to help all of our friends out no matter where they are.

MARTIN: Now, we mentioned before that you're a comedian and you are also part of a benefit last night at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles called Stand Up for Japan. The first thing I wanted to ask, because obviously I want to know how things went, but I'm wondering if - you know, Japan is an affluent country, it's the third largest economy in the world and obviously this is a devastating tragedy of tremendous proportions. But has it been hard to make the case that the international community or people outside Japan need to actually help?

Mr. OGATA: I don't think it's been difficult at all. All you have to do is look at the newspaper, turn on the TV, pop on the Internet to see images of pure and total destruction and the lives that have been changed and erased, and it's really a no-brainer to get off your couch and help out in whatever way you can.

MARTIN: Was it hard to think about what to joke about at a time like this?

Mr. OGATA: Well, yes and no. As comedians, that's what we do. We poke at the balloon to deflate it. So you do have to call out the 800-pound gorilla in the room and say that, yes, we're all here for the reason of helping Japan out with their tragedy right now. And then you move on. And I think the show went rather well last night. It was a very fun night.

MARTIN: What was your best moment? What was your best joke, if I can ask you that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OGATA: You know, as a Japanese-American it's - you grow up very emotionless, and so it was interesting to see how the Japanese public reacted, cuing up, lining up patiently, politely in lines, you know, waiting for food and water. And that's just - it's in their culture. Whereas here in L.A., this city burns when the basketball team wins. You know, that's the kind of difference we have culturally.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK, well, that's a good one. That's a good one. But, you know, to that point, I did want to ask, you know, a trauma of this magnitude, in the United States, you know, many people are still dealing with the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, you know, years before, and the ramifications of that are still being felt. And I wonder - forgive me, I know you're not an expert in this area, but what effect do you think that this will have on people, the generations to come? Do you have any thoughts about that?

Mr. OGATA: The effect on the public in Japan?

MARTIN: Yes, exactly.

Mr. OGATA: Well, they're very resilient in Japan. You know, obviously they're the only country that's been hit with nuclear weapons. They bootstrap themselves up and built their country up to a financial power. And I think it's going to take a long time to recover from this, but if there's anybody that can do it, it's certainly the Japanese.

MARTIN: What else have you got planned in support of the folks there?

Mr. OGATA: Well, obviously, you know, we'll be making donations continuously and trying to get friends and neighbors and everyone else to make donations as well. There's also talks of other shows to be put on to raise money, and I'd love to be involved in those as well.

MARTIN: Comedian Paul Ogata has family living in Fukushima. He performed last night at the Stand Up for Japan benefit at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, and he was nice enough to join us from our studios at NPR West. Paul Ogata, thanks so much, and our very best wishes to you and to your family. And to all those who are affected by this.

Mr. OGATA: Thanks.

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