KALAMAZOO—Twitter messages requesting Japanese books to support Western Michigan University's new major in Japanese garnered thousands of donations, as well as dozens of heartwarming and heartrending letters.
Dr. Jeffrey Angles, WMU associate professor of world languages and literatures and director of the Soga Japan Center, was in Japan in early 2011 when he wrote a series of Twitter messages calling for the donations. Angles had been working with his colleagues at WMU to offer Japanese as an academic major. The major would be offered starting with the 2012 fall semester, but he was concerned there were too few Japanese-language holdings in the University's Waldo Library.
To Angles' surprise, his tweets went viral. Materials came pouring in by the boxful, before and after March 11, 2011, when Japan suffered the largest earthquake in recorded history.
Angles tweeted that even though Michigan had suffered from the economic downturn in the United States, interest in Japanese studies here had never been stronger. As a teacher, he hoped to expand access at WMU to Japanese-language books and other materials to inspire his students.
"The response was overwhelming," Angles said. "At the time I wrote the tweets, I only had about 80 followers so I expected only a few friends to send books. But within moments, my tweet was retweeted hundreds of times, and the number of people following me skyrocketed. The first box of books arrived at my Tokyo apartment less than eight hours after the first tweet!"
Within three days, Angles had received so many boxes of books that it was practically impossible to move in the apartment. Over hundreds of hours, he opened every box, sorted the materials, and sold duplicate and unnecessary items to used bookstores. Then he repacked the remaining books and worked with a Japanese shipping company to send them to WMU. About two weeks into the donation drive, Angles had to beg people to send their books directly to Kalamazoo.
Many treasures found
Cataloguing staff members in WMU's Waldo Library have spent the past two years working their way through all the donations that have come in. To date, they have processed 2,951 books, and there are still many more, mostly paperbacks, waiting to be processed.
Among the donations, Angles has found treasures such as:
- the complete works of famous authors;
- popular novels;
- richly illustrated art history books; and
- complete sets of popular manga—Japanese-style comic books.
Touching correspondence sent
Angles said what has been most touching to him are the letters that came with the books. One woman sent a big collection with a note explaining that the books used to belong to her father who had passed away. She had not known what to do with them until reading the tweets calling for donations. Other letters came from students who explained that they wanted to send their favorite manga to students in America. "There were dozens and dozens of wonderful letters like that," Angles said. "The outpouring of kindness and generosity moved me deeply."
Among the donors were several people with Kalamazoo connections, including residents of Numazu, Kalamazoo's sister city located near Mount Fuji, who collected several dozen books.
"They were excited to be able to contribute to Kalamazoo, a city that they knew and loved," Angles said. "I can't imagine how surprised the people at the library must have been when they saw the enormous crates."
After the March 11 earthquake, he began receiving tweets and messages from people in northeastern Japan. "They wrote to me to tell me that their houses had been half-destroyed, and as they were cleaning up the chaos, they didn't know what to do with their books," he said. "They offered to send them to me so that they would be safe in Michigan. I cried the first time I received one of those messages, and they kept on coming."
Six months after returning to Kalamazoo, Angles received a large package from the disaster zone. The package was full of Japanese translations of famous European novels with a note that the books belonged to a man killed in the earthquake. "Each time I walk through the literature section of the library and see the black spines of that particular set of books, I feel overcome with sadness," Angles said.
"Thanks to all of our donors, WMU now has a magnificent collection of modern and contemporary Japanese literature, including many of Japan's most famous authors," he added. "We also have a huge collection of manga. I hope that inspires some students to work on their Japanese.