The long road to recovery one year on from the earthquake and tsunami


The Japanese Red Cross Society, which deployed nearly 900 medical teams and hundreds of psychosocial workers to support the relief operation, is now focused on addressing the needs of more than 300,000 people who are living in temporary housing.

“We are doing our utmost to make people comfortable, even though the conditions are cramped and cold in winter. We are also helping to prevent many elderly survivors from falling into emotional isolation and physical inactivity,” said Tadateru Konoe, President of both the Japanese Red Cross and the IFRC.

The Red Cross has provided more than 125,000 families in temporary housing with a set of six electrical appliances, including a rice cooker, hot water dispenser and microwave and electric heaters have been distributed to many of the most vulnerable to help them keep warm amid sub-zero winter temperatures. Thousands of these items were donated by ECHO, the humanitarian arm of the European Union.

(Photo: Red Cross mobile medical teams walked many kilometers along a muddy path to find and rescue survivors.)

Red Cross psychosocial teams have shifted their focus away from the evacuation centres, now virtually empty, to temporary housing settlements where they organise activities, such as tea parties and massage sessions for elderly residents.

“People have lost not only their homes, but also their jobs. What they have lost is so great that it’s difficult for them to comes to terms with it and move forward; so I feel they really need psychosocial support,” says Sachiko Abe, a Red Cross psychosocial coordinator in Iwate Prefecture.

“The numbers of people attending these sessions have increased, showing that they are becoming more sustainable and the residents themselves are reaching out to those most in need,” said Dr Toshiharu Makishima.

He has been one of the leading pioneers of psychosocial support, ever since, as a Red Cross surgeon, he witnessed the emotional needs of refugees fleeing the genocidal violence in Rwanda in 1994.

(Photo: Dr. Toshiharu Makishima, who is leading Red Cross psychosocial support programme)

In Fukushima Prefecture, conflicting narratives about the long term health impact of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, are adding to a sense of confusion and anxiety.

One prominent Japanese doctor, who worked in Belarus in the 1990’s in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, has advised that pregnant women and young children would be best advised to evacuate from large swathes of the prefecture, including Fukushima City. But a senior physician in the city of Nagasaki has said he believes the current radiation levels are not a cause for serious concern.

In the face of this, JRCS Fukushima Chapter Chairman Hisao Ohta says, “In the end, it’s up to each individual to make up their own mind about what they feel safe with. One person might decide that they feel better living with their family even with a higher level of radiation and they will be fine, whereas another person may feel unsafe and decide to move, but they may still not feel right.”

(Photo: Mr. Hisao Ohta, Head of Red Cross Fukushima chapter)

What that means in practice is that wellness is made up of both physical and psychological factors.

That’s very much the thinking behind the Red Cross decision to set up the Smile Park project, an indoor playground aimed at the many children in Fukushima whose families don’t feel it’s safe for them to play out of doors.

“Today I feel very grateful to the Red Cross for creating an indoor play area like this; my two kids look very happy, and they don’t want to go home,” says one mother, Tamami Morino. “We initially registered them for 2 hours, and then extended their stay for 4 hours.”

It’s clear that the Red Cross will need to play a continuing key role in supporting the needs of communities here into the future. Also central to the National Society’s response is the conviction that people need to have more information and to be better prepared for eventualities like this.

In May, the IFRC together with the Japanese Red Cross will host an international conference in Japan at which, according to President Konoe, “we are taking the lead in getting our international partners together to draw up new guidelines on nuclear accident preparedness.”

(Photo: Indoor playground "Smila Park" was set up by the Japanese Red Cross in Fukushima for 2 weeks in February 2012.)

Global donations have allowed the Red Cross to make a real difference in helping survivors of the tsunami to regain their resilience. International funding includes a generous donation of 40 billion yen (465 million CHF, 385 million EUR, 505 million USD) from the government of Kuwait, paid out to the three worst-hit prefectures.

More than 53 billion yen (637 million CHF, 528 million EUR, 693 Million USD) has been donated through Red Cross Red Crescent societies worldwide. These funds are helping to make residents in temporary housing more comfortable, as well as supporting the most vulnerable, such as the elderly and children. They are also going towards the construction of temporary hospitals and clinics.