Grief remains but smiles return 18 months after the tsunami


By Sayaka Matsumoto

Eighteen months after the earthquake and tsunami, recovery is well underway in communities along Japan’s northeast coast. Although emotions remain raw for families of the 20,000 who lost their lives, Japanese Red Cross Society psychosocial support staff report that in general, the people they are working with now seem happier and more active.

(Photo: Activities organised for residents in prefabricated housing provide opportunities to meet and make friends with their neighbours to improve the sense of community.)

Hospitals and clinics have been rebuilt, including several supported by the national Red Cross society. Reconstruction of permanent housing is beginning and those remaining in temporary accommodation are being made as comfortable as possible.

“Life is continuing to get back to normal and we are seeing more smiles on people’s faces. They are doing more gardening, growing vegetables and other new activities,” said Keiko Shimomoto, who runs the Japanese Red Cross Society’s psychosocial support programme that works mainly with elderly survivors at Miyoko, in Miyagi Prefecture.

As the process of recovery continues, the community has developed and people living alone help each other, Shimomoto said.

Local residents say the New Year period was the hardest time; many of the survivors were so dispirited that they couldn’t even bear to watch programmes on TV or take in any other information.

Now, people are gradually starting to move out of the prefabricated homes, to rented accommodation or to live with their families. But for most, the move to newly constructed permanent houses won’t begin until next year, with many not expected to be ready for another four years.

(Photo: Psychosocial workers in Miyagi say that the mainly elderly people they are working with now seem happier and more active.)

But psychosocial workers say that moving out of the temporary homes is not necessarily the recipe for happiness and optimum psychological health. Shimomoto said that some of those who have left are now returning, because they are unable to adapt to their new surroundings and find their mental and physical state deteriorating.

Psychosocial activities in Miyako, a small coastal town in Iwate Prefecture, which was partly destroyed by the tsunami, will actually be winding up by the end of August because local residents feel their sense of community has been built up sufficiently and they are ready to take on the task of helping those who are most vulnerable by themselves.

Meanwhile, staff working in Tagajo, a town in Miyagi Prefecture, where the programme has been active since last year, say the Red Cross has been increasingly welcomed by the community.

“People in the prefabricated housing have started asking us to organize some activities or events, such as outdoor noodle eating parties or barbeques,” said Takeshi Inoue, director of operations at the Miyagi Red Cross chapter. “At the beginning, the Red Cross did all the organizing, but gradually, things are changing.”

Now, the organization provides the ingredients, but residents themselves take a greater sense of ownership over the events, organizing teams to prepare the food.

“Sometimes when a person decides to move out of the community, they ask the volunteers for their information, such as mobile phone number – they want to keep a contact with them, even if they leave,” Inoue said.

But in Fukushima prefecture, the situation remains complex after the meltdown at the nuclear plant following the earthquake and tsunami.

(Photo: Communities in prefabricated clusters are more able to handle the task of looking after those who remain vulnerable.)

“We have been continuing the same activities, since the needs of the people have not changed - they are feeling very worried about their health and their future,” said Reiko Takeda, a nurse who works as part of the Red Cross Fukushima Chapter’s psychosocial support team.

She said even though many of the elderly residents are grateful for the support they are receiving, new sources of friction are also developing within communities.

For example, in Iwaki City on the Fukushima coastline, some of the survivors lost their homes due to the tsunami and earthquake, while others have been relocated from within the 20km exclusion zone and are therefore entitled to compensation from the Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO.

“The former kind of envy the latter group for example saying ‘they can buy a full basket in the supermarket, but we can’t!’ says nurse Takeda. “Even though the radiation contamination level is decreasing as time goes on, the problem is not confined to that issue alone,” she said.

In face of the shared anxieties and the divisions, the Japanese Red Cross Society continues to work to bring support to the communities. Many of the basic activities on offer are unchanged, but there are some new additions, such as movie events, cross country skiing-style ‘Nordic Walking, and day trips to hotels in nearby cities.

Through these activities, staff and volunteers hope people in Fukushima can live through these difficult times and help to take care of each other.