Japan: Community Events Ongoing to Empower Disaster Survivors

Protect Temporary Housing Residents from Isolation and Poor Health

Although it has been almost two and a half years since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan’s Tohoku pacific coastal areas, the survivors of the disaster are still struggling in difficult living conditions. Some people have started to take a step forward by getting a new job or leaving their temporary housing complex to live in their own houses they managed to rebuild. On the other hand, those who are forced to live in inconveniently-located temporary housings have no choice but to spend all day in their small rooms, even on weekends and holidays, unless they have a car. Elderly people who live alone have even fewer opportunities to go out and easily end up spending their days isolated inside their small rooms. Besides this, there are also people who develop alcohol dependency, losing their jobs because of the disaster and the resulting nuclear accident, and being overwhelmed by the anxiety and stress of an uncertain future.

In order to help those survivors maintain physical and mental health and to promote interaction among the temporary housing residents, AAR Japan is initiating various kinds of community events in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures under the title “Building Healthy Communities Project.”

Community events organized by AAR Japan include:
  • Massages by physiotherapists and occupational therapists
  • Attentive listening sessions by counselors
  • Soup kitchens
  • Mini music concerts
  • Handcraft classes
  • Vegetable gardening
  • Cooking classes, etc.

Mamiko KIKUCHI, a physiotherapist, gives a massage. (Noda Daini Koen Temporary Complex in Kamaishi City, Iwate Prefecture, June 22nd, 2013)
“Their warm hearts relaxed my mind and body”
On June 22nd and 23rd, AAR Japan held a community event that provided massages by physiotherapists, handcraft workshops, and attentive listening sessions by counselors at a temporary housing complex in Kamaishi City, Iwate Prefecture. The event took place at the community center of the complex. Around 10:00AM on the first day, the residents started to gather at the venue, knowing about the event through an invitation flyer posted on all the doors. At the massage corner, some people were nervous at first lying on the massage table, but the therapists gradually led them into a state of relaxation while gently asking questions like “Do you feel pain anywhere?” or “Do you do exercise daily?” until a smile formed on each person’s face.

 “The therapist gave me a careful massage as he kindly talked to me. I could sense how much he cared for me and I feel better now both physically and mentally,” said Emiko KIKUCHI, 82. She also told us that she has developed pain in many areas of the body, especially in her left knee, due to poor blood circulation since before the disaster and it is getting worse because of lack of exercise stemming from living in the small temporary housing.

At the handcraft workshop, the participants made pocket tissue holders. Pictured on the left is Sutsu SASAKI, who showed us her work. She was also delighted with our massage service and told us, “The therapist’s hands were nice and warm. The numbness in my lower back and legs is better now.” (Noda Daini Koen Temporary Housing Complex, June 22nd, 2013)
Meanwhile, a handcraft workshop was also held and many residents enjoyed making pocket tissue holders. The workshop also served as an opportunity for them to share their concerns and tough experiences as they feel a sense of unity through working together with AAR Japan staff and the counselors. One of the workshop participants, Hisashi FURUKAWA, 84, brightly told us about his experiences despite the pain, saying, “When the tsunami hit, I was knocked unconscious in the waves and found myself lying in a bed of a makeshift hospital. Although my right arm was badly damaged with the bones showing and my thighs swollen and dark red, somehow I didn’t feel any pain at that moment. But from then on, I threw up black water from time to time and my wounds kept oozing black fluid for nearly one year. I still can’t believe that I’m here alive.”  Believing that expressing thoughts and emotions in words is an important first step to alleviating the mental pain, we are trying to create a relaxing atmosphere where people could be willing to share what is on their minds. We offered massages to 21 residents during the two days as we listened to them.

From left, Hisashi FURUKAWA, who told us about his hard experiences, physiotherapist Mamiko KIKUCHI, and counselor Emi ASO. (Noda Daini Koen Temporary housing Complex, June 22nd, 2013)
These activities have been made possible thanks to the participation on site of physiotherapists and occupational therapists from the JOCV Rehabilitation Network, a volunteering group composed of former Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, and the member counselors from the Japan Industrial Counselors Association.

 “We’re Making Friends through Vegetable Gardening.”
In addition to indoor-events, AAR Japan is also supporting vegetable gardening. “I’m not the type to mingle with others at the community center.” “I want to engage in physical activities outside.” “I’ve lost my farm lands, but I want to grow vegetables again.” – In response to such voices from disaster survivors, we have assisted them to start vegetable gardening in 14 affected-areas in three prefectures, securing lands and providing vegetable plants and farming tools like shovels. This project has been well-received and is getting positive comments such as “I’m glad to be getting back what I did before the disaster,” and “I naturally became close friends with my neighbors through working together although we were just acquaintances who greeted each other when passing in the streets.

Vegetables are growing well in the garden at Yunuki Temporary Housing Complex in Soma City, Fukushima Prefecture. (30th June, 2013)
They enjoy vegetable gardening with playful ideas. Pictured is a planter with a handmade name plate. (30th June, 2013)
 “I used to cook freshly-caught fish on the boat.”
In July 2013, AAR Japan also started organizing cooking classes. Learning that many male residents tend to hesitate to participate in community events compared with women, we hosted a cooking event, on July 3rd at the community center of the Onodai Daini Emergency Temporary Housings in Soma City, under the name of “Men’s Cooking Class” aiming to encourage more men to attend. The residents of this housing complex are evacuees who were forced to leave their homes due to the tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident. Many of them were engaged in fishery before the disaster but now they are out of work with no prospect of finding a job.

On this day, the participants learned how to make pizza that is easy to cook even at home. Using the dough and two kinds of sauces with a lot of vegetables, they enjoyed the pizzas fresh from the oven as they commented, “Very delicious,” “It’s really fun cooking with people here today because I usually have to prepare meals in the tiny kitchen of the temporary house.” The participants strengthened their friendships as they tasted the pizzas they cooked together.

At the “Men’s Cooking Class,” the participants worked hard together to make delicious pizzas. (Onodai Daini Emergency Temporary Housings in Soma City, Fukushima Prefecture, July 3rd, 2013)
Among the participants was Hitoshi KUSANO, 64, a fisherman from Ohama, Soma City. “I used to cook Sashimi and Tempura, quickly preparing the fish right on the boat,” he told us with a smile. According to Hitoshi, the sea of Soma City used to be a very rich fishing ground and over 100 species of fish had been caught until the disaster struck. Currently, however, only around 15 species are being fished on a trial basis due to concerns over radiation contamination from the Fukushima nuclear power plant and there is still no prospect of resuming the normal operation.

In the affected areas, we still meet many survivors who cannot help crying while talking about their harsh experiences. “I was the only family member who survived the disaster.” “I won’t ever be able to return home.” – Their stories are so heart-wrenching that we often cannot find any words of comfort. As one small part of the recovery efforts, however, AAR Japan will continue its support, hoping to bring more smiles to their faces and hearts.

These activities have been made possible by your generous donations and grants from AmeriCares Foundation, Caritas Germany, Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe, GlobalGiving Foundation, Kikkoman Corporation, Nippon Del Monte Corporation and Toseisha Co., Ltd.

AAR Japan Sendai office: Shinichiro OHARA
After graduating from university, he worked at a private company. Following the Great East Japan Earthquake, he volunteered in the disaster sites until July 2011 and joined AAR Japan Sendai office in August.