Great East Japan Earthquake: Share and Reflect the Disaster with Survivors – as Four Year Anniversary of the Disaster Approaches

We will soon pass the four-year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Yet many survivors are still forced to live in temporary housing complexes. AAR Japan continues to provide tailored aid by visiting temporary housing complexes every week with industrial counselors and physiotherapists to provide counseling and massage, as well as supporting collaborative projects with social welfare facilities for Persons with Disabilities (PWDs). Akiko KATO, Representative of the Tohoku Office, reports our current aid activities carried out in the disaster-stricken areas.

After a prolonged period of living in a temporary housing, many complain of poor health. Mariko ESAWA(left), a physiotherapist and a volunteer member of AAR Japan, gives advice on the do-it-yourself massage, after giving a massage to the residents of the temporary housing. (Watari Town, Miyagi Prefecture, December 13th, 2014)

Building back better

Four years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11th, 2011. On March 1st of this year, the Joban Expressway, which connects Tokyo and Sendai, is scheduled to open, and many of the railroads along the Pacific coast have resumed operation. However, at the same time, there are still approximately 234,000 people living in temporary housing complexes (as of December 26th, 2014, Reconstruction Agency). AAR Japan has been on-site since the second day of the disaster and has supported vulnerable populations, including PWDs, elderly people, and those affected by the nuclear accident in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures.

Many social welfare facilities were damaged or swept away by the earthquake or tsunami. Accordingly, facilities’ service users, namely PWDs and elderly people, were left isolated from society. AAR Japan visits temporary housing complexes every weekend, and holds counseling and massage sessions, as well as social events for the residents. In addition, AAR Japan has been trying to improve the living environment for PWDs and the elderly by assisting with the reconstruction of social welfare facilities.

Unfortunately, the reconstruction of social welfare facilities does not mean full recovery from the disaster. The facilities for PWDs previously produced and sold hand-made goods for self-reliance of otherwise-dependent PWDs. Many of them lost their distribution channels and the profit has significantly decreased.  Nevertheless, they are striving to develop marketable goods and explore new distribution channels in order to restore the financial independence of the PWDs.  

“I can now raise my right arm!” Kazuya OMURO (left), AAR Japan staff and physiotherapist, gives a massage to a resident of temporary housing complex. Many look forward to AAR Japan’s visit”. (November 23rd, 2014)
AAR Japan has been providing support catered to the needs of each social welfare facility, such as providing necessary equipment to start new businesses, developing products with companies and professionals, and holding seminars to pass on the know-how to expand distribution channels. As a result, the social welfare facilities have started to take their own initiatives to develop new products. For instance, Katatsumuri in Ofunatoshi City, Iwate Prefecture has started to grow and sell apples and rice. They rent fields that the original owners can no longer take care of due to old age. The products have become popular among customers all around Japan, and they receive many orders.

”Please try delicious apples from Ofunato.” Katatsumuri started cultivating apples with the support from AAR Japan. We provided transportation for the facility users and the equipment necessary for cultivation. In the photo are staff members and service users of Katatsumuri, as well as Akiko KATO (right) and Sachiko UDO (left) of AAR Japan. (January 15th, 2015)

Challenge of social welfare facility in  Yamada Town, Iwate Prefecture- “working for our community”

Yamada Town, Iwate Prefecture is a seaside town in the middle part of the Sanriku coast and is considered one of the most prominent fishing ports. The earthquake and tsunami caused enormous damage to the town, resulting in over 820 deaths and missing persons. Yamada Kyoseikai, a social welfare facility for PWDs, is located away from the coast and fortunately was not affected by the tsunami. In fact, the facility was used as an evacuation center in the aftermath of the disaster. AAR Japan has been working with Yamada Kyoseikai since the emergency phase through various activities such as distribution of relief goods. Today, AAR Japan supports transportation service to ensure medical visits for PWDs and elderly residents as well as participation in social events to prevent isolation of the elderly. At the social events, Yamada Kyoseikai invites nurses and dental hygienists to hold sessions on health tips. In 2013, Yamada Kyoseikai launched the sales of local seafood to share blessings from the sea to show gratitude for the nationwide support received. AAR Japan supplied a large refrigerator since small-sized refrigerators limited the production. Yamada Kyoseikai now delivers seasonal seafood nationwide. Akihiko SATO, the director of Yamada Kyoseikai, said, “We are able to live thanks to the sea. We wish to contribute to the recovery of Yamada Town, as well as strive to increase wages of PWDs working here.”

Social interaction event for the elderly residents living in temporary housing who tend to stay at home. A local musician (right) performed at the event. (September 30th, 2014) 

Collaboration initiated by a social welfare facility in Koriyama City, Fukushima Prefecture   

Koriyama City in Fukushima Prefecture hosts many PWDs who have fled Futaba District, which is the area within a 30-kilometer radius of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Shinsei in Koriyama City has provided support for PWDs who left their hometown to lead purposeful lives and to have a role in society through employment. In November 2013, Shinsei networked with other social welfare facilities in Fukushima Prefecture, and took the initiative to develop a new product, leveraging their relationships with AAR Japan and private corporations created after the March 11th disaster. The project for the baked cookie, “Polvoron” was then launched. Nisshin Seifun Group Inc. taught techniques for baking cookies, while AAR Japan assisted with package designs and cooking tools. We also provided marketing and PR support, including the production of brochures and hosting launch events for private companies and the general public in Tokyo. The social welfare facilities received many orders immediately after the release of “Polvoron” in October 2014. PWDs diligently work on each task assigned to produce the cookies.  It is by working closely together that the eleven facilities in Fukushima Prefecture keep up with the high demand and fill large orders. Ms. Miho TOMINAGA, the Board Chairperson at Shinsei, said, “the PWDs have grown to love and be proud of their work on ‘Polvoron’ production and public relations activities.”

Workers at CAFÉ Sweet Hot in Koriyama City cutting “Polvoron” our of pastry dough (September 9th, 2014)

Making day-to-day progress

When engaging in relief and rehabilitation activities in the disaster-stricken areas, I sometimes feel overwhelmed and helpless for not being able to meet all the survivors’ needs. I realize that there is so much more to do. On the other hand, we feel gradual progress through daily conversations at temporary housing complexes and social welfare facilities. After one of our projects, a temporary housing resident told us, “I can thrive after having such a fun day like today.” Staff members of social welfare facilities comment, “we are surprised by how much more lively the PWD workers have become,” and “the distribution channels have expanded and we now receive orders from other prefectures.” We will continue our support for disaster survivors, aiming to improve their quality of lives and not to leave anyone from rehabilitation. Please continue to support this cause.

Akiko KATO, Representative of Tohoku Office,
KATO has taken the representative position since April 2013. She started working at AAR Japan in 2010, after working at governmental research institute and the Embassy of Japan in Colombia. She holds a master’s degree in International Social Development from a British university, and is originally from Tokyo.

Japanese-English translation by Ms. Mami Nakamura
English editing by Ms. Laura Peters

The article on this page has been translated by volunteers as part of the AAR Japan's Volunteer Programme. Their generous contributions allow us to spread our activities and ideas globally, through an ever-growing selection of our reports from the field.