Japan: The Trauma of a Tsunami Is Still Fresh For Survivors

Ken-ichi Hanasaka

69-year-old Ken-ichi Hanasaka receives counselling in his home, in private. Photo: Katherine Mueller, IFRC

People are still suffering from a lot of psychological trauma. They don’t want to talk, not in public anyway. I get counseling in my home, in private.

Time has not diminished the still-vivid memories that Shigeo Kawahara has of the Japan earthquake and tsunami.

“My father was washed away with his house; I saw the roof of his house float by.” Kawahara says of the scene on March 11, 2011.

Nearly two and a half years since a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, the country has moved steadily toward recovery. For Kawahara, however, the disaster remains a fresh memory. Counseling provided by the Japanese Red Cross is helping him to process emotions left over from that horrific day.

Since March 2011, more than 14,000 people like Shigeo have been comforted by Japanese Red Cross counselors trained to deal with disaster survivors. American Red Cross funds donated after the disaster have supported this program, along with other efforts centered on improving the living conditions of those affected and on rehabilitating the health infrastructure of the region.

The 59-year-old construction worker lives with his wife and daughter in the village of Kiri Kiri in north-eastern Japan. March 11, 2011 started out as usual; but it certainly did not end that way.

Kawahara watched as the tsunami waves fast approached his community, destroying everything in their path, even reaching up the walls of his own home, which was perched high on a hill.

“My 16-year-old daughter panicked and just sat there on the road, shaking,” he recalls. “I took her and my wife to higher ground and then to an evacuation centre. We now live in prefabricated housing and will stay there until I can rebuild my house.”

“Moving forward isn’t always the answer; it is OK to simply stand still sometimes,” says Dr. Junko Yagi, deputy chief of the Iwate children’s care center, which was opened in May 2013 by the Japanese Red Cross Society. “It is important for people to walk at their own pace.”

Staff at the center work daily with children who feel guilty for not being able to save other people; children who find it difficult to concentrate on their studies; and children who have started getting into trouble.

“The drastic change of lifestyle and a stressful environment are also causing psychological trauma in children,” Yagi says. “It is important to build a base for children to live safely and peacefully. In order to do that, the adults surrounding them also have to be healthy and positive. Therefore, it is important to support not only children but adults in their recovery.”

“I lost two family members that day,” says Ken-ichi Hanasaka, 69, who is Kawahara’s construction partner. “People are still suffering from a lot of psychological trauma. They don’t want to talk, not in public anyway. I get counseling in my home, in private.”

“My daughter quit school for two months after the tsunami,” says Kawahara. “She just could not function as she had before. We are very grateful for the counseling she received. It helped us get our daughter back.”

In total, the American Red Cross raised $312 million for the Japan earthquake and tsunami, making the American Red Cross one of the largest private international contributors to the response. All funds have either been spent or granted out to the Japanese Red Cross. For more information on the response in Japan, visit redcross.org

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or cruzrojaamericana.org, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.

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