Mind-Body Medicine

08/16/2012

"Where is the Unified Japan?" College of MBM Master's Student Tamami Shirai Reports on the Post-Tsunami Developments

Post-Tsunami Devastation
Post-Tsunami Devastation

Tamami Shirai conducted her master's thesis research in the College of Mind-Body Medicine on the psychophysiological impact of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in her native Japan.

 
Almost a year after her first visit to Hanamaki, Iwate prefecture, Japan, after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Tamami Shirai visited Tohoku (Japan's northeast) again in March 2012. This time, she visited Tohoku's Iwate and Miyagi prefectures as well as two cities in the western part of Japan. This blog entry is based on her eye witness accounts. 
 
A year ago disaster victims had been evacuated to the hot-spring resort hotels in Hanamaki. Many police, rescue, and Self-Defense Forces (military) people were also staying at these hotels. Early every morning they marched out in uniform to buses taking them to the devastated coast area so that they could try to find the people who must be still in the rubble. Every night they came back, exhausted, to the hotel after sunset. Tamami could tell how hard they worked from their appearance when they returned to the hotel. During that first trip last year, the integrative medicine volunteer group she joined introduced self-care-based interventions such as tapping-touch, mindful walking, drawing, and "shaking and dancing" to the disaster victims. The video of their activity in Hanamaki in May 2011 can be found at:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ce7qaypWvzE
 
Last May, the evacuees looked as if they were all located in safe places, and as if they were still wondering what had happened to them. Tamami had the distinct impression that Japan's people were united in the sadness they felt before the cruel fact of this massive disaster.
 
One year later, Tamami was told that evacuees had been moved to temporary housing so that they could have more privacy. It was great to hear that that they now had their own space. However, she heard a lot of difficult stories from people in Tohoku. One woman who works for the local nursing school told Tamami that her friend, who had lost all her family including her children, was living now in the temporary housing. This woman's friend does not leave her place and she looks completely depressed. This woman sent warm pajamas to her friend to help her overcome the cold winter, and continued sending an e-mail every month to see how her friend would respond. However, she told Tamami that her friend looks like a ghost -- there was no soul in her friend anymore. She told Tamami: “I am not a true victim. The true victims are there in the coast area. I would like to help them, but now we don’t know how to communicate with them even if we are friends.” She said: “There are two types of people in Tohoku now: 1) those who have been able to overcome this hardship and 2) those who are not able to overcome it.”
 
A female taxi driver in Hanamaki in her 70s also talked to Tamami about what had happened between the events of the March 11, 2011 tsunami, and the time of Tamami's Spring 2012 visit. Even when she and Tamami arrived at the station where Tamami was going to catch a train, this woman parked her taxi and kept talking. She reported that she was not a true victim of the disaster as she can still live in her house. However, just after the earthquake food was not available, and the food she could obtain was pretty limited. Since then, she reports, that she and her family have tended to keep eating (whenever food is available), just as if  they are still not sure when they will be able to eat again. This continues now, just as if they were still in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. In this example, and throughout her Spring 2012 visit, Tamami Shirai saw many lingering examples of a widespread post-traumatic suffering in the affected populations. 
 
This taxi driver said to Tamami: “All generations here have had difficulties -- old, senior, young, and even small children. But we are Tohoku people; we cannot express our difficulties!” Tohoku people are actually famous in Japan for their patience and quiet stoicism. Tamami  read an article that when one volunteer group tried to deliver free meals in Tohoku, some survivors said: “My house is still available, so how can I accept free meals? Please bring this food to those who lost everything.” It took time to persuade them to accept the free meals, which were available to all Tohoku people.
 
The cities of Miyagi and Fukushima also suffered massive damage from the earthquake and tsunami. During her March 2012 trip Tamami also visited Miyagi prefecture to see a university professor. He told her that after the 3/11 events they lacked electricity for almost a month. He needed to come to the university so he could keep calling all his students to confirm whether they were okay. Though the phone at his university worked, there were no lights. In the dark and cold of winter, he kept calling and calling. He said to Tamami: “Please tell your professors working with you to come visit us to see how our town is affected. Please come visit the coast area to learn how damaged these areas really are.”
 
As Tamami traveled through Japan In Spring 2012, she noticed two issues: 1) The Japanese government asked Japan's other prefectures to help the three prefectures in Tohoku by accepting raw rubble. But because of the (small) possibility of radiation in the rubble, some prefectures would not help Tohoku, as people were concerned about spreading radiation. 2) People, and especially parents who have small children, are avoiding buying food grown in Tohoku area because of possible radiation. She saw that Tohoku people feel hurt by the actions of these prefecture and people. They are angry at people’s insensitivity. To rebuild Tohoku has been the first priority in Japan for a year, yet many people have started to react as if it is not their priority.
 
So, Tamami wondered where the unified one Japan of last year had gone. Last year Japanese were one, but today the rest of Japan has started forgetting their unity with Tohoku (or maybe they just grew tired of feeling sad about the disaster.). Tamami hopes that this is just a temporary phase and that Japan's people will resume helping the people of Tohoku and cooperating with one other.
 

 

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