Japan: The trauma of a tsunami is still fresh for survivors

Publié: 6 août 2013 23:54 CET

By Katherine Mueller, IFRC

“My father was washed away with his house. I saw the roof of his house float by.”

It is this vivid memory, one of many, which Shigeo Kawahara cannot get out of his head. The 59-year-old construction worker lives with his wife and daughter in the village of Kiri Kiri in north-eastern Japan. On 11 March 2011, the day started out as usual. It did not end that way.

Shigeo 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,” recalls Shigeo. “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.”

The Japanese Red Cross Society is helping tsunami survivors, young and old, work through the emotions left over from that horrific day. It is a process that can take months or years, frustrating those who want to recover more quickly.

“Moving forward isn’t always the answer. It is OK to simply stand still sometimes,” says child psychiatrist, Dr Junko Yagi. “It is important for people to walk at their own pace.”

Dr Yagi is Deputy Chief of the Iwate children’s care centre, which opened in May with financial support from the State of Kuwait through the Japanese Red Cross Society. Staff here 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,” says Dr Yagi. “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.”

In Kiri Kiri, Japanese Red Cross Society staff and volunteers helped clear away the physical debris left behind by the tsunami. They also helping to heal the mental and emotional scars, visiting evacuation centres on a daily basis, and talking to those whose houses collapsed before their very eyes. Today, counselling is offered on more of an individual basis.

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

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