Building Healthy Communities for Recovery

by Association for Aid and Relief, Japan (AAR Japan)
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Building Healthy Communities for Recovery
Building Healthy Communities for Recovery
Building Healthy Communities for Recovery
Building Healthy Communities for Recovery
Building Healthy Communities for Recovery
Building Healthy Communities for Recovery
Building Healthy Communities for Recovery
Building Healthy Communities for Recovery
Building Healthy Communities for Recovery
Building Healthy Communities for Recovery
Building Healthy Communities for Recovery
Kozuchi Eco House February 12, 2017
Kozuchi Eco House February 12, 2017

   March 11, 2017 marked the 6th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. About 2,500 individuals are still missing and 126,900 people are displaced, some out of which live in temporary housings across Japan to this day.

   This past February, AAR Japan visited temporary housings and other displacement points in Iwate prefecture with physiotherapists and counselors. It is important that we create such opportunities for them to let out anxieties, frustrations, or worries and relax their bodies. In the midst of collective yet tacit realization that Tohoku would mark the 6th anniversary in March, there seemed to be clouds over people’s heads who came to receive massage therapies and counseling.  A women in her 70’s said “A lot of people are moving out and I don’t understand why I am left alone on my own. I’ve lived here for 6 years. My area was affected by the tsunami but my town itself was inland and so the government wouldn’t give financial help to rebuild houses that were destroyed or damaged. I had to either borrow money to rebuild my house or apply for a room at the subsidized public housings. I can’t make up my mind just yet.” Another woman in her 80’s longs to see her son who will never return. She said “My son was a tuna fisher. That day, he managed to come back to the port on his boat. But as he tried to turn his key on in a car he was hit and killed by tsunami. His body was later found just like that - with a key in his hand in a car. I dream of him every night when I go to bed.”

   Despite the significant delay on the initial construction plans, rapid resettlement of the displaced populations from temporary make-shift housings to government-subsidized recovery housings is steadily taking place. In Fukushima prefecture, repatriation of affected populations will commence as the government prepares to lift evacuation orders this year.

   Against this backdrop, we will continue to provide physiotherapy and psychosocial counseling at each temporary housing on a regular basis as we have always done. Meanwhile, AAR Japan will deactivate “Building Healthy Community for Recovery” on GlobalGiving to shift our project focus in acknowledgement of significant decrease in the number of residents in temporary housings in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Moving forward, we will focus on assessing the needs of a handful of individuals who are still living in temporary housings as well as government subsidized recovery housings. Most of them face complexities in different forms which prevent them from moving out and resettle elsewhere, ranging from physical/mental disabilities, financial problems, absence of relatives and so on. AAR Japan will continue to support these people who remain affected by the disaster. 

   Through your generous donations over the past 6 years, we have helped support people in Tohoku by organizing message therapy sessions, health check-ups, psychosocial counseling and community events. This was all made possible by your continuous donations through GlobalGiving. We would like to express our most sincere and deepest appreciation for your support. 

Otstushi Temporary Complex 3 February 18, 2017
Otstushi Temporary Complex 3 February 18, 2017
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On 19th November, AAR Japan visited Iwaki City located in the southeastern part of Fukushima prefecture on the Pacific Ocean coastline.

The Great East Japan Earthquake on 11th March, 2011 caused this city several cracks in the ground and violent mudslides among other disasters, completely or partially destroying almost 40,000 houses, the second-worst in all disaster-affected areas only after the massive scale of destruction seen in Sendai city in Miyagi Prefecture. The tsunami and mudslides caused by the earthquake led to the deaths of more than 400 people.

In addition to the direct impact of the earthquake, Iwaki city was heavily affected by the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Soon after the nuclear meltdown, the northern part of Iwaki city was designated as indoor evacuation zone, driving almost 7,000 citizens out of the city.

The temporary housing complex we visited on 19th November, initially sheltered 72 households who evacuated from their houses in the disaster. Some of them managed to relocate to more permanent housing with or without government support. However, 64 households continue to live in the temporary housing complex today, most of whom are elderly over 65 years old.

To maintain physical and mental health of these disaster survivors who still remain displaced, AAR Japan is providing massages, calisthenics exercises, and health check-ups alongside active listening (counseling) sessions and other community events. Active listening sessions provide the participants with opportunities to interact with one another besides allowing them to pour their hearts out to counselors about the troubles and concerns that they usually keep to themselves. Massage sessions help the participants relax and promote conversations.

One of the participants (60s, woman), who evacuated from Namie-town, came with cold compress on the shoulder crying over its pain. After a massage session, she began to talk about her situation. She said she wanted to repair her house, but instead she and her husband would have to move to public housing in Nihonmatsu so that they can continue to take their grandchild to and from the same school. They look after their grandchild while the child’s parents live in Minamisoma-city, 90 km away from the school, for work. Although the parents wanted to relocate their child to live with them, they worry that the child became too shy after transferring schools several times.

Today, 12 people came to receive massages, and 13 came for counseling sessions, among whom some will remain in the temporary housing, some may relocate to new apartments built for disaster survivors, and others will return to their hometown after the evacuation order is lifted. For over five years since the 3.11 disaster, AAR Japan has continuously supported those affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake by adjusting its aid to serve the changing needs of each survivor.

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  It’s been five years since the Great East Japan Earthquake, which caused multi-dimensional human catastrophes in the aftermath of tsunami, meltdown at nuclear power plant, and expansive radioactive contamination. Reconstruction/decontamination efforts have made progress while the majority of affected populations have long been displaced away from their home towns. For some, time has elapsed without any future prospect in sight.

  There still remain more than 150, 000 people in displacement today. The populations are predominantly elderly who were particularly vulnerable within the context of disaster recovery. Through the past half a decade, many have moved out of disaster relief temporary housings. A part of undeniable consequences of this was the fragmentation of families and communities that once held solid ties. Prior to the disaster, one family from grandparents to their grandchildren lived together under the same roof. Their communities were also close-knit that acted as a support system for everyone. Today, forced displacement that seemed indefinite has made many young families move away from their hometowns to seek a safer environment to raise their children. On the other hand, many grandparents decided to stay in hopes of going back home once the evacuation order is lifted. Nonetheless, many communities in the affected areas are on the verge of falling apart. It is evident in that less than a half of the original populations would make a decision to go back to their hometowns after the government announces the end of evacuation.

  Against this backdrop, AAR Japan is committed to keeping the communities together and attending to every person’s need in the final phase of disaster recovery. In cooperation with entertainers from home and abroad, we organize recreational events through which they often feel a strong connection to their homeland and culture.

  This past month, AAR Japan coordinated a self-funded Goodwill tour of the Grateful Crane Ensemble which is a non-profit theatrical company of Japanese Americans based in Los Angeles, the United States. In the spirit of reaffirming support and love for people in Tohoku in the midst of prolonged recovery from the disaster, we toured around four temporary housing facilities in Fukushima city, Soma city, Kawamata town and Nihonmatsu city through June 18 to 20. The group performed a repertoire of old Japanese pop songs, which symbolize for both performers and audiences pride and appreciation for the ancestral linage rooted in Japan such as “Like the Flow of the River”(),”Ringo Oiwake”(), “Kitaguni no Haru” (), “Sukiyaki song” (),”Furusato” () and so many more.Their singing inspired nostalgia and love for their homeland, and hope for the future. Many residents among the audiences had not had a chance to take part in live performances, let alone recreational activities. Many broke into tears. Many smiled. Many laughed. Many sang along. A small makeshift assembly room that stands in the middle of temporary housing facilities that are now half empty was filled with so much warmth and love. The audience in Kawamata town in particular was exceptionally ecstatic. They requested an encore after the performance was done.

   “I am very thankful for these people who came all the way from the United States just for us. I did not know the Japanese singer Misora Hibari was famous in the States,” said the woman in Soma city. A male participant in Kawamata town also said “we can’t communicate our thoughts to each other but our hearts became connected. I feel very close to them. I feel happy and supported. It’s a strange feeling but in a positive sense.” One of the members of the Grateful Crane Ensemble expressed to us that “I was thrown into shock at the sight of so many elderly residents who are still living in temporary living facilities. I was welling up while singing because I was able to feel and understand what they were going through. I cried because they cried. I was happy because they were happy. I want to continue to support these people even after I go back to Los Angeles.”

  AAR Japan places an important value on sending out message from Tohoku to let people in other countries know that the struggle still continues for those who were affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. We will not let these people be left behind. We will continue to stand by them.   

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AAR Japan visited the temporary housing complex in Ofunato City (Iwate Prefecture), a city along the Sanriku Coast. A major tsunami engulfed Ofunato City and more than 3,000 families lost their homes. Although efforts are being made to rebuild residential land, there have been delays in the construction of public restoration apartments. As of April 2016, there are still 35 temporary housing complexes in this city that host 863 displaced households. This month, AAR Japan visited a temporary housing complex built on the ground of a public ballpark that hosts 72 displaced households.

Massages can relieve muscle tension and create a sense of connectedness through therapeutic touch. Even the residents who initially looked nervous were able to relax after a massage session and lingered, sipping on freshly brewed coffee and exchanging friendly conversations with AAR Japan staff and other residents who were also waiting for a massage. There was a resident eagerly awaiting for our arrival. She had prepared homemade marinated mountain vegetables (sansai). “Mountain vegetable picking is so much fun during this season. I always pick more than I can eat, so I preserve them by marinating them. I hope you enjoy eating them,” said the resident.

Each unit in the temporary housing complexes  is so small that when residents lie flat on the floor and extend their arms, they “can touch the walls of the unit”. The walls are so paper thin that residents can hear every little sound. During winter months, residents are troubled by mold that grows on walls resulting from condensation. Living in these temporary housing units for more than five years is undesirable. However, the residents do not show their frustration but visit massage sessions and have friendly conversations about the coming of spring and mountain vegetable picking. Although our capacities are so limited that we cannot drastically improve their lives, our success can be measured by the smiles on their faces.

It has been over five years since the Great East Japan Earthquake. There are still over 170,000 displaced persons in Japan (primarily in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures) who are forced to live in temporary housing complexes. Construction of public housing, planning of collective relocation of survivors who remain at risk of potential disasters and development of residential land are underway in various affected areas, but these projects are far from completion. AAR Japan remains committed to supporting those affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

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It has been almost five years since the Great East Japan Earthquake. Assistance and efforts have been made in rebuilding the debilitated communities; the construction of disaster recovery housings is underway; the planning of collective relocation of survivors who remain at risk of potential disasters in the foreseeable future is being formulated. The ground preparation for ensuing construction work for housings is being carried out, which is yet to be completed. The extensive delay in advancing the reconstruction work is inevitably keeping the displaced populations in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, amounting to 180,000 persons, stuck in temporary housings. (December, 2015. Reconstruction Agency of the Japanese Government)

This month’s report will share with you the current situation of a temporary housing complex in the city of Koriyama in Fukushima prefecture. The Earthquake of magnitude 9.0 shook the entire Tohoku region, subsequently triggering monstrous tsunami waves that caused a series of blasts and ultimately meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Approximately, 20,000 persons who had resided in the town of Namie along the coast line were displaced. A public office for Namie town was put up in the city of Nihonmatsu for temporary operations. To this day, the residents of Namie town are dispersed and displaced at different temporary housing complexes.

Since the immediate aftermath of the nuclear power plant accident, AAR Japan has visited temporary housing complexes on a consistent and regular basis to ensure the mental/physical well-being of the survivors are well taken care of.

On January the 24th, 2016, our team consisted of two physio therapists and two counselors visited a temporary housing complex that hosts 24 families who cannot go home because of the evacuation order that is still in place. Their city has been cleared of radioactive contamination and public housings have been constructed to its completion which will open this autumn. Nonetheless, more than half of the displaced populations seem disinterested in registering for the lottery to win their space at this newly-built housing. The reason being that recovery of other public services is stagnated and they are not in full operation to serve the community.

The majority of the displaced populations is about to go into their fifth year in temporary housings. Unavoidable limitations on physical mobility and freedom have taken their tolls on the health of the displaced who are predominantly farmers and carpenters by occupation. The massage therapy, through the skin-to-skin contact, loosens the internal tension in their bodies and alleviates the mental anxiety. By providing massage, the physio therapists also find out the extent of stress and physical conditions of these residents.

While waiting for their turn, people exchange friendly conversations with AAR staff over a cup of tea and snacks. This recreational tea time for the purpose of building relationships with one another is the tradition called Ochakko, unique to the Tohoku region. To this, we add a trick to minimize the interpersonal distance and to facilitate people to connect with one another. Everyone is expected to prepare a cup of coffee for someone else, from grinding coffee beans, brewing it and pouring into a cup to serving it on the table. This simple activity springs up a conversation and breaks an awkward tension to interact. The counsellors sit down and join the conversation. Their mere presence and tuned-in attentions to people’s concerns alleviate a sense of distress and frustration and to feed positivity at the table.

The following are the voices of those who participated in Ochakko and the massage therapy:

“Decontamination of radioactive substances is being done in my hometown area and I am happy that I am allowed to go home for a little bit during the daytime. On the flipside, I am saddened to see my house exactly the same way I left it when I first evacuated almost five years ago. There are weeds all over my garden.”

“While I was in my house, I tried to clean up all the mess but I am old and my back is very weak. I wish someone would help me carry things around but everyone is very busy.”

“I feel excited at the prospect of finally moving back to my own house. But I am very concerned that hospitals, grocery stores and other necessary places are not open. Even if I move back, I am not sure if I will be able to live as I used to.”

We always receive words of appreciation from these people when they come to Ochakko and massage therapies we provide in the temporary housing complexes where they live. In the midst of ambiguity over the prospect of future livelihood, a number of displaced persons feel anxious. AAR Japan will continue to visit these people at temporary housings to provide support that they need. 

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Organization Information

Association for Aid and Relief, Japan (AAR Japan)

Location: Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo - Japan
Project Leader:
Yuko Ito
Program Coordinator
Kamiosaki, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo Japan

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