Building Healthy Communities for Recovery

by Association for Aid and Relief, Japan (AAR Japan)

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.

  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.   

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.

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. 

Since the 2011 Tohoku disaster’s immediate aftermath, AAR Japan has maintained its consistent presence in the affected areas to give psychosocial support to the victims and to construct a communal support system of evacuees living in temporary housing. We have implemented a variety of projects, through which engagement with the community prevented social/psychological isolation as well as the long-term accumulation of stress that poses a detrimental threat to the well-being of evacuees.  

Shinichiro OHARA, Program Coordinator of AAR Japan Fukushima Project, has stood side by side with the affected persons of Fukushima to overcome a myriad of adversities since the disaster. He reports the recent circumstances surrounding each individual whose future prospect of repatriation varies. He explains how we are trying to secure the attainment of well-connected community in such precarious times. 

As of August 2015, there are a total of 107,734 displaced persons evacuated from radiated areas demarcated as evacuation order zone near Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Uncertainty over the far-reaching ramifications of the nuclear meltdown incident and the ensuing delay on clean-up of radioactive contamination is prolonging the evacuees’ displacement.  

Construction of post-disaster public housing is underway at the progress rate of 16 %, making slow yet certain progress. In parallel, a handful of people who decided to resettle outside of no-entry zone have already moved forward with the signing of contract for the construction of new houses and permanent withdrawal from temporary housing. We see bright smiles and hear joyful voices from those who have secured their settlement to restart a new life in a new place. On the other hand, the majority continue to live with ambiguity over resettlement in the face of a stark boost in price for the purchase of estate. Sluggish development of post-disaster public housing also adds another dose of complexity for these people in the process of making important life decisions about their future.

Ms. Minabe from the city of Namie tells us that “My house I used to live prior to the disaster is within the restricted-residence zone[i] because of a high radiation level. Clean-up of radiation around my areaas been conducted except for forests and mountains that are still contaminated. The potency of contamination is barely kept low despite the de-radiation efforts and is expected to rise back to the initial level prior to the clean-up, had the thorough clean-up does not take place effectively.[ii] The unpromising prospect convinced me to finally make a decision to use a financial compensation I had received to buy a new house in the city of Minami Soma. Nonetheless, I have been told that it would be at least three years until the final completion of construction work. This temporary housing is going to be my home until then.”

Another woman from the city of Namie, Ms. Agi tells us that “My house is in a mountain which is also within the designated area of restricted residence. The government tells me I can return home upon the completion of ongoing decontamination efforts but I don’t trust it. When I hear about frequent mechanical errors for which the electric power company should be accountable for making overt efforts in reducing, I fear another disastrous meltdown that might happen even if I move back home, in which case I do not want to move back into my old house in Namie city. Of course I miss my home that holds my precious memory of my husband who deceased before the March 11 catastrophe. I miss him and I miss my home. However I am leaning towards moving to post-disaster public housing in my displacement area. I can hopefully move out of this temporary housing by the end next year. Sometimes I cry out of sadness and helplessness and I cannot stop crying.”

As part of relief efforts for the displaced persons whose lives have been reduced merely to seek hope and comfort from outside, AAR Japan has stood at the center of reigniting a light of vitality in the community. We created a space for ingenuity and creativity in strategizing the sustainable relief mechanism conducive to fostering community solidarity. We have held massage physical therapy sessions, ochakai (tea gathering), handicraft workshop, and visits of counselling, all of which are open to anyone. 

We recently sponsored Tohoku traditional potluck (imonikai) at two temporary housing complexes in cooperation with NPO Peace Project, for which displaced persons in temporary housing complexes came together. Imonikai potluck symbolizes the agricultural tradition of Tohoku region, which celebrates harvest of a variety of vegetables upon the arrival of fall. People make miso stew with various ingredients to nourish the body for upcoming cold winter. This is the occasion where friends and families circle around to feel the warmth of the community and reassure the collective solidarity. We had imonikai potluck for two consecutive days from October 10 – 11 in two separate temporary housing complexes and a total number of participants amounted to 210, among which included evacuees from far-away municipally subsidized rental housing complexes who cannot often take part in other activities. 

Mr. Wada who participated tells that “Food shared with large company is always good. I had a wonderful time talking with other people who I don’t get to interact with on a day-to-day basis. I know that there are people who are going to move out next spring, but this strong community bond that has been forged among us, evacuees, will not separate us even after we eventually move to different places from the temporary housing. I feel very thankful.”

There are more than 100,000 people still being displaced after 4 years and 7 months since the disaster in 2011. AAR Japan will continue to stand by them and provide support they need.  

[i]  “Restricted- residence zone” refers to areas under the restriction order of the government, which allows short-lived return on an hourly basis in efforts to advance work on clean-up, de-radiation, rebuilding infrastructure. It does not allow over-night stay.



[ii] Targeted de-radiation areas are limited to a radius of 20 m stretching outward from concentrated residential areas, failing to cover the entire contaminated field. De-contamination efforts are not pursued for non-targeted areas, including forests and mountains. In exceptional cases, contaminated areas on the periphery that pose a dire threat becomes subject to the de-contamination efforts.






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Organization Information

Association for Aid and Relief, Japan (AAR Japan)

Location: Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo - Japan
Website: http:/​/​​english/​
Project Leader:
Yuko Ito
Program Coordinator
Kamiosaki, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo Japan
$65,208 raised of $99,000 goal
272 donations
$33,792 to go
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