Building Healthy Communities for Recovery

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

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.





Massage session
Massage session

It has been over four years since the Great East Japan Earthquake. Over 200,000 people live in temporary shelter all around Japan, but mainly in temporary housing complexes in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima Prefectures (Reconstruction Agency, June 2015). Although the construction of public restoration housing and group relocation for disaster risk reduction have started, the process is expected to take several years. This means that a great number of people are forced to remain in temporary housing complexes for several more years.

This report features AAR Japan’s activities in one of those temporary housing complexes, located in Otsuchi Town, Iwate Prefecture. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook Otsuchi Town, and soon after, a major tsunami triggered by the massive tremor engulfed the town. This led to major destruction in the east coast of Otsuchi Town. The dead and missing combined counted up to 1,285 people, equivalent to eight percent of the town’s population. Furthermore, 3,878 houses, approximately 60 percent of all houses in the town, were damaged by the earthquake and tsunami. This forced many disaster survivors to live in inconvenient temporary housing complexes until today.

AAR Japan has visited the Otsuchi temporary housing complex regularly to care for the residents’ physical and psychological health. This complex accommodates 40 families. In some areas with faster reconstruction pace, the proportion of people who remain in temporary housing complexes have dropped to 30 to 40 percent after relocation to public permanent housing and individual houses. However, the reconstruction has been extremely slow in Otsuchi Town, and in, none of the residents in the Otsuchi temporary housing complex has been able to settle in permanent housing. Unfortunately, they have no choice but to stay in the complex for several more years.

Our activity for these residents suffering from prolonged evacuation includes massage therapy and active listening. On June 13th, 2015, AAR Japan carried out team consisting of a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist, a counselor and AAR Japan staff, visited the complex to provide massages and recreational event called Ochakko. Ochakko is a tradition in Tohoku Region, where a group of friends get together and enjoy conversation over tea. On this occasion, ten residents participated. Everyone had been waiting for the event with much anticipation.

The prolonged life in the temporary housing complex has taken a toll on physical and psychological health of many residents. Living in the cramped temporary houses with nowhere to go has significantly decreased the amount of daily exercise. The lack of exercise has caused deterioration in back pains, knee pains and obesity. Lifestyle diseases have also been a problem. For them, massage alleviates much of physical pain. AAR Japan’s massages are carried out by physiotherapists and occupational therapists to ensure that the participants can receive proper treatment. Positive feedback has come from the participants including, “My body feels much lighter after the massage”, “I would like to follow the advice on daily exercise that I received from the therapist.” and “I can’t wait for the next event.”

Whilst the participants wait for their turn for massage, they enjoy conversation over tea and refreshments, which is another component of the activity called Ochakko. Some people in temporary housing complexes have lost their family to the disaster or are forced to live far away from friends. Under such circumstances, the residents become isolated, and have few opportunities to socialize with others and to relieve their stress through turning to someone for advice. Ochakko gives such people an opportunity to share their problems and concerns for the future with others. Some of the residents confide their worries to AAR Japan’s counselor. This activity has promoted alleviation of stress and anxiety, as well as enhancement of self-esteem among the temporary housing residents.

During the Ochakko, one of the participants talked about his road leading to his present state. “I lost my house to the tsunami. For a short while, I lived with my son and his family in Morioka City, Iwate Prefecture. I lived with them for about eight months, but it didn’t take me too long to realize that younger generations have different values and way of thinking from me. I’m grateful for all that they did for me, but I decided to relocate to the Otsuchi temporary housing complex.” He continued sorrowfully, “Every morning I wake up weary and heavy headed. Such feelings fade away a little after exercising. Every day I walk for about 30 minutes for my own good. AAR Japan’s therapists help me stretch out my stiff body. I even get advice about light exercises I can do on my own. I really appreciate it. Come again any time.” AAR Japan will continue to visit them regularly and provide them with much-needed physical and psychological care.

The therapists give advice on exercise
The therapists give advice on exercise
Ochakko session
Ochakko session
Carp streamers for the Children
Carp streamers for the Children's Day

May 5th is Children’s Day, a national holiday in Japan. This year, AAR Japan, in collaboration with an NPO called Peace Project, held Children’s Festival at Takami Park in Minamisoma City, Fukushima Prefecture. The event aimed at supporting leisure for families with children in Soma and Minamisoma Cities, and attracted more than 500 people.

We put up colorful carp streamers in the park, which is a tradition for Children’s Day to pray for children’s success and health. We also brought mini-bowling, mini-golf, ring toss, bouncy-ball scooping, and balloon playground to the park, which were extremely popular among the participating children. Under beautiful spring weather, children’s joyous laughter echoed throughout the day. 

Mr. and Mrs. Yoshida brought her grandson to the event. They kindly accepted to be interviewed about their family and experience at the event. The couple used to work as farmers, growing cucumbers and garland chrysanthemum,in Odaka District, Minamisoma City, which is 17 kilometers away from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. After the earthquake and nuclear accident, however, they were forced to abandon their home and agricultural land. They now live in a temporary housing complex in Kashima District, Minamisoma City, away from their daughter and grandson. “Our daughter is a single mother, and lives with this boy in Soma City. Even on national holidays, she has to work”, Mrs. Yoshida said. “She brought the event flyer to us, and we decided to come with our grandson. Our age makes it difficult to take our grandson to beach or mountain, but this kind of event is very accessible. We appreciate such an opportunity.”

As for the future prospects, the couple wants to leave the temporary housing complex in April, 2016. However, uncertainty and anxiety linger. Farming is extremely difficult to resume once interrupted. In addition, agricultural and fishery products are hit hard by rumors about radiation, and the rumors do not seem to fade away. They occasionally go back to their home in Odaka District to clean and repair.

After the interview, Mr. and Mrs. Yoshida and their grandson enjoyed the event throughout the day, eating fried-noodles and ball konjac, which AAR Japan offered at the event for free. The grandson also had fun playing in the balloon playground, and with mini-bowling and bingo. At the end of the day, Mr. Yoshida told us, “If there are more of these kinds of events, children can make a lot of good memories in Fukushima. Even when they go out of the prefecture in the future, they can reminisce about their home with full of wonderful memories. Thank you!”

Many families in Minamisoma City are forced to live apart due to the nuclear accident, as seen in the case of the Yoshida family, and as a result they face immense challenges. A number of participants told us events for families with children are much appreciated and they hope for such events in the future. 

AAR staff preparing fried noodles for 300 people
AAR staff preparing fried noodles for 300 people
1,000 ball konjac sticks
1,000 ball konjac sticks
The Yoshida family enjoying mini-bowling
The Yoshida family enjoying mini-bowling
Balloon playground was particularly popular
Balloon playground was particularly popular
Many participants enjoyed the event
Many participants enjoyed the event
Making mini Christmas trees out of pine cones
Making mini Christmas trees out of pine cones

It has been almost four years since the 3.11 disaster struck Tohoku Region in Japan. In the disaster stricken areas, some rehabilitation and reconstruction progress can be seen. For instance, new public restoration apartments have been constructed. Some people have already moved out of temporary housing complexes on their own. On the other hand, there are those who drew a losing ticket for public housing allocation and are waiting for construction of other public restoration apartments, as well as those who are hesitative about moving to public housing due to concerns about monthly rent payment (temporary housing residents do not need to pay rent).

Many of the residents at temporary housing complexes are elderly, and it is difficult for them to reconstruct house on their own, and to leave their hometown and join a new community. As such they tend to live alone in a temporary housing complex. Further, alcohol dependence is prevalent among those with a dismal outlook after losing a job to the earthquake or nuclear power plant accident, or those who cannot free themselves from much sorrow over the loss of family members and friends.

In response, AAR Japan has conducted a variety of events under “Building Health Communities Project” to prevent deterioration of physical and psychological well-being and to promote communication within temporary housing complexes in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures. In Tohoku Region, many people are reticent and reserved, and tend not to open up to outsiders. Knowing these characteristics of Tohoku people, AAR has regularly visited same temporary housing complexes to gain their trust with time and care.

This is a report from one of those temporary housing complexes in Watari Town, Miyagi Prefecture. 306 lives were lost to the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami, and 3,733 houses were destroyed or damaged in the town. AAR has been assisting Watari Town since the occurrence of the disaster, and has visited the featured temporary housing 13 times (as of the end of January, 2014).

On December 14th, 2014, AAR staff and a counselor visited the temporary housing complex. It was a cold day with snow piled on the ground. Despite the weather, a total of 16 residents gathered in the meeting hall to participate in a recreational activity to make mini Christmas trees using a pine cone. As a prior notice was disseminated among the residents, many looked forward to the event. The participants concentrated on the task of delicately putting beads on a pine cone. Towards the end of the activity, the participants started to discuss a variety of topics including daily lives at the temporary housing (life rhythm, handicrafts that they made), the prospect of their new house (anxiety and relief about moving into a new house), and their health (tips for cold prevention and care for maintain their physique).

At the beginning of the activity, however, it seemed that a sense of unity was lacking in the temporary housing complex. It was probably because the residents came from several different communities in Watari Town, and they separated themselves into small community groups. Nonetheless, once mini Christmas trees were made, the walls between the groups broke down. They enjoyed interacting with each other. After the activity that required much concentration, we ended the day with calisthenics.

When everyone was almost finished with the mini Christmas tree making, a lady in her 80s approached an AAR staff member, and started to talk about her experience of the day the disaster struck. “Immediately after the earthquake, I asked the company president if I could go home”, she recalled. “That was the right judgment call. My colleagues who stayed at work passed away…  I survived, but I only had clothes I was wearing, and everything else was washed away. Not even a picture is left. It’s sad.” She continued, “I can’t fit in this temporary housing complex where most people are from different communities. All the houses are so close to each other, and I feel like my neighbors are peeping in my house. This had never happened to where I used to live. I’m fed up with living in this cramped cave.”

Although almost four years has passed, and many people lived in the same complex, there are still those who isolate themselves from their neighbors. Those people do not have anyone or any opportunities to talk about their feelings and bitter experience of the disaster. Some pour out their feelings when AAR visits the temporary housing complexes. It is not easy to assuage someone’s grief over loss of not only friends and family, but also livelihood and hometown. What we can do is to be with the survivors’ hearts and offer those who isolate themselves opportunities to interact with others. Four years since the disaster, such psychosocial care is still needed. AAR will continue to provide the survivors with psychosocial care through Building Healthy Communities Project. 

The completed mini Christmas tree
The completed mini Christmas tree
Calisthenics after the handicraft activity.
Calisthenics after the handicraft activity.
This male participant lost his wife to tsunami
This male participant lost his wife to tsunami
The local musicians played the ocarina (4 Oct
The local musicians played the ocarina (4 Oct '04)

AAR Japan organises a variety of events for temporary housing residents, who have been living in a dire situation ever since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, for the purpose of giving joy and encouragement to, and revitalising communities.

As one of such efforts, we organized violin and ocarina concerts at a temporary housing complex and community hall in Minamisoma City, Fukushima Prefecture and Watari Town, Miyagi Prefecture on 4th and 5th of October, 2014. The temporary housing complex in Minamisoma City accommodates evacuees from Odaka-Ku near Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Their home was not only destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami, but also contaminated by radiation from the power plant, which prohibits the evacuees from returning to their homes. Watari Town is located in the coastal area in the south of Miyagi Prefecture and had a vibrant town life with a prospering fishing industry and a popular beautiful beach before the disaster.

On this occasion, we invited Ms Mitoko Sato, a Japanese violinist active in France who has been playing the violin in the disaster-stricken areas, to play in the temporary housing communities. ”I live off music”, she says and explains that “the only way that I can help the disaster survivors is through music”. At the concerts, she collaborated with a group of local ocarina musicians from Soma City, Fukushima Prefecture, upon her request.

The concert started off with ocarina performance. The local musicians played Japanese popular songs, folk songs, and local traditional songs. The warm timbre of ocarina brought smiles to the residents of temporary housing complexes. Violin performance of classic music, which followed the ocarina performance, fascinated the audience, as well. The highlight of the concert was the joint performance of ocarina and violin. They played chorus music, which everyone knows from his/her school days, as well as Japanese National Television’s rooters’ song, “Hana wa Saku (Flowers bloom)”  “Hana ha Saku” was performed alongside sign language. The harmony of the violin and ocarina was truly beautiful. The audience brought back smiles to home after the concerts.

Three years and eight months after the disaster, some progress toward rehabilitation can be recognised in terms of construction of private housing and public permanent housing for the evacuees. However, approximately 188,000 people still live in temporary housing complexes in three prefectures affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. In order to support these evacuees and survivors, AAR Japan is determined to continue our assistance activities in disaster-stricken areas.

"Hana wa Saku" was performed along sign language
"Hana wa Saku" was performed along sign language
The violinist Ms Mitoko Sato
The violinist Ms Mitoko Sato
Joint performance of violin and ocarina
Joint performance of violin and ocarina

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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
$65,926 raised of $99,000 goal
274 donations
$33,074 to go
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