Posted - May 2016


by Doug Walker, CIS Affiliated Consultant

I have spent the last few months reflecting on my recent stay in Japan where I completed a Fulbright Specialist Scholarship at Fukushima University. Working alongside Japanese mental health professionals, I assisted in identifying and responding to the long-term mental health challenges created by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami and Level 7 meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.  Just over five years ago, what is now known as the Great East Japan Earthquake resulted in the widespread destruction of buildings all along the Pacific Coast of Japan, particularly in Iwate Prefecture, Miyagi Prefecture, and Fukushima Prefecture, and generated a massive tsunami, the highest ever measured in Japan at 133 feet.  Along with massive numbers of deaths, injury and missing persons, these events also caused over 225,000 people to move from their homes to find temporary or permanent housing outside the impacted areas of the eastern Tōhoku region. Although I have spent the last 10 years of my career specializing in disaster mental health, the magnitude of loss created directly by the earthquake and tsunami is still difficult to grasp.

But it is the ongoing nuclear disaster, and the permanent damage it has inflicted on the close-knit coastal fishing and farming communities of the region that I cannot fully comprehend.  Over the last decade, I have responded to many types of natural and man-made disasters using a five-point “compass,” derived from empirical research in the field of disaster mental health.  The cumulative findings of this research have given me clear direction in helping individuals and communities recover from large-scale traumatic experiences. Up until my time spent in Fukushima City and the surrounding region, I believed that establishing: 1) a sense of safety, 2) physical and emotional calm, 3) a sense of self– and community efficacy, 4) social connectedness, and 5) hope were all possible after large-scale disasters and each a natural course if given the support from government, NGOs, community, friends and family.  But the ongoing nuclear disaster, the massive amounts of Cesium-137 in the soil (with a half-life of just over thirty years) has caused my empirical compass to fail because of the loss, grief, ongoing health threat and anxiety associated with the contaminated landscape of the region surrounding the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.  My questions as I tried to find my bearings: How can people have a sense of safety when the soil beneath them is emitting high levels of radiation?  How can you establish calm if you are unsure of the long-term health implications of the radiation in the environment, food, water?  How can you be connected to others if your multigenerational family unit has been shattered by evacuation, and will never be put back together again? How can you have any sense of efficacy if you cannot return to your home for 30 years, or ever? Where is hope, if everything you know is lost to radiation?

But I eventually found my five principals of recovery (safety, calm, connectedness, efficacy and hope) while visiting a small pre-school school in Aizuwakamatsu, which sits under the watchful protection of the Iide-Asahi Mountains.  This school was created for the young children of Okuma, a small coastal village that sits only five kilometers from the Daiichi Plant. A two hour’s drive from Okuma, and a world away culturally, these young students, whose parents had followed the mandatory evacuation orders on March 12, 2011 have never seen their hometown.  Beyond reading, writing and arithmetic, these are students also learning about Okuma.  The music, food, and history of Okuma are taught alongside other pre-school requisite subjects – and the children have a wonderful time experiencing their hometown, even though it is from a distance. 

I found safety, calm, connectedness, efficacy and hope all thriving at this small school. The school, like most schools has provided a sense of safety for the children, who are being protected by caring teachers, volunteers and the surrounding adoptive community of Aizuwakamatsu.  The classrooms and hallways echoed the sounds of joy and learning and with this hum of activity came a strong sense of peace and calm.  The children, teachers, and volunteers have created a new learning community, though it is not “home”, it is where love and caring connects people with each other.  With the children graduating and moving into local schools, there is a growing sense of efficacy, that the community of Okuma, although fractured and displaced is seeing future generations grow, learn and understand where they come from.  I saw hope in the smiles and positive attitudes of everyone at the school. But it was a Kindergartener who I passed at the entrance as I was taking off my slippers and putting on my shoes to leave that communicated hope in a simple gesture, with no words.  She gave me a big smile and a “high five” as she passed as if to say “We’ve got this!”

After catastrophic man-made or natural disasters, it is the reestablishment of homes, jobs, schools, day care centers, and houses of worship that help drive the long-term recovery of communities.  Sadly, Japan has recently experienced other large earthquakes, this time on the southern island of Kyushu in Kumamoto Prefecture.  Japanese news reports from the region describe the urgency in reopening the region’s schools to students.  The reopening of schools after disasters not only benefits the students, parents, teachers and school administration.  It is the re-establishment of normalcy that schools provide, the comforting daily rhythm that plays through school uniforms, crossing guards, book bags, school buses, and car lines that sends the message to students and outward to the surrounding community that they are safe and ready to learn and grow. I am extremely grateful to the school for opening its doors so that I could meet the future of Okuma and to my Japanese colleagues for guiding me to where hope lives – in the classrooms and playgrounds of Japan.

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