Q&A with Peace Winds' Natsu Nogami

Japan, March 30, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Peace Winds' Natsu Nogami, who is working with Mercy Corps staff to bring Comfort for Kids to Japan's youngest earthquake and tsunami survivors. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Natsu Nogami (center) of Peace Winds with local youth outside the Kesennuma evacuation shelter. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

I recently sat down in Tokyo with Natsu Nogami of Peace Winds, our Japanese partner organization. In the coming weeks and months, Natsu will work with Mercy Corps staff and local Japanese psychologists and social workers to bring Comfort for Kids, a program that helps children recover emotionally from trauma, to Japan. I wanted to get her initial insights on her new job.

Joy Portella: Tell me about yourself.

Natsu Nogami: I’m a lawyer and human rights advocate. I’m enrolled in a PhD program at Kyushu University focusing on international refugee and migration law, especially as it impacts children. I’m about halfway done with my degree. In recent years, I’ve worked in Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Thailand on a mix of fascinating issues including child labor, labor standards, emergency relief and support for displaced families.

Where were you when the earthquake happened? How did you respond?

I was with my family on Kyushu Island in the south of Japan. We didn’t feel the earthquake at all. But as soon as I heard about it, I wanted to do something. I had worked with Peace Winds in Sri Lanka, so I volunteered to help. I started doing translation and research work in Tokyo, and then was sent to the devastated areas in northern Japan to help deliver humanitarian supplies.

Aren’t you supposed to be finishing your PhD?

I was going to begin my studies again in April but I’m fine with the delay. With all that’s doing on in Japan, now is not the time to study.

Why are you excited about Comfort for Kids?

I’m passionate about working with children and improving their lives. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Playing a leadership role in Comfort for Kids is a great next step. I’m also happy to do this important work in my own country. This is very personal for me.

With so many pressing needs in Japan, why is psychosocial help a priority?

After a big natural disaster, there’s always an urgent need for physical goods like food, water and shelter. But people are also impacted on a deeper level. If a child has a traumatic experience like seeing a tsunami or losing family members, and she doesn’t deal with that trauma, it can impact her in the long term. It can also impact her family and broader society.

What kind of stress or trauma are children facing as a result of the earthquake and tsunami?

Many children living in the cramped conditions of shelters are stressed, and some were traumatized by the earthquake, tsunami, rescue experiences or losing family and friends. Life is also tough for children who’ve been taken in by host families. It’s not typical for Japanese people to live in group settings, and we always feel like we’re imposing on people when we’re in their homes. After a prolonged period of time, that’s very stressful.

Is this kind of program unusual for Japan?

It’s not part of Japanese life to reach out for emotional or psychological help. If you do, it means you’re very sick and there’s too often embarrassment attached to that. But there are more and more people in Japan suffering from depression, especially after an event like this. People need to understand that it’s not just acceptable for them to get help; in many cases, it’s necessary.

Any ideas about how Comfort for Kids will be adapted for Japan?

I have some initial ideas. We want to make sure that getting emotional help feels natural for kids and adults. The approach shouldn’t be that this is formal counseling or an official intervention. Japanese people need to see this as a natural part of life or they might reject it.

Also, this disaster presents unique challenges. People have anxiety because of the earthquake and tsunami, but also the nuclear issue. In addition, there are many elderly people in Japan who are stressed and depressed, and we’d like to incorporate them into the program. I’d also like sports to be included because inactivity, especially in the evacuation centers, is a big problem.

What’s your professional ambition?

I don’t have ambitions. I just want to give what I have. I want to make sure people can live in dignity. I don’t really have a plan for the future; I just do what’s best for the present.