Starting Comfort for Kids in Japan

Japan, April 6, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Kesennuma is one of the worst impacted — nay, obliterated — cities on Japan’s north coast. We are piloting Comfort for Kids at a 700-person shelter here. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

I haven’t blogged since about this time last year when, in another far-away-from-here country stricken by a similar disaster, I saw destruction and loss just like here in Japan. Yet, my experience and observations in Japan cannot be more different from those I witnessed one year ago in Haiti.

I have been in Japan for five days. I arrived at our program site yesterday. Kesennuma is one of the worst impacted — nay, obliterated — cities on Japan’s north coast. I got a tour of the disaster — we went to one of the coastal areas which had been mixed commercial and residential, and is now a mixture of mud, asphalt, splinters of wood and buildings — and our Peace Winds Japan colleague said there are 500 more kilometers just like this. I asked where the debris will be put (there is not a tradition of landfills here) and no one knew. With 500 kilometers affected, this is a very big, looming question. Japan, after all, is an island with already-limited, densely-populated land.

Walking through the commercial and residential areas of Kesennuma gives both fright and hope. The roads are totally cleared — a Herculean task. It has been more than three weeks since the tsunami washed the sea onto this town. There is a strange calm and order that only adds to this surreal experience. Clean-up crews are clearing what buildings remain, people are venturing into what is left of their homes and businesses and salvaging their possessions; one house had four stacked trunks in front, recovered from inside. The debris is being stacked in orderly piles for removal to somewhere. The sludge and mud from the streets and sidewalks is almost 100 percent is gone. I don't know where it went.

I came here to start up Mercy Corps’ Comfort for Kids program — a psychosocial program aimed to reduce the psychological impact from such trauma to children. From a psychological perspective, the Japanese are a people unlike others I have worked with. Their own cultural values contribute to a very calm situation. Their pain and suffering is not displayed. Yet, these people have lost everything, in some cases, everyone. Their home, their town, their entire way of life has been obliterated. Yet, their immediate concern is on restoring order and clean-up.

In the coming days, we will pilot our training program at a local shelter of 700 people. The community-based approach of moving survivors to schools and using classrooms as temporary shelter is excellent here. There is order, calm, respectfulness and quiet. We visited the shelter around 6 P.M..; it was 48 degrees in the room. People had very tidy stacks of quilts for sleeping. Some have moved in with families in the area, but it is not the tradition here to take people into your home if they aren't family, and homes are very small, so that is not a hugely viable option.

There is an indigenous psychotherapy here called Morita. It includes being able to accept what has happened in order to be able to move on, that decision making is about how to make things better — not emotionally based, it is action-focused; that the event happened to individuals but does not define them. According to Morita, after catastrophic events people shift from strictly regulated patterns to heroic actions.

These brief snips help me see why here is so different than elsewhere. It sounds like a philosophy that could be of added value in any disaster — and we are lucky it's here.