More than three years after an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster triggered widespread devastation in Japan, the physical scars are beginning to mend. Debris has been removed. Coastal communities are being rebuilt. Farming and fishing have resumed, and thousands of people have moved in to new housing.
But the Rotary Clubs of Koriyama West, Japan, and Englewood, New Jersey, USA, are concerned with the emotional and psychological impact caused by the triple disaster, known in Japan as 3/11, which claimed more than 19,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
In a country that prides itself on stoicism, it is difficult for survivors to seek and accept mental health care. "We believe that the first step to overcome the grief is to be able to talk about what they're going through and share their personal experiences," says Englewood club member Ikuyo Yanagisawa.
With a Rotary global grant, the clubs purchased mobile video conference equipment for four mental health clinics in areas most affected by the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis. These tools now connect mental health care providers in Japan with trauma experts at the Arnhold Global Health Institute in New York City, where psychologists treated survivors and witnesses of the September 11 attacks.
To augment the new resources, Koriyama West members will organize multidisciplinary mental health care teams from Fukushima Medical University to make outreach visits to temporary shelters and schools in and around Tohoku, a town near Fukushima. Additionally, survivors of 3/11 will be able to talk via video conference to 9/11 family members and first responders who lost loved ones and colleagues in the tragedy.
"Despite the differences between 9/11 and 3/11, survivors of both events share a similar healing process by overcoming the shock, grief, and isolation," adds Yanagisawa. Last November, the Englewood club teamed up with Japanese Medical Society of America and American Airlines to fly five members of the September 11th Families Association to Tohoku to share their stories and give encouragement to 3/11 survivors still displaced by the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster.
"The 9/11 members would open each conversation with the Japanese expression otagaisama which means 'we are all in the same boat,'" says Yanagisawa, who accompanied the team. "This helped 3/11 members open up more and feel at ease with sharing their story. I could see how deeply connected the two groups were. It was remarkable to see."
Yanagisawa says that 3/11 survivors came to her after group sessions to say how encouraged they were to move forward with their lives.
"This is our [the two participating clubs] goal: to help communities in Japan overcome their grief and find the strength to rebuild their lives," she says. "Bringing together survivors from two different disasters, from opposite ends of the world, we hope will bring about a sense of international community."