TOWARD RECOVERY, HEALING: Japanese relief workers visit Bay Area for workshops


Relief workers from Japan with Dr. Reiko Homma True (lower left), at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco’s Japantown. The workers came to study mental health care methods. photo by Kahn Yamada

RECOVERY AND HEALING — Relief workers from Japan with Dr. Reiko Homma True (lower left), at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco’s Japantown. The workers came to study mental health care methods. photo by Kahn Yamada

On the week of Sept. 18, 12 employees and volunteers who are aiding various relief and reconstruction efforts in the earthquake and tsunami devastated regions of Japan came to the Bay Area to learn about community-based health care, mental health services and training, and enjoy a brief respite to recover from the stress of the past six months.

The delegation was led by Hiroshi Oe, general secretary of the Japan Overseas Christian Medical Cooperative Services (JOCS). It included members of the Japanese YMCA branches, educators, a nurse, nonprofit program coordinators and a pastor. Participants included people such as Tomoko Sagawa, a college student and volunteer for the Youth in Iwaki Project in Fukushima, and Shigeru Shimada, general secretary of the National Council of YMCAs of Japan.

Some of the participants had provided relief during previous disasters. Oe had worked for the YMCA of Kobe when the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck near Kobe in 1995. He had previously traveled to the U.S. for the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California’s (JCCCNC) first mental health program for relief workers following the Hanshin earthquake.

Oe expressed his gratitude to JCCCNC Executive Director Paul Osaki and the organization for their long-standing relationship. Oe and Osaki have kept in touch since the Kobe earthquake. They started the Shinzen USA Nikkei Youth Goodwill Sports Program, a cultural and athletic exchange for youth through basketball, in 1997. Oe, who often travels to San Francisco, described the city as his second home during a dinner the JCCCNC held for the participants on Sept. 19.


Addressing Post-Traumatic Stress

The reasons for participating in the program varied according to the individual. Takako Kosaba, a registered nurse from the Tohoku University Hospital in Sendai, said her primary concern was for the rising rates of suicide among survivors.

“PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) will happen,” said Sayaka Azuma, the program officer at the Kessenuma office of the Shanti Volunteer Association. She hoped to learn methods to help children afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder.

While sharing Azuma’s focus on children, Yuriko Hisano, a coordinator for Kokkyo Naki Kodomotachi, was also worried about herself. “Can I keep going myself?” she asked. “I want to learn about caring for the self as well.”

Two teachers, Yuichi Kato of the Sendai YMCA and Satoshi Matsuo of Morioka Shirayuri Gakuen High School in Iwate, stressed their desire to help their students.

Kato was on the 21st floor of a hotel for a graduation ceremony for his vocational school students on March 11. Despite fearing for his life while the building shook violently, he helped his students evacuate and return home after the initial shaking. He did not realize the extent of the damage when he first arrived at home.

Kato teaches 100 students between the ages of 18 and 20. Of his students, he said 15 of them lost a parent and/or home to the disaster. While the YMCA had opened evacuation centers and children’s day camps, Kato felt the staff was not yet ready to handle the survivors’ mental trauma. “I want to help them experience their own feelings, to feel it’s ‘OK to be me,’” said Kato.

Yoshino Horikoshi, a program coordinator for the Association of Aid and Relief, said the opportunity to learn therapy methods in America was unique. “There aren’t many chances to learn about things like ‘somatic art therapy’ in Japan,” she said. Somatic art therapy is a method for people suffering post-traumatic stress to express their feelings through the visual medium of art.

The Japanese often overlook the issue of mental trauma and PTSD. Oe, Osaki and others agreed that the trauma felt by survivors would be deep and that Japan is poorly equipped to help them because such services are uncommon. While the Kobe earthquake was devastating, Oe said the scale of the March 11 disaster was much greater.

“Kobe affected a city, it’s smaller compared to the 500 square kilometers (approx. 193 square miles) that devastated the northeastern coast leaving 15,000 dead and 5,000 still missing,” said Oe. “Plus, the psychological impact of the tsunami and Fukushima further complicates the trauma people experienced.”

Fukushima Prefecture continues to deal with an ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which suffered a meltdown due to a failure of safety devices after the earthquake and tsunami.

According to Hisao Mitsunaga, secretariat of the delegation and executive director of the National Council of YMCAs of Japan, the scale of the disaster leaves relief workers no sense as to the phases of recovery. “When will phase one end? Where does emergency relief end? I feel the rest of the nation is feeling the same.”

The Rev. Itaru Takesako of the United Church of Christ in Japan felt that addressing mental health needs in providing post-disaster relief was important. As a pastor in Fukushima, he had met a survivor of the Kobe earthquake. The survivor told Takesako that the mental needs of survivors were poorly addressed following the 1995 earthquake.

As a pastor, Takesako worked to help former members of cults overcome identity crises. “When cult members leave their cult, they must rebuild their sense of self,” he said.

As with the cases of those whose lives he helped reconstruct, he felt disaster victims were left unsure what to believe in following March 11.


Relief, Recover and Rebuild

The participants’ visit was paid for and administered by the Northern Japan Earthquake Relief Fund (NJERF), a JCCCNC fundraising effort that is committed to providing relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts to the most devastated regions of Japan.

“It really felt it was our responsibility as Japanese Americans to do this,” said Osaki. He thanked the community at the reception held at the JCCCNC — in San Francisco’s Japantown — for the relief workers.

The fund has thus far raised nearly $3.7 million; various groups and individuals are continuing to raise money. A total of $850,000 of that money has been allocated for mental health. The Roots Mental Health Project, which provides 600 meals every weekend to survivors as well as counseling and mental health services, received $100,000. The remaining funds are being used for various mental health projects the JCCCNC is organizing.

The 12 relief workers invited for training are funded by the “Towards Recovery and Healing” program, which is administered by the Northern Japan Earthquake and Relief Fund. Osaki said that other programs are a part of this fund as well, such as “Project Aloha,” which aims to help revive the Spa Hawaiians Resort in the city of Iwaki — famous for the 2006 award-winning “Hula Girls” movie — as a center for tourism, and “Crayons for Japan,” which will supply children’s shelters and centers with art supplies to help children express their feelings through art.

“Ten years after 9/11, the responders are still dealing with PTSD,” said Osaki. “Many are unable to work, even now.”

At the beginning of the welcome dinner, Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Hiroshi Inomata urged the group to “work hard” during their training, but also to find time to refresh themselves. “Once they return, they have much work to do,” Inomata said.

The JCCCNC hosted the event, which invited NJERF’s major donors and others who helped put together the fund. Dinner participants were invited to draw and write messages of hope on shikishi (autograph sign boards) to each of the relief workers.


A Bond is Formed

After a week of training and workshops, the group felt empowered by the experience, and described it as having offered a unique sense of bonding. “I had to study with so many people I never knew before,” said Kosaba. “It built a very strong bond among us.”

The relief workers learned therapy methodologies through workshops and fieldtrips to local community service groups to learn about the Bay Area’s care of seniors, children and citizens who need help. Notably, they visited the Allen Baptist Church of Oakland to study their community service efforts and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

They finished their week with a tour of San Francisco’s cultural and ethnic enclaves, and were invited to the JCCCNC’s 25th anniversary dinner. The tour included a walkthrough of Chinatown, the Mission District and the Castro District.

Michiko Nagai, chief director for Global and Local Community Services of the Kobe YMCA, said the trip was educational. As a survivor of the Kobe earthquake, she said she wanted to learn more about how she could help as an aid worker.

“In Japan, it is generally seen that people (with PTSD) are sick, but not so much in the U.S.,” said Nagai. “As part of the YMCA we say ‘spirit, mind and body,’ but there is still much to be done to address the needs of the spirit and mind.”

As the workers return to Japan, they each said they hoped to take their skills to help not only the people they care for, but to share their experiences and skills with co-workers and fellow relief workers in Japan. “I have a friend who is also a nurse, I want to teach and help them with the skills I learned as well,” said Kosaba, whose thoughts were similar to many of the other workers.


To donate to the NJERF, call (415) 529-1322. By the end of the year, the JCCCNC projects that it will have incurred more than $200,000 in costs to administer the relief fund. To donate to the Northern Japan Earthquake Relief Operational Fund, call (415) 567-5505.

One response to “TOWARD RECOVERY, HEALING: Japanese relief workers visit Bay Area for workshops”

  1. Mariko Avatar

    The Japanese often overlook the issue of mental trauma and PTSD? There are over 100,000 nationally licensed (Psychiatrists, Psychiatric Social Workers (PSWs) and Nurses in out patient psychiatric community clinics and hospitals) and board certified JSCCP Clinical Psychologists who may not agree with this. These mental health professionals in Japan deserve better recognition in English media so please make your readers and researchers aware of them as they are all here in Japan working to help those who have experienced trauma through the earthquakes, tsunami and fears of radiation from the three nuclear reactors that are still emitting unnatural levels of radiation in the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant Disaster.

    As for the awareness of mental trauma and PTSD in Japan, how could that be so and yet at the same time have a mental health professionals membership of over 1000 in the Japan:
    Japanese Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (JSTSS)

    The JSTSS “is a professional membership organization devoted to advancement of understanding of traumatic stress and treatment of the affected people, through exchange of scientific knowledge and clinical experience. JSTSS is comprised of various professionals undertaking trauma research, treatment, and support.”

    It is kind of you to give some people who have been working so hard in volunteer work in the first six months of this national disaster that we are all living through in Japan.

    Please continue your good work to support volunteers and aid workers. Also I really hope you will make it clear on your website and to your volunteers that in Japan only a Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour nationally licensed medical doctor/psychiatrist is allowed to assess the presence of symptoms of PTSD, diagnose and provide therapy and treat ASD, Panic Disorder or PTSD and it takes a trained, credentialed, supervised and experienced mental health professional in Japan to recognize symptoms of trauma and PTSD. If someone is diagnosed with PTSD then the medical treatment and prescription of medications to alleviate and treat PTSD can only be given by a psychiatrist or medical doctor. For and ordinary member of the public to do so is illegal in Japan. Thank you in advance for your kind consideration of these points.

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