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Trauma and psychological help

March 12, 2018


EDITORIAL: 7 years from 3/11 disaster, need for psychological help still strong



A woman visited a mental health clinic in Fukushima Prefecture after North Korea test-fired ballistic missiles last summer.


The National Early Warning System (J-Alert) issued an alert, calling on residents to evacuate, in Hokkaido and 11 other prefectures in eastern Japan.


The woman said the development revived in her the memory of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. She was well aware the situation was different, but she was having the shivers, and she felt afraid to be alone, the woman said.


Seven years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, and triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.


New public housing complexes and rezoned plots of land for roads greet the eye in areas affected by the disaster. Infrastructure development is nearing the end of the process.

But that does not mean residents in those areas can now live with peace of mind.


Some people in disaster zones have recently begun complaining about their physical and mental states, saying they are again tormented by fear and a sense of loss. That is a serious development.


In Miyagi Prefecture, for example, there were 3,195 children who did not attend elementary and junior high schools in fiscal 2016, up 362 year on year. In particular, the junior high school non-attendance rate in the prefecture was higher than anywhere else in Japan. Many have pointed out that the 2011 disaster is partly responsible.


“With progress in the rebuilding process, various new problems are arising,” Miyagi Governor Yoshihiro Murai told a news conference last week.




Some disaster survivors may appear to be living peacefully, although they have something stuck deep in their hearts.


Ryoji Aritsuka, a psychiatrist in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, warned that sort of psychological wounds, if left unattended, could drag on for a very long time in the survivors’ lives.


Aritsuka’s belief is based on his experiences in Okinawa Prefecture, where he worked until five years ago. He saw elderly citizens there who said they still sometimes had to endure sleepless nights because of memories of World War II.


One said that the sound of firecrackers and images of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered a flashback of wartime scenes. One woman blamed herself for the sole of her foot being sore, saying that she was being punished for having stepped on a dead human body.


Masahide Ota, a former governor of Okinawa Prefecture, who had been mobilized as a student soldier, said in delirium on his deathbed, “Look for a cave!" "Hurry and give bullets to the soldiers!”


Aritsuka and coworkers found, in a study of survivors of the Battle of Okinawa, that 40 percent of their subjects were suspected of having post-traumatic stress disorder.


They were exposed so abruptly to a force of overwhelming power beyond their control. They saw innumerable lives being lost so unreasonably before their very eyes. They felt remorse over having survived while others died. They lost all their families, properties and foundations of life and could no longer return to their native places.


Survivors of the Battle of Okinawa endured all that 73 years ago. So did the survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster.




Okinawans were not the only Japanese who had to endure hardships of the war.


Hiroshima and Nagasaki were subjected to atomic bombings. Other areas suffered air raids. Postwar repatriation of Japanese from overseas was also a process ridden with tragedies.

In the postwar period, Japan was hit by numerous disasters, which added further to the inventory of sorrowful memories.


The bodies and souls of humans are bound to cry out with pain when they try to confine such traumatic remembrances forcibly within themselves.


Attempts are going on in areas affected by the 2011 disaster to heal psychological wounds with the help of public administrative bodies and volunteer workers. Those who had heartbreaking experiences have an opportunity to have heavy loads taken off their hearts by sharing stories and emotions among themselves, because doing so allows them to realize that they are not alone in experiencing a difficult time.


It should not be forgotten, meanwhile, that the speed of the “rebuilding process” of the heart differs from person to person.


Students in a seminar presided over by Kiyoshi Kanebishi, a professor of sociology with Tohoku Gakuin University, have collected stories of dreams from survivors of the disaster.

A young man said he has sweated many times, as one and the same scene from his memory has returned to him over and over again in his dreams. He was in a schoolyard parting with a friend, who perished in the tsunami immediately after that.


The story of another man is somewhat different. He said that, immediately following the disaster, his late wife used to appear in his dreams and pleaded to “come back,” but she later began saying that she “wouldn’t go anywhere,” which gave him motivation for living his own life.




More than a few disaster survivors believe there is no use, after all, in recounting stories of their experiences.


Residents of Fukushima Prefecture, in particular, are facing conflict and mutual distrust over the decisions they have made on evacuation from the nuclear disaster and over the compensation money they have received. That makes it difficult for them to share stories even with their relatives and neighbors, or all the more because they are relatives and neighbors.


Some believe they are not qualified to tell their own stories, because they know that others suffered more seriously. Forcing those people to speak up would only deepen their wounds.

Maiko Yoshikawa, an associate professor of psychology with Okinawa University, said one man has made a strong impression on her.


He was attending sessions for sharing war experiences, but he never said anything about himself. He only began speaking one day, when the sessions had been held for nearly six years. He said he was a soldier, and he took the lives of a parent and child.


“That was tough for me, but I couldn’t tell anybody,” Yoshikawa quoted the man as saying.

He didn’t want to tell his story, but he also wanted it to be known. The heavier the burden, the longer it probably takes before the time is right.


The healing of psychological wounds does not mean forgetting about those who perished. Nor does it mean putting the lid on memories. It means a process whereby disaster survivors learn to look back on their past as an indispensable building block of what they are now.

To make that happen, those in their surroundings should keep supporting them and watching over them over the long term.


Each of us should strive to be somebody who is close to the hearts of individual disaster survivors and is available to listen to their stories in the fullness of time.



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