From The Field: Japan Recovery

This is a personal “From the Field” story by Direct Relief Employee Jenny Hutain, Emergency Response Manager.

September 11 marks the six-month anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. As we reach this milestone in the recovery process, Floyd Mori (Executive Director, Japanese American Citizens League), Bhupi Singh (Direct Relief’s COO/CFO), Carl Williams (Direct Relief’s Japan Disaster Relief Coordinator), and I visited the groups Direct Relief and JACL are supporting.  To date, Direct Relief and JACL have provided over $2.4 million to eight groups providing a variety of services in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures. Our trip started in the north, and we worked our way south to Fukushima. This is a brief summary of our trip.

Shanti International Volunteer Association (SVA) is providing a mobile library service to 13 temporary housing centers in four towns on a biweekly basis. The libraries in these towns are either destroyed completely, all the books have been destroyed, and/or the librarians are deceased. We saw both young kids and senior citizens at the mobile library at one temporary housing community with about 150 households. Residents of all ages use the mobile library to escape the heat and socialize.

We visited Association for Aid and Relief, Japan (AAR JAPAN), which is focusing now on meeting mid- and long-term needs.  This includes distribution of items to support everyday life, income-generating activities, and continuous surveying of needs. We briefly visited a kindergarten and adult day care center that AAR supports.  Although the kindergarten is being repaired from the tsunami damage and used by 40 children, the grounds are unsafe and the facility will have to be relocated within two years.  The adult center provides mentally disabled adults with piecework making and packaging small cookies and products to sell in Tokyo and elsewhere, allowing those families to earn some income. AAR repaired the earthquake-damaged parking lot.

We traveled next to Kesenuma City, where the damage is quite shocking still. Many of the buildings and piles of debris in smaller, more remote villages have not been cleared yet. We met a team of workers from International Volunteer Center of Yamagata (IVY)’s Cash for Work program who were clearing an elderly woman’s land. She told us that she was living alone in the house, which she moved into when she got married 50 years ago. She seemed to really enjoy the company of the workers and the opportunity to get out of the temporary housing.  One of the IVY workers we met had cleaned over 70 homes.

Next, we visited the Japan International Volunteer Center (JVC) office, where the secretary general described their challenges.  Here, 63 houses are usable among the 251 that stood before. The group’s activities, with the help of 10 to 15 weekly volunteers, include provision of water, hot baths, fish-net repair, transportation, childcare, and collaboration with local business owners. Leadership at JVC is now assessing winter preparations, community revitalization projects, income-generating projects, and infrastructure support.

We then met with Service for the Health in Asian & African Regions (SHARE),whose staff gave a brief update on their work in the medical sector. A common theme that arose in discussions with SHARE, as well as JVC and AAR, is the challenge of providing psychological care to the victims. These include a disapproval of the practice in Japanese society, lack of infrastructure to connect mental health professionals with people who need treatment, government restrictions, and lack of sufficient information about needs. Most of the groups Direct Relief supports are working to improve mental health among survivors through community-building activities.

One evening we attended a seminar hosted by Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation (JANIC) about temporary housing, attended by more than a dozen organizations concerned with this topic. The group discussed the failures and successes of the temporary housing establishments. Concerns with the physical infrastructure of the housing units were raised, especially with the upcoming winter. Participants also shared best practices and lessons learned about community-building efforts in these facilities.

In Ishinomaki we visited Peace Boat, whose numerous projects and accomplishments are impressive. We visited a temporary bathhouse and a soup kitchen run by Peace Boat volunteers. Between 250 and 280 volunteers, many of them students from Tokyo, help each week with these activities as well as cleanup work. We drove out to one of the cleanup sites, a cemetery devastated by the tsunami, surrounded entirely by debris. The work is back-breaking and it is difficult to fathom the amount of time and effort it will take to return the cemetery to a semblance of a resting place. The volunteers are enthusiastic, which is encouraging.

At the end of our trip, we spent a day in Fukushima, where JANIC staff took us to an evacuation center operating in a sports arena. We also visited a temporary housing unit and spoke with several members of the elderly population there, most of whom did not know each other before the earthquake and tsunami and have homes in the nuclear evacuation zone.

We spent some time at Shapla Neer’s office nearby, where a few dedicated staff and volunteers work just outside – and occasionally inside – the nuclear evacuation zone to support displaced and disconnected residents. In addition to needs assessment and personalized support, Shapla Neer has distributed needed household items such as window screens, blankets, and almost 1,000 sets of kitchen utensils.

It is a privilege to work with organizations that are genuinely committed and invested in the revival of these communities and individuals.  As response transitions into recovery, Japan continues to demonstrate its resiliency and strength against disaster.

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