Japan 2-Years On: From Relief to Self-Reliance

Two years after the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear accident, countless families in Japan are still suffering from the long-term mental, emotional and social toll of the disaster. As the Fukushima nuclear plant was compromised following the March 11th natural disaster, many remain evacuated from their homes due to radiation fears.  Today many live in temporary housing provided by the government or in rented apartments and are in limbo – not knowing when or if they can return to their homes and communities in the future.

International Medical Corps has been working with local partners to support community spaces, centers for the disabled, and day care facilities – all vital components in enabling affected people to rebuild social networks, share vital information and participate in social and psychosocial activities to address the emotional impact of the disaster.

JVC Community Spaces, Minami-Soma City, Fukushima

Mr. Nakajima comes to the community space earlier than anyone else; even earlier than Ms. Matsumoto, the manager of the space. Mr. Nakajima lost his wife in the tsunami. The tsunami destroyed the entire area and only three of seventy houses remained. His son, daughter-in-law, and grandson left Minami-Soma City due to the fear of radiation pollution. Mr. Nakajima remained behind in the disaster-affected area.  

In the beginning, Mr. Nakajima would sit without saying a word, watching the women who were doing origami. In April, Ms. Matsumoto asked him if he wanted to join the others and do origami. Although he refused for months, he finally agreed to join in. At first he did origami work alone or only with Ms. Matsumoto but eventually he started to join the women’s group. In September, he began to teach Ms. Matsumoto how to do even more complicated origami.

In that time, he also started to join some of the community space events. When the Yoga class instructor calls him by his nickname “Yocchan” it always brings a bashful smile  to his face. Today he is also the biggest fan of the karaoke class and has even joined a Karaoke competition. He walked for one hour to the site of the competition to participate in the event. Ms. Matsumoto often comments on how happy she is to see Mr. Nakajima smile.

IVY Daycare Center, Yamagata City, Yamagata

Kaori evacuated to Yamagata with two small children, a 7-month-old and 3-year-old. She wanted to find work in Yamagata but she couldn’t afford the fees for any of the local daycare centers. Without care for her children, she wasn’t able to go for any job interviews. One day, Kaori learned about IVY’s Daycare Center and the affordable fees which are heavily subsidized for the disaster-affected. She quickly jumped at this chance and went for a job interview. She found administrative work at a local hospital, and her children are happy to stay in IVY’s childcare center every day.

AAR Community Center for the Disabled Rehabilitation Project, Minami-Soma City, Fukushima

Beans is a social welfare facility that provides vocational training programs and daycare services to persons with disabilities around Minami-Soma City in Fukushima. Their original facility was damaged by the disaster, and so they had to relocate to a very old building that was not handicapped-accessible. The Director of Beans, Ms. Kori, expressed that the facility users are thrilled that the bathrooms have been renovated. Thanks to the expansion of the doorways, users in wheelchairs are able to pass through comfortably. Not only have the bathroom spaces become more spacious, they are much more sanitary and the users even enjoy cleaning the bathrooms every day. She pointed out that using the bathroom is such a basic yet important activity in the users’ daily lives, and the renovation has significantly improved the working environment at Beans. She is extremely thankful for International Medical Corps’ generous support.

Kazuharu is a long-time member of Beans who suffers from muscular dystrophy. After the disaster, he temporarily had to be placed at one of Beans’ sister facilities because he was neither able use to the bathroom nor bathe at the earthquake-damaged facility. The staff members expressed that Kazuharu is glad to be back with his friends at Beans. Because he is dependent on a wheelchair, the newly-built ramps are extremely useful for the staff members when they need to assist him in entering and eiting the building.

Shapla Neer’s Community Space, Iwaki City, Fukushima

When 76-year-old Yuko’s house was destroyed by the earthquake, she moved in with her son and his family. Since she didn’t want to spend all day inside, she went out every day without any particular destination. In October, Yuko was shopping in Ito Yokado, the shopping map in which Shapla Neer’s community space “Buratto” is located. Shapla Neer staff invited her in to have tea. Yuko accepted, sitting down on the sofa in front of the space. She didn’t talk about herself very much in the beginning. The staff introduced her to a regular visitor who was about the same age as her. They talked for a couple of hours at the community space and had lunch together. Since then, Yuko has participated in numerous workshops and day trips. She told Shapla Neer that this community space saved her when she was depressed and had felt that she didn’t have any place to relax after the disaster. Yuko now visits the community space every day and attends exercise class every week.

Mikie lived in Namie Town and was at a shopping mall when the earthquake hit.  As she rushed home in her car, she saw the tsunami waves and swamped ships pushed into some rice fields by the sheer force. It took her hours to get home as she tried numerous routes to get out of danger. When she finally arrived, she saw her home was a complete mess. She was devastated and went to her sister’s home and slept in her car for one night. The next day, Mikie learned about the evacuation advisory, so she escaped to her daughter’s home in Kashiwa City, Chiba Prefecture, and stayed with her daughter for one year. In April 2012, she found a rented apartment in Iwaki City and moved back to Fukushima.
Mikie still has a lot of anxiety about her future. She misses her old friends who are now living in different places. She learned about community space “Buratto” by chance and joined its patchwork and flower- pressing classes. She used to enjoy sewing at home, so she’s enjoying doing something again with her hands. She says that she is happy to be at Buratto and to join the classes. She feels like she is getting back to normal when she is at Buratto. She has even visited our community space with her grandchildren. She looks very happy to be at Buratto with her family.

Takiko’s house in Iwaki City was totally destroyed by the earthquake on March 11th. Her daughter found two small apartments in Fukushima Prefecture, one for herself and one for Takiko. Shapla Neer had visited Takiko soon after the disaster, when they were distributing kitchen items to disaster-affected households. In June 2012, Shapla Neer visited Takiko again to follow up on how she was doing. They found out that Taiko’s daughter had moved to Downtown Iwaki 3 months ago but still lived 15 minutes away by car. Takiko said that her legs were getting weaker because she hadn’t been going out recently. When she lived at home before the disaster, she used to go shopping near her house and could buy anything she needed. Now she found it difficult to walk without a cane even within her room. She also said she felt lonely when she stayed in her room.  Before the disaster, she enjoyed cooking for friends and neighbors and have a relaxing time with them, but now she didn’t have any close neighbors in her rented apartment.

Shapla Neer invited her to visit their community space, especially to take part in the health exercise class on Fridays to help strengthen her legs. Takiko took the bus to the community space to join the exercise class. She brought with her her neighbor, a fellow evacuee who had also moved to Iwaki last year due to high radioactivity in Okuma Town. 

Takiko now visits Buratto regularly and has fun with her new friends, going out to lunch or shopping together in the shopping mall. She told us that now she has a place to go and see friends every week. She feels her legs getting better since she joined the health exercise class every week. She is now able to walk about without a cane.

The People’s Community Space, Iwaki City, Fukushima

“My house in Yumoto was completely destroyed by the earthquake. Now I live in rented housing in Okakona. Right after the disaster, our entire family had to live separately and all I could think about was how I was living in a place I didn’t know. I got sick and spent many days visiting the hospital. On my way back from the hospital one day, I stopped by Town Mall Risupo. When I passed by The People’s community space, one of the staff members stopped me. She told me about what kind of place it was. We also chatted about a lot of different things. When I mentioned that I used to make handcrafts, that staff member recommended that I try their knitting class. I joined the class a few times and enjoyed myself so much that now I come to the community space with my daughter. Before visiting the salon, I hated going outside and didn’t know what to do with myself. I spent many days depressed. Now I have made some friends at the workshops. It’s fun to talk with people and I feel myself changing gradually.  Some people have said to me that I look happier than before.”

Fumiko from Yumoto, Iwaki City

“Before the disaster, I lived in Namie Town. After the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant I was forced into the life of an evacuee. I’ve been living in a rented apartment in Shimo-Arakawa, Iwaki City since August 2011. I started visiting The People’s community space after participating in the first town meeting of Sousou District in September 2012, which was being hosted in the community space. I attended the town meeting because I wanted my parents to meet people they knew from our hometown. My parents, me, and my sister Sanae participated in this meeting. After that meeting, my sister and I started to join the workshops at the community space. I used to envy the fact that there were so many events being held at temporary housing sites. This community space lets me participate in events even though I live in a rented apartment, and I’m so glad to have a place where I can enjoy new activities. I am looking forward to joining more workshops in the future.”

Hiroko from Futaba Village, Namie Town

“Before the disaster, I lived in Namie Town. After the disaster, I moved around many times, from Saitama Prefecture to Tochigi Prefecture to Fukushima City, Fukushima Prefecture. Now I live in a rented apartment in Gyokuro, Izumi Town, Iwaki City. When I first moved to Iwaki, my family was still scattered and I didn’t know anybody. I was living every day in a strange land. I stayed indoors and was very depressed.  Last April, I came to Town Mall Risupo. The community space staff called to me as I passed by. They told me about the space and invited me to join one of the workshops. I love making things, so I leapt at the chance. Now I enjoy visiting the community space, making handcrafts while chatting with people. I find that I’m able to feel positive and I enjoy leaving home. I am looking forward to continuing my visits to this community space. “

Yoko from Futaba Village, Namie Town

“I found out about the Onahama District Community Salon through a newsletter in the mail. At first, I was not interested in visiting the community space. But my sister Hiroko encouraged me and our parents to join her for the Sousou District town meeting hosted in the community space last September. While I was there, I got interested in the workshops being held at the community space. I took part in workshops like the Eco-craft class. I really enjoyed these classes. I wished I’d participated much sooner!  I would like to participate in many more workshops in the future.”

Sanae from Futaba Village, Namie Town


For 30 years, International Medical Corps has worked to relieve the suffering of those impacted by war, natural disaster and disease by delivering vital health care services that focus on training, helping devastated populations return to self-reliance.