An Unforgettable Event:
Sometimes small events happen which we know we will vividly remember for the rest of our lives. Such an event happened for me on May 24, 2013, when I found myself in the small circle of a support group for disaster survivors, listening to eight courageous young women share the traumas they had experienced during and after the triple disasters—earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear—in northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. It was incredibly moving to witness these stories and emotions that had never before been shared. The young women were amazed to learn that others too felt as they did. Immediately, they moved to support each other, in a deepening bond. It was sacred space indeed…
How was I fortunate enough to be part of this small circle within the East Japan Center for Free Clinical-Educational Service (the E-J Center) in Sendai on this date? Some background is necessary to explain this.
In 1960-61, I was a Junior Year Abroad student at ICU. Ever since then, I have felt deeply connected to Japan and the Japanese. For me, I experienced the triple disasters of March 2011 as if they had occurred in my own homeland. I have not been able to forget the valiant survivors who have lost so much. Daily, I hold them in my mind and heart.
The Great Disaster:
How can it be that Japan, the only country to experience the annihilation of two nuclear bombs, now is also experiencing the devastation of a major nuclear power accident with consequent very serious and ongoing radiation dangers? Taken together, these nuclear events are beyond comprehension, yet the people of Tohoku (northeastern Japan) must find their way again to build new lives and community, even as ongoing seismic tremors threaten new ravages from earthquakes and tsunami. The courage, energy, and resilience that living under all these circumstances requires also defies comprehension.
The events of March 11, 2011 are referred to as the “Great Disaster.” Great it was indeed. Nearly 16,000 died, plus several thousand more missing. Thousands of people lost their spouses and children one or both parents. Hundreds of thousands of homes were completely or partially destroyed. Large areas and some entire coastal villages were washed away. Areas nearest the nuclear reactors became uninhabitable. Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima prefectures sustained the most damage and loss.
The East-Japan Center:
With much concern, I followed all post-disaster reports about Tohoku in the JICUF newsletters. Of particular interest to me is the East-Japan Center for Free Clinical-Educational Service, founded in Sendai in September 2011 by Dr Hidefumi Kotani, then director of the Institute of Advanced Studies for Clinical Psychology at ICU. Within three days of the first disasters, Dr Kotani and colleagues in Tokyo opened a telephone hot line to provide psychological services to the stricken areas. This was followed by their visits to areas of special need, to treat stress disorders and to offer training workshops on stress and trauma treatment. By September, in collaboration with psychology colleagues at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in Sendai, the E-J Center was opened as an on-site, free, drop in clinic for stress and trauma treatment. Dr Kotani and several psychology colleagues came from Tokyo on weekends, volunteering their time to provide much needed treatment and education. Some of the psychology faculty at Miyagi Gakuin received the first clinic services, as they themselves were disaster survivors. Nearly two years later, the E-J Center still continues at the Miyagi Gakuin site.
In May, my husband Roy and I traveled to Japan to visit my “Japanese sisters”—my dear friends from ICU in 1960-1961. For me, a “pilgrimage” to Tohoku and possible visit to the E-J Center was an important part of our trip. Through the help of JICUF, I began correspondence with Dr Kotani. He kindly invited me to visit some classes at his Institute, The Institute of Psychoanalytic Systems Psychotherapy that he founded in Tokyo. We gladly accepted his invitation, but little did we know what we were in for!
Upon arriving at the Institute, we learned that the faculty had prepared two classes especially for us, in English, in which we (Roy, my “sister” Keiko, and I) were the only students. These classes were experiential, training us as if we were counselors being trained to offer services to survivors in Tohoku! Each class was a lengthy exercise, the first designed to elicit sharing of feelings, and the second designed to build community through writing and then combining disaster stories. The expression and sharing of feelings via these exercises–within a culture reticent toward such expression–were simply amazing to me. I was very impressed.
One week later, we visited Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in Sendai, the site of the E-J Center. This time there were four of us: Roy, myself, Keiko, and her ICU classmate Yoriko. Dr Tomoaki Adachi and his colleagues from the psychology department were our welcoming and gracious hosts. Once again a big surprise was in store for us. We expected simply to talk with the faculty about their participation in the E-J Center. Instead, on a week day rather than the usual Saturday, they held a special clinic session just so that we could attend!
Fifty survivors came; all were students at the University. Three separate groups met in one large room. We could see them all, and knew that the exercises two groups were enthusiastically doing were the very same exercises that we ourselves had experienced at the Institute one week earlier. It was exciting to see these exercises actually used with survivors!
The third group was the support group mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article.
I was concerned that the presence of four visitors might inhibit participation by the survivors, but Dr Adachi urged us to join the circle anyway. With quiet respect, Dr Adachi invited the eight women in the support group to share some of their own disaster experiences. They couldn’t do it. Not only is such sharing not culturally customary, none of these women had ever attended any part of this clinic before. Thus they came to our support circle with no advance preparation. What courage and trust this must have taken!
With personal vulnerability that I considered remarkable for a Japanese professor, Dr Adachi shared some of his own disaster experiences. Soon the women began sharing their experiences, first hesitantly, then intensely. Their stories were heartrending: family members lost, homes and villages washed away, horrific scenes repeatedly remembered, and so much more. Amazingly, sometimes positives were embedded within their powerful narratives, such as when relationships improved and concern for others was evoked. One young woman described becoming much closer to her father after fearing he was lost but finding him alive; another described going back into her damaged house to rescue her dogs, and added that in the next earthquake she would try to rescue trapped children. Every young woman shared both stories and feelings, doing so for the first time ever. The sharing was profound, both for them and for us as witnesses. At the end, each woman told how much it meant to be able to share this way, and to receive the support of the others. [Dr Adachi planned to convene this same group again before long, and the women were invited to talk with him individually if they wished.]
As part of our closing, I asked to speak with the women (through translation). I told them how honored we were to hear their stories and their emotions, and how deeply it had moved us. I commended them for having the courage even to go on after such trauma and loss, and told them how inspiring they are, and how they represent to me the future of Japan. I asked permission to take their picture as a group so that they would be with me daily, via photo on my desk, as I would be thinking of them from across the world and would never forget them. My comments were moving to them and (they said) brought them hope. Here is their photo, which does not adequately convey the sacred space within which it was taken:
These young women survivors and the professors who facilitate their trauma counseling and education through the E-J Center have certainly touched my life. As a therapist and group facilitator myself, I know the skill and sensitivity it takes to lead groups into this depth of sharing. I was most impressed with Dr Adachi’s skill and tenderness in helping these eight women reach such depth so quickly. Witnessing all this was unforgettable for me.
But what difference did my presence make to them? What can I offerthem? Of what value is it that I traveled very far to meet them, listen to them, learn from them, and now hold them in my heart? Even though I have pondered these questions for months, I have no answer. I do not know. What I do know is that I simply made a pilgrimage in faith, and in connection and solidarity with people whose suffering too much of the world seems to have forgotten.
Lest We Forget:
More than two years have passed since the triple disasters. The rest of the world, even the rest of Japan, seems to have moved on. Near Sendai, enormous piles of debris have been—and are still being—collected and burned up. The burning there will continue for another year. Land has been cleared, so that now only foundations of buildings and weeds remain. Within this wasteland, a few bedraggled buildings remain standing, including one small Shinto shrine untouched by the tsunami waters raging around it, “thanks to the Shinto gods.” A makeshift monument to children who died invites remembrance in their schoolyard. Hundreds, even thousands, of people whose homes are gone or uninhabitable are now living in newly constructed temporary housing. For the survivors, life somehow goes on. But internally, their trauma remains.
The need for services to help people release their buried feelings, so that they can go forward with life, is huge indeed. As Dr Kotani wrote me, “It is a reality that we can do little.” I replied to him: “In face of all the need, there is little you and your small, dedicated team can do. But for those people you help, you do a great deal indeed.” Eight young women were significantly helped within one hour, in a simple circle with each other, the facilitating professor, and four visitors. This would not have happened without the E-J Center.
To date, the E-J Center has provided much needed counseling, consultation, and support group services to nearly a hundred people, plus workshops and lectures to over a thousand. In the early months of the Center, few people came to use the individual treatment services offered. Thus new and innovative group psychoeducational experiences were developed, and reached many. Dr Kotani has retired from ICU but continues active leadership for the E-J Center. Through his Institute in Tokyo, he and colleagues there continue to train counselors to provide the services of the E-J Center, as well as coming to Tohoku themselves to help provide those services. Soon the EJ-Center hopes to expand into an additional clinic site in Koriyama. Dr. Kazunoi Hashimoto has recently been hired by ICU as an associate professor of clinical psychology, starting in September. He is already part of the E-J Center team, and will continue the link between ICU and the Center.
Tohoku Futures Network:
Learning more about another moving and dynamic effort to help the people of Tohoku was another special part of our trip. In Tokyo, we met with Bob Stilger, my colleague in Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects. (See www.joannamacy.net) Like myself, Bob has carried Japan in his heart since attending Waseda as part of his college education. Soon after the Great Disaster, he returned to Japan to discern how he could help. Slowly, carefully, and with tremendous patience and deep listening, Bob and his Japanese colleagues began to gather something out of nothing, which seems to me like a phoenix rising from the ashes. They are inventing new processes that could serve not only Tohoku but our world as models for transformation.
Bob Stilger and his colleagues have begun the Tohoku Futures Network (TFN), a growing network of people and communities who are using deep dialog as a way to find and form new community partnership to build a new future. TFN is under the aegis of two nonprofits, New Stories in the USA—of which Bob is Founder and Co-President—and Miratsuku in Japan. (For more information, seewww.newstories.org and http://emerging-future.org/about/what-is-miratuku.) This network, now being built across Japan, uses a combination of conversational leadership methodologies from the global Art of Hosting (www.artofhosting.org) and innovative insights from the new Future Center movement in Japan. Bob writes a very moving blog that tells stories from his rebuilding work in Japan. You can read it at www.resilientjapan.org.
While in Sendai, we also met with Bob’s TFN colleague Yuko Endo to learn more about their emerging—still being invented—work in Tohoku. Dialogues open to anyone who wants to come, as well as some carefully curated dialogues, are set up to explore topics as diverse as their own grief, creating new businesses and safe playgrounds, natural energy, developing deeper skills in innovation, and community planning. People come together (as themselves, not waiting for government leadership) to talk with each other about what they have now and how to use it. Conversations based on what they have, rather than what they need, offers ground from which to build. Networking people in dialogues about similar issues and concerns increases and strengthens their learning and makes their local efforts even more powerful.
Yuko described to us several projects she is involved with, including being a co-editor of a website, http://fukushimaontheglobe.com, that gives current and accurate information about the area. She told of helping residents test their food for radiation before eating it. When with us, Yuko wore a dosimeter (device to measure radiation levels) which she uses to indicate when she should leave an area of higher radiation. Despite lack of current media reporting about radiation and the greater emphasis on earthquakes and tsunami from people in other parts of Tohoku, people in the Fukushima area know all too well about the radiation that greatly affects their lives day by day by day.
What can YOU do?
Who among us is not traumatized, at least to some degree, by witnessing the incredible havoc nature can wreak and the even less credible damage from man-made radiation? People “near” the Fukushima nuclear reactors have to live every day with the ongoing threat of further nuclear catastrophe–especially if another earthquake would topple Daiichi #4’s cooling pool full of extremely radioactive nuclear fuel rods. What can be considered “near” when radiation from the Fukushima reactors has already encircled our globe? We are all downwind. When we all are at risk, we need to help each other as best we can. Joining energies and offering mutual support helps all of us to survive and maybe eventually thrive. At the very least we can remember those to whom our continued concern and care would mean a lot.
I invite you to join me in remembering the people of Tohoku whose world has been decimated by the triple disasters, who are so courageously trying to reclaim their lives, rebuild, and go forward. I also invite you to join me in remembering those amazingly dedicated professors and counselors who repeatedly donate their time and expertise to the E-J Center. I urge you to support the Center in any way you can, with your thoughts as well as with your dollars. Telling both the survivors and the counselors that you are thinking of them would mean a great deal; to do so, email a note to the JICUF, which they will forward to Japan.
Financial support is urgently needed in order to help the E-J Clinic’s vital work continue and expand. Contributions (tax deductible) can be made through JICUF at www.jicuf.org.
The Tohoku Futures Network also greatly needs more financial support. Contributions (tax deductible) can be made at:www.newstories.org/projects/resilient-japan. Bob Stilger can be contacted directly through the New Stories website for more information.
ICU alumni and friends will have a special opportunity to visit Japan and learn more about ICU’s post-disaster work there, through the E-J Center and more. In late March 2014, there will be a Homecoming Trip that will focus on ICU and on Tohoku and rebuilding Japan. Half the time will be spent on campus, and half off campus for cultural and educational experiences. More information will be available from JICUF later.
My main message to those I met in Tohoku was: I WILL NOT FORGET YOU!
Let us show by our actions that this is a statement from us all:
WE WILL NOT FORGET YOU!
Please share from your heart, and give what you can.