Psychological Impact of the Tsunami in Japan

Cocoro (the Japanese word for mind) is a Japanese charity set up by Takiko Ando to offer mental health care and support to the victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan (March 2011) by providing 15 minute aromatherapy and massage treatments.

The majority of people in the disaster areas either lost their homes completely or they were so badly damaged they were inhabitable. The victims were forced to flee from the giant tsunami wave leaving all their possessions behind. Many lost family and loved ones. Most people in the area actually witnessed the tsunami and dozens of victims were swept up by the tsunami. Whilst the victims know they were fortunate to have survived, the psychological impact of haunting memories have taken its toll upon them.

There are reports of nightmares, depression, reliving the memory of the tsunami both visually and aurally, experiencing mood swings, and insomnia. In fact, when Takiko Ando, founder of Cocoro, visited the disaster area in May 2011, 95% of people were suffering from insomnia, and most of them were taking sleeping pills or sedatives. For some people, even being alone in a room in the daylight hours was traumatic.

Coping with Trauma

The victims have a tendency to compare their experience with that of others and try to focus on those worse off than them. This coping mechanism, common in Japanese society, helps them to reconcile the trauma they have experienced. Japanese people do not tend to talk about how they are feeling. However, this habit of bottling up feelings behind a brave face means they have no outlet for their emotions.  There is a deep need of people to find a way of healing emotional wounds.

During a massage treatment, the victims often begin to talk, which leads to a torrent of emotional outpouring. Talking to someone who is on the ‘outside’ or somehow detached from the situation can healing. Most talked about how the tsunami swept away their town, or they talk of the incredible noise, others describe how they ran away and, of course, so many talked of how many people they lost. Men suffer deeply because they fear for the future and worry about how to provide for their families.

Impact on Children

Normally, Japanese families so not hug or touch each other. However since the trauma of the tsunami, Japanese children have been reaching out for the comfort of touch.

  • A 3 year-old girl lost 4-5 friends in the disaster, and all the teachers in her kindergarten were swept away. She has subsequently developed a deep fear of unusual sounds and is highly sensitised to the aftershocks. She did not want to talk about tsunami. She even tried to stop her parents from talking about it. During a massage she smiled as she began to talk about her dreams.
  • An 11 year-old boy watched images of the tsunami on You Tube for hours on end. He watched as his school and home were swept away. He lost his brother and sister in the disaster. He said that he misses his home town and wishes to go back to his school. The adults disapproved of him watching the video, but this is possibly how he is making sense of it. When the boy came for his massage he was very shy at first, but as the treatment progressed he kept saying ‘this is amazing, this is so good’. He said it was a new experience for him, and he wanted to take some Shea Butter to share with his friends.

Sharing our experiences of working with victims of the Tsunami

In April 2012, my husband and I travelled to Rikuzentakata to work with Cocoro Charity bringing healing touch to the victims of the tsunami through a Positive Touch for Children programme. You can read more on the blog feature Our Experiences of Volunteering in a Tsunami Disaster Area.

We are also happy to share our experiences and photographs with local groups. All proceeds will be donated to Cocoro Charity to help maintain their important work. We are already booked at several events including local holistic therapy support groups, W.I. groups, St Wilfrid’s Hospice, Chichester, and the Japan Society in Petersfield. Please contact Mary Atkinson if you would like to arrange this.

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