Cocoro’s Visit to Tsunami Area – October 2012

The Cocoro team visited the Tsunami area for the fifth time between October 3rd and 5th 2012. A year and half after the natural disaster that destroyed so many lives, the local people are finding it even harder to cope with the mental trauma. The local people – both adults and children – welcomed the Cocoro team of therapists and said they were so looking forward to an aromatherapy and positive touch because they knew it was only of best ways to help them to find some peace within themselves. Those who had experienced the benefits before, were really keen to queue for their 15 minute session.

This report was written by Takiko Ando, founder of Cocoro Charity, bringing aromatherapy to victims of the tsunami. The team consisted of four therapists from Japan including Rena Kato, an ex-student of holistic therapies at Chichester College, (pictured above) and local supporters – Keiko Sugiwara and Kouichi Kimura – plus six volunteer staff from the local area.

1. Our Plan

We visited 6 places on the north east coast of Japan including 4 nurseries and kindergartens in 3 days.

2. Current situation in the coastal area

This visit took place a year and half since the earthquake and Tsunami occurred.  When we visited six months ago, only the bases of buildings remained. Now the grounds have become green fields and it was very difficult to recall that there had once been a big town here. One of our therapists who came for the first time said it was really hard for her to imagine and believe this area had once been a town with shops, restaurants and houses. It is only the mountains of wreckage that show the large number of buildings destroyed in the earthquake and tsunami. There was less wreckage than on our previous visit but we could still see many piles of debris all around. It is very shocking to see these still remained a year and a half after the disaster. Although this high school (below) is 2 km away from the sea, the buildings were still surrounded by a lot of sea water.

The local people are still finding life very difficult and inconvenient as many are still living in the small temporary houses. However, the numbers of the temporary stores has increased since our last visit 6 months ago.  We saw a supermarket, pharmacy, and some restaurants and a temporary Chinese restaurant. Local people frequently tried to show us many photographs taken before the disaster.  They said that it was important to them that we could remember the town and landscape as it used to be.

3. Adult’s mental health care using aromatherapy

We have already worked in several locations and the local people were longing to have us and told us how much they were looking forward to having aromatherapy care from us.  We provide hand, foot or shoulder massage for 15 minutes.  The local people said these 15 minutes were special as it is only the time they have the space for themselves to think about what has happened to them.  Their normal workload has greatly increased since the disaster as many people died in this town.  Many companies are forced to do the same amount of work with half the number of employees.

When people claim they cannot sleep at night, they are prescribed sleeping pills.  If people are suffering a mental disorder, they get medication.  Some people told us they are worried about taking so much medicine. We were surprised that so many people are taking sleeping pills and other medication to calm them. It would be helpful if they could take a rest or try some breathing exercises but they say there is place to do this, or they simply do not have the time.

Many people have left the town as they went to other cities to get jobs or to move near to families. Those who remain in the area normally have reasons and they cannot run away or avoid the situation. All they do is just try everything to keep going.  They are not sure of the future but they stay patient and even when their bodies are tired, they do try more.

 After a massage, we noticed that their faces looked very bright and the people who were watching what we do were very surprised by this change. People made very positive comments: “When we have Cocoro’s massage, we can sleep well on that night.” and “I was very looking forward to this.” and “No other volunteering work makes everyone so happy.”

4. Children’s mental health care using positive touch

It has been a year since we started “aroma and touch class” for children in the Tsunami disaster area.  We were invited by 2 other kindergartens on this time.  The 20 minute programme starts with reading from our original story book which explains how the aroma of plants, leaves and flower can help relax people and animals.  Then we do a fun game to encourage children to guess different aromas. They love joining in. Normally the answer is orange, lavender and lemon.

Lastly we have a peer massage session using story massage.  Children line up on the floor and massage each others’ backs through clothes while we read the story from the book and show the illustrations. This is popular because it is easy to continue, everyone can be involved, and no preparation is needed. The story was written by Mary Atkinson, UK representative of Cocoro, and illustrated by Alice Clark, a student from Brighton.

The local people told us that many charities visit the area but not many of them involve the children.  Even those people without children told us that the sound of the children’s laughter made them feel happy.  Their smiling, relaxing faces, and deep breathing, made everyone – children and adults – feel better in themselves. A child’s smile has amazing power.

In winter time there is a lot of snow around so we cannot go to the area. Instead, we send a newsletter with information about aromatherapy and touch.  Some of elementary school students who had read our newsletter told us they wanted to try some aromatherapy massage.  We gave these children some foot massage.

Parents told us that the children seem fine on normal days now. However, when there are aftershocks, which still occur every two weeks, some of the children cry, some go to the corner of room, some grab their parents’ legs, and some start to get very nervous.  They just do not have a way to express their emotions and parents and children are looking for something that will help to heal their emotional wounds.

In one place, only one high school girl was saved but more than one hundred people were swept away. She survived but she saw everything.  She kept re-experiencing the trauma with flashbacks and nightmares. She began tormenting herself with questions about why she was still alive when others had died. Eventually, she could not control her mental condition and she is in a mental hospital now.

5. Aromatherapy massage for elderly people

This is the second time that we have been offered the use of the hot spring centre. The number of people who queued up for massage surprised us. Last time in April 2012, we had many people but sometimes we had a time to rest.  This time it was a continuous flow of people. The owner of the centre told us that all our leaflets had been taken the day after her put them out, and he had to print some more.  He had experienced aromatherapy massage for the first time when we visited in April 2012. He said that it had been so beneficial that he went to the temporary houses himself to give out leaflets.

As we worked during weekday mornings and afternoons, we had a lot of elderly people. This generation has a very strong dialect but we had five volunteer local receptionists which was very helpful.  Also, we found that the people relax more when they hear the local dialect before their massage.

These local volunteers said they were very glad to be able to do something positive to support the people in the town.  We believe this kind of co-operation and teamwork with the local people is very important in helping them to rebuild their lives.

Many men came for massage too.  The men told us their concerns about their future, their life and their family.  We felt they were looking for a place to rest.  During our 1st-3rd activity, we had 99% women but last time in April, a year after the disaster, we had 14% men.  Immediately after the disaster, men were busy looking for jobs, houses and other activities but now there is less for them to do, there is more need for mental care for men.

 6. Life with the beautiful sea

 I was personally able to experience the beauty of the sea for the first time after the disaster.  It had always been difficult for me to understand that the black threatening TSUNAMI was the same with this shining cobalt blue ocean.  Although it is true that the sea swept away everything, many lives, houses, and buildings, I saw one elderly lady in the hot spring sitting by the window and listening to the sounds of the wave.  It was a very relaxing sight. Also, many people who used to work in the fishery industry told us that they are longing to starting back to work again. One fisherman told us he that he cannot live without the sea and he still loves it even after the disaster.  I gradually started to understand the importance of this special ocean and the real need for them to live near the sea. The ocean has become a part of their lives and also a part of themselves.

blue sea

There used to be 100 fishing boats in the town but they were all swept away. The dike was destroyed by Tsunami. However, we saw many oyster sea beds this time, and there were a few boats on the sea as well.

People might say you should not live near the sea because it is dangerous but the local people need to live there and wish to do so for their livelihood.  Of course, some people say they still cannot see the sea and are afraid of even the sound of water.

6. Summary

The situation in the town was not very much changed since our visit in April 2012 apart from the decrease in wreckage and increase in temporary stores.

I could see that individual stress levels for people varied depending on experiences and situations, such as whether they saw Tsunami or not, whether they have a house or not, whether they have a job or not.  There are differences between those who actually saw Tsunami and who did not see the Tsunami.  Those people who witnessed the Tsunami or who were forced to run from the wave, are still suffering greatly and re-experiencing the trauma every night. Some people told us that they still feel guilty because, for example, they did not hold a wife’s hand strongly enough, or they did not call their son in time. Most of them feel very scared at night and suffer serious sleep disorders.The affect on mental health of these differences is becoming more obvious as time goes on.

Also, the people who used to take a leadership role seem more depressed now. Now that life was beginning settle down, the people who once led the community and helped others looked burnout.

They have a medical hospital but they do not have a place where people can have natural remedies.  I was surprised that so many people are taking sleeping pills and sedatives.  One lady told me that she is afraid of taking so many much medication but she has no other choice.  They really look forward to having our aromatherapy treatment as they say it is very calming and helps them to relax.

As the location is far (more than 5 hours from Tokyo and no public transportation yet) we always need to stay minimum 3 days to provide our services.  Of course, accommodation is costly and the therapists need to take time off from their jobs.  Many charity groups are stopping their visits to the area for financial reasons.  However mental health care needs are is increasing rather than decreasing and aromatherapy massage is becoming even more important to the local people. Now that people from other cities are starting to forget about the disaster, the local people are feeling very lonely and isolated.

The numbers of people who experienced aromatherapy for a subsequent time increased from 28% to 44%.  This shows people are coming back to us again and again because they feel the benefits.  Some people even asked us for the name of an essential oil company.  All of Cocoro members felt that it was really important to “continue” our work.

In the wintertime, it is too difficult to travel there because of the snow. Instead, will send our newsletter providing information about aromatherapy and essential oils and home care advice. We are planning to visit again in spring 2013.

Thank you for your Support

Lastly, both Takiko Ando and Mary Atkinson would like to thank all the people who support our activity.  The number of local people working as volunteers shows how much they appreciate the value of Cocoro’s work and way in which we are able to help make people smile.  We will continue until the local people do not need us but sadly, the needs are increasing day by day.  We hope you will support us in the long term so Cocoro can continue to visit.  Thank you very much for ensuring our work is on-going.

If you like to know more about the work of Cocoro then please contact me (Mary Atkinson)


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