Latest News from Cocoro Charity in Japan

Four years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, killing more than 15,000 people. Since May 2011, Cocoro charity has been working at Rikuzentakata and Ofunato, cities devastated by the tsunami, to offer aromatherapy services as part of mental health care for the victims. Over the past four years, we have provided aromatherapy support for more than 1096 people. in Aril 2012, I was honoured to be invited to be part of the team of therapists working in the disaster area.


Cocoro’s Main Projects

  1. 15 minute aromatherapy massage for victims of tsunami.
  2. Aroma and Touch class, to teach children about relaxation through positive touch activities such as story massage, in the kindergartens and nurseries.
  3. Aroma care worker (ACW) courses to train local people in new skills to provide aromatherapy hand, head and shoulder massage and foot reflexology within their community. These ACWs have formed their own local team, Cocoro Ria.
  4. The Heartfelt Project – a simple way of enabling people from all around the world to remember the victims of tsunami.

We also hold charity events and give talks to raise awareness and funds. All donations are put towards necessary materials, car rental, accommodation and the expenses for Cocoro Ria. All our therapists are volunteers.

Table display

During the first three years, we visited the area a few times a year but we began to recognise that local people would gain more benefit from regular and accessible therapy sessions. There are many different stages of mental recovery from such a traumatic experience. For instance, some people who were able to express their sadness, fear, and feeling of despair benefited from aromatherapy in early stages. However, those people responsible for others such a teachers or managers, needed our support a few years later. These people had ‘burned out’ when everyone started to get back to the normal life. Mental health care needs depend on individual experience and personality.

ACW copy

The Aroma Care Worker Project (ACW)

In 2013, we started a unique project called the Aroma Care Worker Project, which has been a great success on many levels. The idea is to teach aromatherapy massage to the local people within a new mental health care model “local people heal local people.”

The training course was led by Mrs. Kazue Gill, the principal of an IFPA school, Japan Ecole de Aromatherapie, who came to Rikuzentakata from Kyoto four times over a year. She said it was one of the most difficult courses in her decades of training experience as many of the students had not heard about aromatherapy and had never even seen an essential oil. Cocoro trained twenty Aroma Care Workers (ACWs) from Rikuzentakata and Ofunato. Surprisingly, after only after a few months, ACWs took the initiative to set up their own local team called “Cocoro Ria” to provide a regular aromatherapy service in the community.


The ACWs work every fortnight at the temporary houses in the town and visit victims in their own homes. One elderly lady told them that she really looked forward to having a massage every month. She had been depressed after the disaster and lost the will to live, but the tender touch of the therapist healed her heart and she started to get back her energy. It is often the elderly people who ask for massage from Cocoro Ria. They find that the sense of community that has been built up in the temporary homes through their visits has become very special to them.

Ms.Tsuda was a nurse in the kindergarten and had benefitted from the comfort of Cocoro’s massage during our early visits to the area. Like so many victims, she was totally exhausted and in despair about the future. A few years later, she retired and became an ACW. Now, she is part of a team and working with others to provide therapy. Three years ago, we could never have imagined such a possibility.

ACw 11

The special thing about Cocoro Ria is that they speak the local dialect and they are also victims, so they can have empathy and understanding of varying emotions and experience. Also through their work, we were able to discover that there were many people living their own homes who didn’t have access to the mental health care services offered in the temporary houses. The people living in temporary houses have build up a community and have more opportunities for charity provision. Those living in their own houses can feel isolated from the community. They may have lost families and jobs and need as much help as others. Through the work of Cocoro Ria we are able to reach these people and this has become an important and meaningful part of the project – local people caring for local people.

Caring for our Therapists

About six months after Cocoro Ria began work we found that the ACWs seemed exhausted. For the first few months, they were very motivated and full of energy, but we realized that the ACWs were feeling burdened by such constant exposure to the tsunami stories shared by their clients. So, last year, we started to focus on caring for the ACWs. In July 2014, we invited one of our sponsor companies, Asahi One Beer Club, to Rikuzentakata and Ofunato and made this an opportunity to talk personally to the ACWs so they could share how they were feeling. During this visit, the ACWs also worked alongside trained therapists from other cities and learned new skills. In addition, they were able to have a half body massage from a qualified therapist. This was their first experience of aromatherapy as there is salon or clinic in the area. The ACWs really enjoyed the visit and it helped them to gain more confidence.


The ACWs told us there are a lot of elderly people asking about foot massage, so we invited Ms. Reiko Tomino, the principal of IFPA school, (International Medical-Spa Institute to teach simple foot reflexology to the ACWs. These opportunities to brush up their skills help boost morale and encourage the work to continue.

The model “local people heal local people” is important, but ACWs told us that their work is enhanced by the chance to personally deliver messages of support from around the world. Many people are afraid of being forgotten by the rest of the world. The Heartfelt Project was created as a way of showing people that they are remembered. After their massage, people are given a red felt heart with a drop of essential oil. These red felt hearts have become a symbol of connection around the world. The Heartfelt Project involves sending a photograph of yourself with a red felt heart to Cocoro to show your ‘heartfelt’ message of support. These photographs are then shared with the local people, and are very much appreciated.

Mary and Rhoda

The current situation

In December 2014, there were 1802 temporary houses (4479 people) in Rikuzentakata and 1691 houses (3838 people) in Ofunato. There are plans to build 1000 houses in Rikuzentakata and 801 houses in Ofunato but only 7% have been constructed. The delay is caused by the need to level the land damaged by the tsunami. Soil is transferred from the mountains via a large pipeline. This is designed to be more time efficient than using dumper trucks which could take over ten years to complete the job.

There are still high demands for help with mental health care in the area but, as time goes by, the local people are finding it more difficult to obtain outside support from charities. In 2001, 30,000 support workers from charities and other organisations came to Rikuzentakata, but in 2103 only 300 visited the area. In the light of these figures, the continuing work of Cocoro Ria becomes even more important and so does the need to care for the ACWs.

cocoro b and b

Raising awareness of the on-going emotional and mental suffering in the aftermath of the tragedy, is also our mission. There are more than 8000 people still living in the temporary houses in Rikuzentakata and Ofunato. Some elderly ladies over 90 years old say they are fearful of ending their lives in a temporary house. The aromatherapy and gentle touch from the ACWs helps provide a little light in their hearts. We will continue our work until the day the local people say, “we are fine without you”. We will listen to what they need, and do what we can to help.


Cocoro has strong links with supporters in the UK. Our Cocoro UK representative, Mary Atkinson, visited the tsunami area as a volunteer therapist in 2012. She now gives talks around the country to raise funds and awareness of our work. In 2012, we were jointly nominated as BBA (British Business Awards): Person of the Year by the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan as recognition of the charity’s connection and co-operation between Japan and UK.

Would you like to know more?

Your support is also very important. If you would like to find out more about our work and how you can help us, please contact me. Thank you very much.



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