Our Experiences of Volunteering in the Tsunami Disaster Area

My husband, Richard, and I have spent the past week, starting on April 21st 2102, in Rikuzentakata on the North East coast of Japan working in a team of eight volunteers organised by Cocoro, a Japanese charity set up to bring aromatherapy and positive touch to the victims of the tsunami. It was an emotional and exhausting trip but amazingly rewarding and positive.As a taster of our experiences, here are just a few of our most powerful memories.

  • We were shocked by the scale of the devestation and the piles upon piles of rubbish still to be sorted and shifted. This is the interior of a secondary school in Rikuzentakata still in the same state as when the children and teachers had to flee the tsunami in March 2011 leaving everything behind. The local people were keen for Richard, an architect, to see the extensive damage caused by the huge tsunami wave and he was taken on a tour of three of the most affected areas – Rikuzentakata, Kesennuma and Ofunato – around 100 miles north of Fukushima.

  • We were frustrated on behalf of the gentle local people whose lives are in limbo waiting for decisions to be made about their future. Thousands of families are now living in temporary accommodation which is cramped and dark with walls so thin that any noise can be overheard. Many bereaved elderly and disabled people live far from their community and feel lonely and isolated. A great cause for concern are those people who do not leave their homes as the outside world now seems so alien to them.


  • We were exhausted just looking at the faces of the men and women struggling to come to terms with the loss of their loved ones, homes and a way of life. One teacher was so tired that, despite sitting on an uncomfortable child’s chair, she fell fast asleep within minutes of beginning a foot massage. It was a privilege to be able to offer some peaceful respite to these strong people who have been conditioned by their culture not to complain and to bury their fears and anxieties.


  • We felt saddened on behalf of the men who have lost their livelihood and now have too much time on their hands to think, remember and worry about the future. When the Cocoro team visited in September 2011, few men were interested in massage. However, the numbers were much higher this time and, as trust in the charity deepens, they were more willing to share their stories and concerns. It became obvious that the need for mental health care will continue for several years. An aromatherapy massage from Takiko Ando, founder of Cocoro, certainly helped bring a smile to this bereaved gentleman’s face!

  • We felt inspired by the local people, such as the two men in the team photograph below, who say they are no longer ‘victims’ of the tsunami and are determined to do all they can to help rebuild their own lives and those of their community. Kouichi Kimura (left) a local fisherman who has been forced to work in Tokyo until the fishing industry restarts, offered his services as our driver and worked with Mori No Koya (centre) to make arrangements for visiting the kindergarten schools. They were so enthusiastic about our volunteer work that they even managed to organise a visit to the Mayor of Rikuzentakata who was keen to talk to Richard about the City’s eight year plan for rebuilding and regrowth. At the centre front of the photograph is Keiko Sugawara, a local social worker and Cocoro team member who works tirelessly for the local families. She also looked after us very well, offering drinks and chocolate to keep us going!


  • We felt humbled by the response of the local people to our Positive Touch for Children project. We had initially planned to begin the programme in three kindergartens and were uncertain of the reaction as it is a novel initiative in the area. We had not anticipated the spontaneous applause and cheers which greeted our simple story massage when we first introduced it. Or that during the visit we would meet with teachers, parents, grandparents and guardians of children of varying ages who could immediately see the benefits in helping children cope with the many challenges ahead.  It did not take long for the local people to put forward ideas for their own story massages and songs and we left feeling hopeful that the project would gradually build its own momentum.

But above all:
  • We felt grateful to have been given the opportunity to do something positive for these kind and generous people whose lives have been turned upside down by a natural disaster.  We were continually being told that the very fact that we had travelled so many miles to visit their city held great meaning for them, far greater than words could express. The local people were surprised and delighted by photographs of our Japanese Evening and felt heartened that they had not been forgotten. Messages of support from The Japanese School in London and from other UK schools helped boost morale and we soon realised that the most important thing we can offer these people is to remember them so that they feel less alone in their struggle to rebuild their lives.

Sharing our experiences 

We are happy to share our experiences and photographs with local groups. Please contact Mary Atkinson if you would like to arrange this. 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.


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