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Kizuna (bonding) in Fukushima

20 mar 2015

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The Assistant Secretary-General Ms Kyung-wha Kang visits the memorial erected to those who lost their lives in the Great East Japan Earthquake on 11 March 2011. Her visit coincided with the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Sendai between 13 and 18 March 2015. (Credit: OCHA/Orla Fagan).
 
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The Great East Japan Earthquake, which struck Fukushima on 11 March 2011, is proof that even in a disaster-prepared country such as Japan, nature can still cause massive destruction and threaten people’s lives and dignity.

Humanitarian crises are not often associated with developed countries. However, nature does not discriminate between developed and developing countries. The Great East Japan Earthquake, which struck Fukushima on 11 March 2011, is proof that even in a disaster-prepared country such as Japan, nature can still cause massive destruction and threaten people’s lives and dignity.

This was a triple disaster: the earthquake caused the tsunami, which in turn damaged the nuclear plant.  Not a single resident of the town of Soma, in Fukushima Prefecture, was left unscathed by the disaster, either directly or indirectly. Old and young people alike were affected, and in some cases entire families were killed. It was a community disaster.

In Soma, tsunamis hit the coastal fishing villages, killing 458 people. Dr. Tachiya led the response efforts from the start. With his city authority staff, he worked tirelessly in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

Communicating with communities

Ms. Kyung-wha Kang, the Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), visited the area shortly after the four-year anniversary. Her visit coincided with the third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, held in Sendai, and she discussed lessons learned after the disaster with the Mayor of Soma, Dr. Tachiya and community members. Ms. Kang was anxious to hear what the Mayor would have done differently, or if anything could have been done differently in such extreme circumstances.

The primary concern was ensuring that survivors had adequate clothing, blankets, food and utensils for cooking - the basic minimum to see them through the initial phase. Those affected moved into schools that were converted into evacuation centres.

“My focus was on the living,” said the Mayor. “We could do no more for the dead. I needed to ensure that survivors’ needs were addressed and that nobody was left out - including the elderly, those with chronic diseases and pregnant women. The disaster happened before the spring, and the weather was still cold.

“What was missing in our response was the ability to connect more closely with the community. If I had to do it over again, I would take out a megaphone and travel around by car to ensure everybody knows what is happening and inform them of our response priorities. I could have mobilized more resources from the community if I had been able to get our messages across to those who were not directly hit by the tsunami, yet ready to help others. It is vital that communication goes down to grass-roots levels.”

Kizuna

Ms. Kang also visited a mutual assistance home for elderly people, where she met with the community members. The home was built with Government support, a critical part of the community-led recovery efforts. The Japanese word kizuna means bonds or connections between people, and it is on this principle that the housing project is operated. Two men and seven women who survived the disaster live in the home. They help each other and receive care that improves their quality of life.

Mr. Yoshio Takato lost his wife and daughter to the tsunami. He felt isolated when he lived alone in temporary housing, often questioning why he had survived. Now, living in a mutual assistance home, Mr. Takato is no longer isolated. He explained: “We look out for each other. In fact, I am quite busy in the mornings. I get up at 5:30 a.m., then join with others cleaning the common space, and we exercise listening to the radio together. After the breakfast, our daily meeting starts, then I offer sticks of incense as well as a cup of tea and coffee to my wife and daughter resting in heaven.”

During the disaster, OCHA dispatched a technical team to Japan to help the Government to report on humanitarian needs and coordinate international assistance. OCHA’s Japan office works closely with Japanese partners to share lessons learned and to jointly help other nations better respond to humanitarian crises.