After Tsunami, Caritas Japan and survivors reach new heights

12 Mar 2012   |   Blog   |   Emergencies   |   Japan

Japan Tsunami survivor hugging a tree

In March 2011, one of the worst earthquakes in recent memory triggered a massive tsunami off the northeast coast of Japan. The tidal wave killed thousands of people and destroyed huge swaths of seaside towns.

Caritas Japan immediately began helping survivors. It mobilised over 2,000 volunteers to help clean debris, distribute needed items like heaters, and provide psychosocial care for the traumatised.

With funds from Caritas Australia and Caritas agencies worldwide, the Caritas network is helping in the recovery effort. Laura Sheahen from Caritas Internationalis spoke with survivor, Sakuma Kaname.

Sakuma Kaname has taken the word ‘tree hugger’ to a whole new level. When a mammoth tsunami struck his town in Japan in March 2011, Sakuma “was on a hill near a bay,” he said. “I saw the water rising so fast – not just coming in, but rising up.”

In minutes, Sakuma was swimming – in a forest.

“There was a big tree,” he remembers. “I grabbed on to it. I was eight metres high.” Hanging on to the trunk, almost near the crown of the tall tree, Sakuma held on for several minutes.

“Slowly the water went down. As the water went down, I sunk down,” said Sakuma.

Sakuma could let go of the tree – noting a nearby stone so he’d remember it – but he couldn’t go home. Water was still engulfing the lowlands near his hill.

“On that hill there was a house,” he said. “I broke the window and went in.” Sakuma stayed in the stranger’s house overnight as strong aftershocks hit the region. “There was a big grandfather clock in that house, and it kept clanging because of the aftershocks. I was so scared.”

Days later, Sakuma finally saw what became of his apartment: it was destroyed. “When I saw it, I thought, ‘I’m alive. Life is the most important thing.’”

Thousands of people in Sakuma’s town, Kamaishi, suffered intense trauma while escaping the tsunami. They also lost their homes. In the year since the catastrophe, Caritas Japan has helped them not only with emergency needs like hot water, but also with psychosocial support to enable affected people and communities to deal with trauma suffered during the disaster.

Mobilising over 2,000 volunteers, Caritas Japan cleared massive amounts of debris from homes in areas the tsunami devastated. Though Caritas’ on-the-ground operations within Japan had been relatively small before the disaster, its efforts in tsunami areas earned it a reputation for hard work and compassion. Caritas volunteers helped small business people reopen their shops and repaired fishing equipment in a region heavily dependent on seafood. Caritas also ran soup kitchens, reconstructed schools and an elder care centre, supported people with disabilities in the tsunami area, and distributed heaters when winter came.

But most of all, Caritas became a shoulder to lean on.

Volunteers staff makeshift ‘cafes’ in church basements and temporary housing lots, listening as survivors tell their stories and mourn their dead. “Many older people come to the cafe. They are pessimistic,” said Sakuma. “But after visiting the cafe, there are many smiles.”

Sakuma still struggles with his tsunami memories. “Sometimes I can’t sleep,” he said. But Caritas volunteers have helped him deal with some of the trauma. He went back to the hill – “the man who owned the house is glad I was safe there" – and found the tree with the stone next to it. He grins as he shows visitors how high up he was on that day in March.

A year after survivors saw their world swept away, Caritas has comforted and supported thousands of people like Sakuma. Father Toru Funayama, a priest in Kamaishi, has seen the changes in Sakuma: “He is starting to smile again.”

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