After Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, a shift in values

In communities, Japan, Realtionship, World Work on April 5, 2013 at 7:33 pm
"Green Wave" by Alfred DePew 3/11/11 acrylic on paper

“Green Wave” by Alfred DePew, acrylic on paper

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | March 8, 2012

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March of 2011, executive coach and systems consultant Yuri Morikawa wanted to help. Like most, she wanted to focus on those hardest hit, the people in the Tōhoku region to the north of where she lives. But when she and her family evacuated to Nagasaki, she realized what she had already sensed—that everyone in Japan was in need of help, including her.

“Where I live [Tochigi, the prefecture south of Fukushima] also had high radiation,” says Morikawa. “So my husband and I decided to take our daughter to my mother-in-law’s house in Nagasaki.”

Morikawa and her family were there for a month. She had no real work to do, so she began to research how people in Nagasaki recovered from the atomic bomb. This led her to the grandson of Takashi Nagai, a physician and radiologist who survived the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, joined in treating other victims, and then spent most of the rest of his life in prayer.

“Tokuji Nagai [Dr. Nagai’s grandson] told me about how Nagasaki recovered,” Morikawa continues, “and he was strong about this—it was not the help from outsiders” that brought it about.

To be sure, there was a great outpouring of compassion and money in the first year after the war, and there is nothing but gratitude for that, but then the foreigners left, “and the real pain and the real disaster started from there and lasted ten years. That was the toughest. Indifference happened. And segregation happened because just saying you were from Nagasaki, people wouldn’t want to marry you. There were afraid you were infected by the atom bomb. There was discrimination and real poverty in Nagasaki, even as elsewhere in Japan the economic recovery was strong.”

“Mr. Nagai said, ‘So Ms Morikawa. You sound like you want to be a helper from outside, and I must tell you it won’t help them much. Just know that. Start from your own family and your own community because you are also the victim. Have compassion for yourself.’”

“I felt like I was being hit by a huge bell,” says Morikawa. “It really shifted my mind from ‘what can I do?’ to I need help too, and so do my neighbors—from saviour or hero to the people who actually need help—including myself.”

Working with the nursing home staff

When she returned to her home, Morikawa began talking to her neighbors and parents of her daughter’s friends, “people I had seen before but never said hello to. I’d put my hand on their shoulder and ask them about what they’d been through. It seemed so natural, and yet so new. People were ready to support each other and to give things they had to those who didn’t have them. To be honest, I had never experienced this kind of unexpected uplift of emotions before. I think this kind of emotional exaltation cannot be without a deep pain and suffering, or awareness of that, or living with it.”

She had tea with a friend who told her stories about evacuating a nearby nursing home for the elderly.

“Amazing, heart-touching stories,” says Morikawa. “People who were on shift and people who were not on shift, once they got their own relatives settled—some of them, their homes were destroyed, but everybody helped to carry the old people, many of whom had Alzheimer’s or were bedridden, walking or by bike 30 to 40 minutes to the elementary school gymnasium. Then they went back to get the pets—goldfish, dogs, hamsters.”

“They were really working as one entity, seamlessly, without any direction or boss leading them. They worked smoothly, collaboratively. They made it happen. I was very moved. I also heard about their fatigue. Several weeks, day and night. They also had families they needed to keep secure. Many seemed to have a pain about that, sort of a guilty feeling toward their families. Some staff were out of town and couldn’t be with everyone when the earthquake struck. They felt guilty and also left out of the circle.”

Listening to her friend that day at tea, Morikawa thought of a way she could help. She proposed a workshop for the nursing home staff in which they could acknowledge one another and tell the stories of what happened on March 11.

“This is a wonderful legend this nursing home will be proud for the rest of its history,” syas Morikawa. “Let’s keep it, honour it.”

On the day of the workshop, they sat in a circle, and Morikawa put a lit candle in the centre. She began by telling her own story of 3/11. She thanked them for all the work they did to save the elderly people in the nursing home.

“Today is a time for gently looking back and telling your stories to one another,” she told them. “There was so much emotion,” says Morikawa. “Many said it was the first time they cried.”

Then she put a large paper in the middle of the room and asked them to put everything they wanted to remember, “everything they wanted the next generation to know. And if future generations encounter a similar tragedy, it will be a resource to them.”

One drew a dog that was saved. Some wrote words. Others drew people from the nursing home who had died before the earthquake. “Like spirits friends or allies,” says Morikawa.

As a professional coach and facilitator, she had many plans and ideas for exercises, but, she says, “I learned that in these times simpler is better, the fewer words, the better. The emotion is waiting for the space to come out, so once I set up, it will happen organically. I told my story. I put some water in the well—to prime it—‘calling water,’ we say— their story was the water of the well.”

Working with the nursery school teachers

Some weeks later, she offered something similar to the teachers at the pre-school where her friend taught. It was more casual. She had proposed a workshop along the lines of the one she led at the nursing home, but she says, the teachers “were tired of being serious and scared and sad. They needed tea and sweets and a chat.”

So one Saturday afternoon about eight teachers gathered at the school for tea. And stories emerged—“how they were busy and still there was a crack in the wall and a broken gate. It started from that. People spoke of what they were proud of—that no children were hurt or missing. Everybody had gotten safely back to their parents. Amazing in and of itself.”

“They said of course the kids were terrified. And the first thing the teachers told them to do was to get under the table but oh my goodness desks were swimming and running on the floor!” says Morikawa. “And the kids were screaming, so the teachers held them and said it’s OK; it will go away.”

As soon as there was a lull in the shaking, the teachers knew they had to get the children out of the building, so they had them line up as if it were a game and even had one class compete with another to see who could get out the quickest and be the calmest.

Some had the children clap their hands in rhythm. If the children focused on that, they could forget about their fear. To overcome their own fear, teachers focused on the children and communicated with each other with their eyes, rather than speaking too much. In addition to the pre-schoolers, there were the babies that had to be brought out from the nursery. They used slides to get from the second and third floors out to the playground with someone catching them at the other end. One pregnant teacher slid down with two babies on either side of her huge belly.

“Slide, catch, repeat.”

“Laughter makes the heart open,” says Morikawa. “And an open heart can let the pain out, and once the pain is out, it can be shared with others, a time of healing.”

How is life different a year later?

“On the surface level, things are getting back to normal,” says Morikawa, “but on a deep level, we are transforming. Change keeps coming like a rush of water. It’s a constant challenge. In Japan’s history, we have very little power to change from inside. We have always needed outside influence to change, a stimulus. This huge earthquake really shook society in a good way and changed people’s mindset from indifference to support for each other and actually taking action.”

“Our values are shifting dramatically,” she continues. “The culture of mass consumption and wasting things—that is not in fashion any more. Young people are moving toward agriculture. People care about what they eat—especially young parents—and where the food was grown. People in their 20s and 30s are forming non-profit organizations [that focus on] environmental support for the North, supporting families to take out the old soil, bringing in new soil, replanting strawberry farms.”

“In Japan,” says Morikawa, “shame is the worst thing you can give or receive. If you stick out too much, you are likely to be expelled from the village mentality. But with this huge natural power [the earthquake and tsunami] we were forced to change. There are stronger bonds in the community, a sense of awareness of who needs support. There is a kind of readiness. When something happens, we can help each other. We are better prepared. People are very grounded, and whatever happens we will face it together.”


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