TOKYO (majirox news) – Watching people walk outside while drinking coffee at Starbucks in Tokyo’s fashionable Midtown Roppongi district, Nobuhara Harada felt he was in a different world. The 35-year-old medical doctor had just returned to Tokyo Monday after treating Japan’s earthquake and tsunami victims at shelters in the town of Minami Sanriku, where life was still chaotic. Minami Sanriku, in Miyagi prefecture, was completely destroyed by the tsunami.
Harada, who was dressed in a grey shirt and jeans, was eager to talk about his experience at the shelters. He first heard about the disaster when a friend called him in Honolulu where he practices medicine. He decided to help.
His father, a pediatrician, arranged for him to join a team of 10 mental health care workers, including doctors, nurses and a former Self Defense Force (SDF) member from his hometown of Kumamoto, who would be treating thousands of people staying at 19 shelters throughout the area. There are 115,000 people living in shelters across Japan, according to the National Police Agency.
Harada arrived there on April 14. “The first thing I noticed at the shelters was the overwhelming smell,” he said. “They lacked a water system and were low on diapers for infants and the elderly, so there were strong odors of urine and feces. People had to go outside to relieve themselves because of the shortage of water. Outside it smelled of rotten fish left from the tsunami, dust, oils and a mixture of other things.” The government said it would take about three years to completely clean up the debris.
Harada added that the situation was a lot worse than what people saw on TV. The devastation went on for miles. About 200 to 300 people were crammed into gymnasiums without electricity and water. Many were suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. They had lost their homes, jobs and family members.
Harada felt silly asking them how they were feeling under the circumstances and many just stared at him and remained silent.
“The evacuees had been a closely knit, conservative community, and I was considered an outsider,” he said. “I wanted to help them, but I couldn’t do much because they didn’t want to talk. To make matters worse, our mental health team was rotated every week. Different doctors asking the same questions over and over again.”
However, Harada was able to help people sleep at night by giving them antihistamines. Insomnia, sounds of people snoring; walking aimlessly around, and continuous nightmares were keeping people awake.
Harada was deeply disappointed that he couldn’t help most of the people, but he knows he helped three. One man in his early 40s suffered from chronic schizophrenia. He heard voices and was aware of his illness, but sometimes got confused and talked back to the voices. Although he was not violent, his mumblings bothered people, and they pointed at him. Harada’s team was eventually called in to help.
“He had lived with his sister, who was able to keep him under control with medication and a routine,” Harada said. “But they had been separated. We were finally able to bring them together, and he improved.”
Another situation involved a woman who was bipolar and living at home with her daughter. After the quake, the woman, who was in her 80s, started obsessively talking and not sleeping. “We calmed her down with medication and discovered that she had broken her hip in the earthquake, so we moved her to a hospital.” She improved after a week.
A man in his early 40s was so traumatized by the experience that he was unable to look at the ocean and suffered continuous nightmares. Medication eased his problem.
Harada pointed out that medication is only a short-term solution for these people.
Temporary housing and suicide
Harada predicted that there probably will be many suicides when people are moved into temporary housing because there will not be anyone to check on them. It will be dangerous for them to be isolated.
“There are tight communities with whole groups living together in one shelter where everyone knows each other,” Harada said. “In shelters, they have mutual support. Once they are alone, there maybe a high suicide rate, which will not get broadcast by the media.”
Harada said there was looting in the disaster areas, especially right after the quake. In fact, his friend, who was a former yakuza (gangster), went to the damaged town of Ishinomake to help with the problem two days after the disaster.
“He confronted some of the looters who were going into the empty homes,”he said. “In fact, in one house, an elderly bedridden woman watched as a man was stealing, and she asked my friend to beat him up and get rid of him. The police were so overwhelmed that they couldn’t control the looting.”
According to Harada there were many heroes in the disaster. One that he mentioned was a man in his 50s who cut down bamboo trees and made stretchers. After the tsunami, he moved more than 20 people to safe areas. He also said it was a good thing that it snowed two days after the quake because he could melt the snow to cook rice.
Another woman, about 35 years old, who lost her husband in the tsunami, also helped people evacuate to safe areas and assisted at the shelters. He was also impressed with the SDF members who were helping the evacuees. For example, they made sure all the evacuees were fed before they sat down to eat.
Harada was disappointed that he could not help more, but he now appreciates his life, being healthy and having a great job more than ever.
“You can’t understand what is going on unless you are there,” he said. “I thought I was prepared, but the reality was much more chaotic.”