Features of Support Center Shinchi

More than five years have passed since the earthquake and tsunami devastated much of eastern Japan in March 2011. Looking back on the past half-decade, we are listening to some stories and recollections from those we have been “walking together with,” one by one, since the devastation.

Below is a story from our fifth speaker in this series, Ms. Keiko Kitagawa, a voluntary staffer at “Support Center Shinchi-Gangoya,” serving those affected by the March 2011 disaster. The center is located within a temporary housing complex in Shinchi, Soma County, Fukushima.

Soon after the 2011 disaster, Ms. Kitagawa visited Minamisoma City to help as part of a team of medics. Today, the support center holds a Wednesday café, which features, among other things, “Comfy Time for Kids and Parents.” In this comfy time, Ms. Kitagawa (known as “Dr. Keiko”), a medical doctor in the fields of psychiatry and pediatrics, and another pediatrician, Dr. Kazuko Meijo (“Dr. Kako-chan”) take turns discussing and consulting on many issues.


“Features of Support Center Shinchi”

Dr. Keiko Kitagawa,
Volunteer at Support Center Shinchi-Gangoya

(The English below written and arranged by Heeday, based on the original Japanese The English edited by Rev. Dr. Henry French, ELCA)

In April, soon after the March 2011 disaster, I began to visit Kamaishi, Iwate, every month as a psychiatrist to help those affected. Then, in August of the same year, I began to visit the City of Fukushima for the same purpose.

I have been listening to those affected by the disaster and providing medical consultations to them at clinics, at the dorms of evacuee children, at consultation meetings for parents, at local schools, and at temporary housing facilities. The evacuees find my service through religious organizations, both Christian and Buddhist, other non-profits, and local medical organizations.

I began my service at Support Center Shinchi (in “Shinchi Base”), a center to help those affected by the 2011 disaster located in Shinchi, Soma County, Fukushima, in 2012. It used to stand beside National Route No. 6, but now it is within Shinchi Base, in the Gangoya Temporary Housing Complex. There, I spend time together with those locals who were affected by the disaster. I listen to those who want to talk to me at tea parties held at Shinchi Base and the housing complex, and I visit households in the complex. I visit neighborhood elementary schools, upon their request, to advise them on helping children there. I have also met with many other volunteers who give the residents massages, haircuts, home visits, etc.

I have been working with many support organizations and their staffers, as well as with temporary housing residents and other locals. Support Center Shinchi-Gangoya has some unique features.

First, Mr. Hiroshi Matsumoto, a staffer at the support center, came to Shinchi soon after the 2011 tragedies to help locals and, ever since Shinchi Base was developed, he has been living as one of the locals. With him, I see no “unilateral help” from helpers to locals, or a sort of “hierarchy” that, though unintended, can emerge before we know it.

In 2015, Mr. Matsumoto took me to a place called Yamakoshi, which once was a municipality in Niigata, Japan. Now, it is part of Nagaoka, Niigata. This is where another major earthquake hit back in October 2004, Following that disaster, Mr. Matsumoto resided in Yamakoshi for several years to help those affected. I saw that the way he helped those affected by the disaster in Shinchi, Fukushima, was a development of what he had learned in Yamakoshi.

Another staffer who regularly comes to serve at Shinchi Base, Ms. Eiko Takagi, is also “one of the locals” now. She is a very good friend of Ms. Kazuko Kato and Ms. Tomoko Miyake, mentioned below.

Ms. Kato and Ms. Miyake lost their beloved families, neighbors, and homes to the tsunami of March 2011. After residing in temporary houses for some time, now they are in their new homes. Ms. Kato hosts tea parties (for the victims), while Ms. Miyake visits the residents of temporary houses. Thus, once victims themselves, they are now helping others affected by the disaster. Once in a while the two women share their bitter experiences as “affected.” I have never seen anything like this in any other support organizations.

Today, Support Center Shinchi-Gangoya holds tea parties for those affected. The current participants are mostly elderly people who have been taking part in the parties since the center launched them. Some lost their houses to the tsunami of 2011, while others are unable to return to their homes due to the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown. They have escaped to Shinchi, where some of them live in temporary housing while some others live in new houses recently built here in Shinchi. Many of them used to live in old houses where three to four generations spent their lifetimes. When the 2011 disaster destroyed their old houses, the families were torn apart; they lost mutual confidence within the family, while losing many other things. They now live within different networks of people. After describing stories like this, they look down and seem to be lost in reflection.

True, five years have passed since the 2011 disaster. Still, no matter how many times we volunteers have spoken to them, those affected still suffer from deep agonies for which we have found no solution. We have yet to see their mental wounds healed. I think all we helpers can do is to share their grief.

The other day, I left Fukushima for a brief period of time and visited the coasts of Miyagi and Iwate, two prefectures in Tohoku, Japan. Over the last several years I have chiefly been involved in the situation in Fukushima where current residents in temporary housing are unable to return to their hometowns thanks to the nuclear power plant meltdown. I am surprised to see so many victims from the tsunami five years ago still living with the inconveniences of temporary houses. One reason is that the work to raise the ground level (to prevent another tsunami disaster) takes a long time and is still in progress. Also, the preparatory work for the coming Tokyo Olympics employs countless construction workers, leaving just a few for the rebuilding work in Tohoku. Also, the demand for construction materials for the Olympics has inflated prices. Therefore, it is very difficult for many tsunami and other victims to build new homes. Thus, the rebuilding is lagging behind schedule.

Yet another serious issue is that, in Fukushima, once an official ban is lifted from a no-go zone, no matter how high the actual level of radiation is, evacuees from the zone are asked to return and the compensation they have been receiving from public funds is cut off. This forces many evacuees to return to what had been no-go zones.

I think Shinchi Base is determined to accompany each one affected by the disaster, sharing their pain and carrying the burdens together. The base is not interested in spreading shallow, easy help. This way, the base, I believe, points out contradictions in our reality with its own actions, but without screaming aloud.

The base’s actions remind me of a Jewish saying: “whoever saves one life, it is as if he /she has saved the whole world.”