Fukushima's forgotten souls

Updated 2018-03-12 16:45:05 Xinhua

File Photo taken on Feb. 22, 2017 shows a warning sign at Okuma near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. (Xinhua/Hua Yi)

"Everyone used to call her 'Grandma.' She was one of the sweetest, kindest and most generous people you could ever hope to meet, especially under such appalling circumstances in Fukushima," Kana Fujimoto, a Tokyo-based volunteer recalled, sadly.

The 31-year-old volunteer for the Save Minimisoma Project referred to a senior widow, who she came across, in the project hosting the victims of the massive earthquake and the ensuing tsunami and nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011.

However, "Grandma" has already passed away.

"She had a toothy smile that could warm you from the inside out, words of wisdom that would provide pause for thought in such a time of sheer turbulence and, there was always a handful of candy available to kids, whose lives had also been uprooted and turned upside down," Fujimoto told Xinhua.

The project has run its course providing emergency relief supplies to the thousands who were somewhat unceremoniously dumped into small "temporary shelters" in Fukushima Prefecture comprising rows of camp-like wooden huts, since the disasters took place seven years ago.

A contingent of Tokyo-based volunteers like Fujimoto, joined with local outreach groups and continued their work since then.

In recent times, essentials such as food, fresh water and vegetables were no longer the priority and the majority of those placed in shelters had been moved into regular subsidized accommodation.

For the elderly victims of the disasters, however, the real crisis for them was still unfolding on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, with the ultimate conclusion being the very bleakest imaginable.

Many individuals and families from the hardest hit areas like Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima, even if they had to do a stint in temporary accommodation, through family and work connections had managed to restart their lives in other parts of the country.

"And while the disasters for many will forever haunt their memories, they're safe in the knowledge that now, life is as normal as it can be and they are fully-functioning members of society," anthropologist and sessional lecturer, Keiko Gono, told Xinhua recently.

"But for the elderly people who did not have the resources or the will, for that matter, to fully leave their hometowns and for some even on a psychological level, it meant they have been permanently displaced albeit physically and/or mentally," Gono explained.

While it is hard to quantify because there is no pathology for "death by isolation," "or death by loneliness," she firmly believes that a staggering number of seniors passed away before their time simply due to a lack of social care, connection and sense of community.

For an 87-year old like "Grandma," for example, to be told that she had no choice but to leave the home she built with her husband, the family farming business, the neighbors and broader community she so fondly associated with, and suddenly find herself in an emergency shelter resembling an internment camp, the psychological effects would be damaging beyond belief.

According to the latest statistics conducted between December and February this year, in the seven years after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, only 4 percent said they had recovered their community bonds, while just 15 percent from the hardest-hit areas said they had regained their communities, but only to some extent.

Gono explained that these numbers were probably just the tip of the iceberg, as typically speaking and as per Japanese culture and norms, Japanese seniors would be far less likely to complain about their situation if it meant a trouble to others.

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