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Japan: Aiding the Aid Workers

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

More than two months have passed since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan and while those who weren’t affected directly by the disaster have been able to go back to a normal life, around 110,000 people are still living in evacuation centers according to police estimates.

The lack of privacy, separation from their original community, unemployment and a deep sorrow for the loss of loved ones has been a harrowing experience for many victims who are physically and emotionally exhausted.

Map of earthquake/tsunami evacuation centers in Japan.

Map of earthquake/tsunami evacuation centers in Japan.

Hiroshi Moriwaki explains [jp] the different types of trauma experienced and encourages care of both children and adults as, although at different levels, the tragic experiences they have undergone have emotionally debilitating after-effects:


Many things happen before our eyes every day. When something unexpected happens, like an accident or some kind of trouble, we are able to deal with it to an extent.

However, we become unable to deal with violent/intrusive stimuli that go beyond ‘self control,’ such as natural disasters or crime. They impact us strongly and become emotional wounds, or trauma.

There are two types of ‘trauma’ – acute trauma from serious incidents or major disasters, and chronic trauma from things such as abuse or bullying.


Symptoms can include nightmares, flash backs, headaches, stomach aches, and nausea. Children especially may experience flash backs that are exactly as it was felt at the time of receiving the shock.




During this major earthquake, many victims faced emotions that they would not normally experience in everyday life. As the earthquake happened in front of their eyes, and in midst of fears of the huge disaster approaching them, some may have witnessed their family or friends getting engulfed in the catastrophe. Some may have had to face the sad sight of their loved ones’ [bodies] after the disaster.

Even if most adults were able to digest these experiences through past life experiences or various emotions they had felt before, it will most likely leave lifelong emotional scares on young children. Support may also become necessary for the volunteers, such as the Self Defense Force, police, and firemen, etc.

Just from observing these different forms of ‘PTSD’ [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder], we can see that it is something only a trained professional can deal with and that long term emotional care is necessary during this recovery period.

Long term support from a industry-government-academia collaboration is expected to become necessary.

Some patients are moved to an elementary school after the earthquake, Fukushima. Image by Natsukado, CC BY-NC-ND.

Some patients are moved to an elementary school after the earthquake, Fukushima. Image by Natsukado, CC BY-NC-ND.

Since the event, teams of volunteers and professionals such as doctors, nurses and psychologists have flocked to the affected areas to help. Sometimes with direct medical intervention, sometimes by just lending an ear to the refugees’ tragic stories or worries.

Because of the very nature of their job and the fact that they're used to working in emergency situations, the aid workers tend to work very long shifts and their dedication is often taken for granted. Too often, however, it is forgotten that among those doctors and nurses there are those who are victims themselves and have lost family or friends or houses.

It is for this reason that private and government related centers have begun a campaign to educate the aid workers against the dangers of overwork and to warn them to take care of themselves first, in order to be better able to help others.

Reporting the experiences of a friend, @jishin_care tells of the emotional and physical stress doctors have to deal with. According to the author of the blog called ‘Information on Psychological Care Related to the Earthquake’, although doctors and nurses are trained to do their best in emergency situations, it's in such difficult situations as this that they most need the support of other people:


I also heard some stories from my friend who was one of the doctors dispatched to the disaster area. He was working under such harsh conditions and I felt the utmost respect for his true professionalism for holding on during the whole ordeal.

At the same time, I became acutely aware that support for his emotional and physical fatigue is a very significant issue. I especially felt sympathetic when I heard him blaming himself for not being able to provide sufficient aid despite his efforts, because of the lack of resources and manpower.

Aid workers are viewed as ‘strong’ in ‘times of emergency’, ‘to help the weak’. Because of this, it’s not difficult to imagine that care and support for them tend to take a backseat.

But to continually deal with various kinds of injuries, death, and grief under unimaginable conditions, and to try to keep one's cool (such as show no tears) in such a situation will inevitably put emotional and physical strain on anyone, even if they were some kind of superman. It’s only natural.

They are doing difficult things in difficult situations, which is why is it important to provide care and support to aid workers, for their emotional and physical health as it will ultimately lead to helping more victims.

Also, aid workers tend to hold back expressing their pain and anguish because of their belief that ‘we are the ones providing help. We can’t be weak’. Therefore, it is important that families, friends and organizations around them fully understand the need to support aid workers and provide appropriate support for them.

Finally psychologist Satoko says [jp] that the volunteer and professional aid workers should not consider their sense of ‘disaster fatigue’ as a weakness:



There are some victims who are helping out as volunteers. Please take care and don’t overwork yourselves.

It’s natural to fall ill or get tired.

It’s not because you are weak!

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

The Japanese posts were translated by Rino Yamamoto.

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