Helping After the Great East Japan Earthquake: When Money May Not Be Enough

We as human beings have the responsibility to help the survivors come to terms with their tragedy and current situation. We don't need to push our help onto them, nor do we need to tell them what we think is best. We just need to be there for them.
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"I want to do something," my friend told me. "I just don't know what." It was a cold, rainy Tokyo afternoon, and we were passing by a young, enthusiastic man in the street who was asking for donations to Tohoku. It had been about six months since 3/11, the magnitude 9.3 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. Everybody's energy was more and more focused on relief efforts. We wanted to help in some way, so we were thinking about what we could do. I started to investigate realistic possibilities and this was when I first realized the challenges we would face.

Say you just lost a family member, your husband or wife. Obviously you would need financial aid to support yourself and the rest of your family. After the money came, however, after you knew you were financially secure, it would not be as if all your problems were solved. You would still miss your family. You would still be hurting. I've learned that this is the essential issue with relief work.

Relief work after natural disasters is hard. Some people would rather be self-reliant, and others simply don't have the infrastructure in place for large-scale outside help. The latter is easier to overcome, as efforts can be made to put in a system that would allow for relief efforts. But when you encounter those who don't want money, for example, you have to begin to look at it from another perspective: they don't want physical help. They want it to be emotional.

Emotional support in in the case of 3/11 oftentimes is in the form of activities that bring communities together, such as a project everybody can do together in order to raise money. There have sometimes been food or supply markets, both local and down towards Tokyo. Emotional support also has come in the form of talking, where volunteers have gone up to the affected areas and interviewed the survivors, listening to their stories. Some survivors have talked about how painful it was to know that relatives had gone back into the house just to get the family photos and mementos, and were crushed by the tsunami before they could get out.

It became increasingly clear to me that we could also do something that would provide emotional assistance, something just as valuable as financial help for long-term recovery. This is not to say that money is not important, or that every single person will be accepting of the emotional support. It is simply to say that people need to feel that they are not alone, and they need to feel hopeful.

I decided to start a community service project called CharmWorks, involving a town coming together to do artwork to raise a little bit of money for themselves. The town is called Funakoshi, in Miyagi Prefecture, and they are famous for their slate. After the disaster, they took pieces of slate from the ruined roofs of houses, shaped them into charms, painted them to make jewelry, and then sold them to help the town get back on its feet. I heard about the initiative through It's Not Just Mud, an NPO for Tohoku relief started by the amazing Jamie El-Banna, and learned that there was a problem: they didn't have enough manpower. So I decided to set up a project here in Tokyo to help them produce more charms. The charms are not sold for all that much, and it is not some enormous initiative raking in the big bucks, so it is sometimes hard to see how much of a difference it is making. I was telling one of my teachers about it, however, and she said something I've held onto for a long time: "So maybe it's not the next multimillion dollar corporation. But they're coming together. They have a sense of purpose. Most importantly, they feel like it's not going to just be darkness at the end of the tunnel."

The road to recovery is long, and never easy after traumatic experiences. But when you hear or read about tragedies, whether they are natural disasters or human acts of violence, you realize that the human factor in all of these cases is the same. The survivors grieve for the victims and yet have to face forward and keep going with their lives, dealing with their pain every day. We as human beings have the responsibility to help the survivors come to terms with their tragedy and current situation. We don't need to push our help onto them, nor do we need to tell them what we think is best. We just need to be there for them, and make sure that if they want the help, it is easily there for them.

By giving emotional support, we can help many people to realize that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel. And even if that's all we manage to do, it is something very worthwhile.

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