International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Nordic walking helps survivors of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami cope with trauma and depression
By Chie Ishihara and Yukiko Izutani, Japanese Red Cross Society
When the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami struck on 11 March 2011, more than 470,000 people, many from Iwate prefecture in northeast Japan, were forced to leave their homes and resettle in temporary housing settlements. Today, five years on, thousands are still unable to return to their places of origin and remain dependent on assistance provided by the government and the Red Cross.
“Many of the elderly fell sick after they were displaced and moved into temporary housing,” said Mr. Mitachi, a Japanese Red Cross Society volunteer. Mr Mitachi manages the Nordic Walking Project, set up in 2011 by the Red Cross chapter in Iwate to support the elderly population living in temporary or public housing units.
The project is one of a number of recreational activities organized by the Red Cross in its efforts to provide psychosocial support to those who are still recovering from the disaster.
“When some of the participants first joined us, they showed obvious signs of depression,” explained Mr. Mitachi. “After attending a few sessions, they started looking happy and were full of energy. It not only makes people feel better mentally it also greatly improves their general health. The vigorous exercise works the pain out of their joints. Using the poles softens up their stiff backs and shoulders.”
“Before I joined the Nordic walking group, I rarely exercised,” said Ms. Chizuko Hakoishi. “It is so good to sweat, and since I started walking I feel that I am in a much better shape,” she said, beaming after returning from another walk.
Ms. Hakoishi is content with her life in the public housing complex where she has established a busy schedule filled with various hobbies that keep her occupied. Nevertheless, she can never quite get away from the memories of her past. When the tsunami came, she barely managed to save herself by clambering up a nearby hill, from where she watched the sea engulf the entire town.
77-year-old Mr. Masao Shibata demonstrates resuscitation at an event organized by Japanese Red Cross Society Fukushima chapter for residents of Minamiyanome temporary housing.
“The houses made a loud rattling sound when they were carried away by the wave,” she said with a shudder. Her reminiscences are still painful, especially when she thinks of her young neighbor, who went back into her house but never re-emerged because she did not believe that the tsunami would come. Ms. Hakoishi still regrets that she did not do more to stop her.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, over 700 Japanese Red Cross Society psychosocial workers were deployed from all over the country to provide support to more than 14,000 people in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Five years on, the psychosocial support programme continues. Every two weeks the Red Cross staff and volunteers visit people like Ms. Hakoishi to ensure their well-being.
Mrs Yomoko Izawa enjoys flower arrangement activities at an event organized by the Red Cross Fukushima branch for the elderly living in the Minamiyanome temporary housing compound.