International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Great East Japan earthquake and Tsunami turns disaster victim into Red Cross volunteer

By Chie Ishihara and Yukiko Izutani, Japanese Red Cross Society

The mountains around Katsurao village stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see, covered with an endless blanket of forest. This idyllic landscape cannot conceal the tragedy that struck the area on March 10, 2011. Like many of the formerly vibrant communities situated around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Katsurao has been abandoned since the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami triggered a meltdown that displaced more than 470,000 people. 

“It was the first time that I experienced such a strong earthquake, but I knew immediately that this was very serious,” said Mr. Masakazu Shinkai, a social welfare officer who lived in Katsurao. “As soon as the house stopped shaking I called my beneficiaries to make sure that they could return to their homes safely. At that point we were only concerned with the damage to houses and infrastructure, but when we realized that there had been an accident at the nuclear power plant, it was clear that all the residents in the village had to evacuate.” Mr. Shinkai was also forced to leave his home and send his wife and children away to a safer place.

“I was worried about my family, but I also had the duty to protect the lives of the people in our community,” he said. Mr. Shinkai’s home was only 25 kilometres away from the power plant. After the accident, the village became a restricted area and no one was permitted to live there. Today, there remain over 103,000 evacuees from Fukushima prefecture and as of November 2015, 9 municipalities still had areas that were restricted due to radiation contamination.

The restriction in Katsurao will be lifted in spring 2016, but many villagers still hesitate to return. Most have realized that the community they once lived in no longer exists. They have also become accustomed to living in the temporary housing complexes provided by the government.

“My wife and I both want to go back to Katsurao, but even if we get the permission, we will not be able to do so. Our children are already teenagers and there is no school for them in the village. We cannot go back until they have graduated from high school,” Mr. Shinkai said as he looked around his abandoned house.

The experience had a strong impact on Mr. Shinkai’s second daughter, Midori. Through the difficult times, she grew to understand how important it was for people to support each other in times of crisis.

“The Japanese Red Cross Society gave tremendous support to our family.  I was very touched by how much they cared about us,” she explained. “Red Cross blood donation drives also made a strong impression on me and fuelled my desire to become a volunteer.”

Today, Midori is one of the many dedicated volunteers who have joined the Red Cross. “When I was studying, I really wanted to be able to work as a volunteer. When I found a university which had a partnership programme with the Japanese Red Cross Society, that strongly influenced my choice,” she said.

Midori wants to specialize in disaster relief in the future. Meanwhile she is taking on various voluntary assignments for the Red Cross. One of her recent tasks was to help with a   fundraising campaign at an international event in Tokyo.

Immediately after the disaster, the main focus of the Japanese Red Cross was on providing emergency medical care to survivors. Over six months 896 Red Cross medical teams were deployed to affected areas. These teams treated 87,445 patients. The Red Cross also deployed 728 psychosocial workers to support 14,039 people in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.

After the meltdown of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima, Ms Midori Shinkai was forced to evacuate with her family. For five years she was unable to return to her home in Katsurao village. Her experiences inspired her to become a volunteer of the Japanese Red Cross Society.

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International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies