MINAMISOMA, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – One snowy Sunday morning in late February, elderly men were awkwardly driving nails into half-finished furniture under the instruction of skilled carpenters at a factory in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture.
They were taking part in the Otoko no Mokko (Woodwork for Men) workshop launched Jan. 20 in the Haramachi district by doctors at Minamisoma Municipal General Hospital to aid the recovery from the March 2011 quake-tsunami.
The aim of the project was to draw male evacuees out of the temporary accommodations they’ve been stranded in for the past two years. Men have a stronger tendency to become socially isolated than women in such an environment.
“Many male workers lost their jobs after the disasters, and they’ve been living in temporary housing or apartments without anything to do,” said Ryohei Suzuki, a physician at the Minamisoma hospital who is leading the workshop initiative. “A lot of them now spend their days playing pachinko.”
Suzuki and his colleagues have also been holding weekly “tea salon” gatherings at temporary lodgings around Minamisoma, hoping to prevent the men from becoming isolated and spiraling into extreme depression or, in the worst-case scenario, suicide. It’s a pattern that became a major social issue after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake devastated the Kobe area.
Male disaster victims, however, tend to shun such get-togethers, Suzuki said.
“Women like chatting, but men don’t. They don’t come out to social events. So we were thinking of ways to somehow get them out of their rooms, and came up with the carpentry workshop idea,” he said.
Many male evacuees in Minamisoma used to work for manufacturing companies or in agriculture and fisheries. They are craving opportunities to engage in something creative yet down to earth, said Dr. Masaaki Odaka, who is assisting with the carpentry workshop. Woodwork seemed like a good way to coax them out of their shells.
The workshop started out with just two men and now has six. Although it was initially intended for men, three women recently joined the sessions, project leader Suzuki said.
At one recent gathering, the members seemed extremely shy as they went about their work and barely spoke. But when asked whether they were enjoying making furniture, they started to open up.
“It’s the third time I’ve come to the workshop. I’ve never done woodwork in my life and it’s difficult — but also fun,” said Kunihiko Yokoyama, 70, whose house in the Odaka district was destroyed by the tsunami.
Medical experts say men are more prone to isolation and severe depression after disasters deprive them of their jobs, houses, families and reasons to live. Since tens of thousands of victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear crisis are unable to tell what their future holds, experts warn that depression and suicide may increase.
“I think people are still in the mindset of working hard (to rebuild their communities). I am more worried about the future,” said Arinobu Hori, a psychiatrist at Hibarigaoka Hospital in Minamisoma.
When people eventually begin to rebuild their homes, the gap between those able to resume their lives and those who can’t will grow, experts say.
“Such a sense of despair is huge. The gap will probably start to show within about three years (of the quake). We need to take note of that,” Dr. Keitaro Harasawa of Minamisoma Municipal General Hospital said.
Between June 2011 and this January, 81 people from the worst-affected prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate killed themselves due to reasons attributed to the calamity, according to statistics compiled by the Cabinet Office. Of them, 63 — or 78 percent — were men.
“The most important thing in preventing suicides is not to let people become isolated,” said Hori of Hibarigaoka Hospital.
When someone is living in isolation, burdened with problems that exceed their physical or psychological capacities, they begin to despair and are far more likely to become suicidal, Hori said.
But their capacity can be strengthened by bonding with others around them, fostering a belief that they can endure the problems they are experiencing and persevere, he explained.
Back at the Otoko no Mokko workshop, the group was busy making eight tables. All have been sold in advance to the Minamisoma-based nonprofit organization Hot Yu, and will be used in a tea room slated to open in the Odaka Ward office in April.
By continuing to hone their skills, the group hopes to produce high-quality furniture that will turn the project into a profitable venture someday.