Every month, Harumi Sugiyama and Yumiko Hongo visit an apartment complex in Tokyo accommodating people who fled the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, listening to the evacuees as they talk about their daily lives, frustrations and sorrows.
The two are mental care specialists who have taken up the task of helping people deal with anguish through dialogue. And it is not only their professional skills that help them relate to the evacuees —Sugiyama and Hongo have their own experiences with grief.
Sugiyama, 51, faced the death of her 34-year-old husband in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Hongo, 51, lost her 7-year-old daughter in a stabbing rampage at an elementary school in Osaka Prefecture the same year.
Nearly six years after the Fukushima disaster struck, the two believe that dealing with emotional turmoil tends to be a long process that differs from person to person. They hope to continue to play a part in supporting evacuees in distress just as they were helped by others.
“In my case, it was emotionally soothing to have someone listen to my thoughts and feel someone close to me,” Hongo said as she explained why she thinks dialogue-based mental care is important. “I thought this kind of support is needed for people in great sorrow, which cannot be cured by medication.”
Regular counseling services by professionals certified by the Mental Care Association began in November 2012 at the Shinonome apartment in Koto Ward, which has served as the largest lodging facility in Tokyo for people affected by the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters. Sugiyama has served as a counselor from the beginning and Hongo joined after she moved to Tokyo from Osaka in 2015.
When talking with evacuees, the two usually do not reveal their personal backgrounds unless they are asked. They focus on seeking to understand the clients’ pains and other emotions, which are sometimes hidden from view. Their activities do not involve medical advice or prescribing medicine.
“I notice evacuees are struggling with a sense of loss even when they talk about everyday affairs,” Hongo said. “For example, going shopping for vegetables reminds them that they used to grow vegetables back at home and that they cannot do that anymore.”
The nuclear crisis resulted in the core meltdown of three reactors and radiation contamination in vast areas. Coupled with the natural disasters, more than 160,000 Fukushima residents were displaced.
The number of evacuees who receive counseling at the Shinonome apartment is declining, with more people returning to Fukushima Prefecture or moving to different places, according to the association.
But the organization feels a demand to continue its activities, which have been voluntary work over the past several years. Even now, there are cases in which evacuees who have never asked for counseling before suddenly show up with their hearts on their sleeves.
A 61-year-old man who left his home about 22 km from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear complex said he used to vent his frustration over how evacuees were poorly treated in his exchanges with Sugiyama.
“I was burning with anger at that time … but I feel quite calm thanks to the exchanges,” he said after talking with Sugiyama for some 30 minutes in late February in an assembly room at the apartment building made available for counseling.
Their talk that day was mostly light-hearted as the man was a familiar face for Sugiyama. But there seemed to be a moment when the conversation went deeper when the man asked Sugiyama, somewhat hesitantly, about her thoughts regarding the terrorist attacks.
“It’s impossible to get over everything and go on to the next stage. I guess it is the same for people like you affected by the disasters,” Sugiyama answered, and the man agreed.
Sugiyama was certified as a mental care specialist in 2010, as she hoped to provide the type of support she received in the United States when she was searching for her missing husband, Yoichi Sugiyama, a banker working at the World Trade Center.
“Unable to find my husband’s name (from any of the lists of people taken to hospitals), I broke down in tears,” said Sugiyama, who was pregnant at that time. “And a woman — probably a mental care volunteer — quickly came to me even though I was a stranger and a foreigner, and asked me if I was OK and (held) me around the shoulders.”
The woman escorted her to the exit and offered her contact information.
“I really felt she was there for me and I will probably never forget that,” Sugiyama added.
Sugiyama also felt mental care was more accessible in the United States, with volunteers and nurses frequently asking whether she needed support. In Japan, however, many people may not reach out for help unless they are backed into a corner.
“Disaster victims often tell me, ‘I shouldn’t complain when others are going through greater hardships.’ But I think we should create a society in which people feel comfortable speaking about their distress for the sake of their mental well-being,” she said.
Hongo, who became a mental care specialist in 2005, said she does not think she is doing something extraordinary and is instead just trying to carry on the support she received in the past.
“I lost faith in people (after my daughter Yuki was murdered). But I was also saved by people who stayed with me. I owe what I am now to them,” said Hongo, who has also studied extensively about grief care, which aims to help people cope with mourning the death of a loved one.
Hongo said there was a time she thought of ending her own life amid the unbearable grief of losing her child. But she was reminded of the value of life when she saw Yuki’s 39-meter-long blood stain left in the school corridor — a testament to how she fought to her very last breath after being stabbed by the knife-wielding intruder.
Hongo counted 68 steps along the path.
“The 68 steps showed me that every person has the same strength to go on living,” she said. “I hope to offer support to others, believing in that power each person has.”