After Japan's earthquake and tsunami, a shift in values

"Green Wave" Alfred DePew 3/11/11 acrylic on paper 

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan last March, executive coach and systems consultant Yuri Morikawa wanted to help. Like most, she wanted to focus on those hardest hit, the people in the Tōhoku region to the north of where she lives. But when she and her family evacuated to Nagasaki, she realized what she had already sensed—that everyone in Japan was in need of help, including her.

“Where I live [Tochigi, the prefecture south of Fukushima] also had high radiation,” says Morikawa. “So my husband and I decided to take our daughter to my mother-in-law’s house in Nagasaki.”

Morikawa and her family were there for a month. She had no real work to do, so she began to research how people in Nagasaki recovered from the atomic bomb. This led her to the grandson of Takashi Nagai, a physician and radiologist who survived the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, joined in treating other victims, and then spent most of the rest of his life in prayer.

“Tokuji Nagai [Dr. Nagai’s grandson] told me about how Nagasaki recovered,” Morikawa continues, “and he was strong about this—it was not the help from outsiders” that brought it about.

To be sure, there was a great outpouring of compassion and money in the first year after the war, and there is nothing but gratitude for that, but then the foreigners left, “and the real pain and the real disaster started from there and lasted ten years. That was the toughest. Indifference happened. And segregation happened because just saying you were from Nagasaki, people wouldn’t want to marry you. There were afraid you were infected by the atom bomb. There was discrimination and real poverty in Nagasaki, even as elsewhere in Japan the economic recovery was strong.”

“Mr. Nagai said, ‘So Ms Morikawa. You sound like you want to be a helper from outside, and I must tell you it won’t help them much. Just know that. Start from your own family and your own community because you are also the victim. Have compassion for yourself.’”

“I felt like I was being hit by a huge bell,” says Morikawa. “It really shifted my mind from ‘what can I do?’ to I need help too, and so do my neighbors—from saviour or hero to the people who actually need help—including myself.”

Working with the nursing home staff

When she returned to her home, Morikawa began talking to her neighbors and parents of her daughter’s friends, “people I had seen before but never said hello to. I’d put my hand on their shoulder and ask them about what they’d been through. It seemed so natural, and yet so new. People were ready to support each other and to give things they had to those who didn’t have them. To be honest, I had never experienced this kind of unexpected uplift of emotions before. I think this kind of emotional exaltation cannot be without a deep pain and suffering, or awareness of that, or living with it.”

She had tea with a friend who told her stories about evacuating a nearby nursing home for the elderly.

“Amazing, heart-touching stories,” says Morikawa. “People who were on shift and people who were not on shift, once they got their own relatives settled—some of them, their homes were destroyed, but everybody helped to carry the old people, many of whom had Alzheimer’s or were bedridden, walking or by bike 30 to 40 minutes to the elementary school gymnasium. Then they went back to get the pets—goldfish, dogs, hamsters.”

“They were really working as one entity, seamlessly, without any direction or boss leading them. They worked smoothly, collaboratively. They made it happen. I was very moved. I also heard about their fatigue. Several weeks, day and night. They also had families they needed to keep secure. Many seemed to have a pain about that, sort of a guilty feeling toward their families. Some staff were out of town and couldn’t be with everyone when the earthquake struck. They felt guilty and also left out of the circle.”

Listening to her friend that day at tea, Morikawa thought of a way she could help. She proposed a workshop for the nursing home staff in which they could acknowledge one another and tell the stories of what happened on March 11.

“This is a wonderful legend this nursing home will be proud for the rest of its history,” syas Morikawa. “Let’s keep it, honour it.”

On the day of the workshop, they sat in a circle, and Morikawa put a lit candle in the centre. She began by telling her own story of 3/11. She thanked them for all the work they did to save the elderly people in the nursing home.

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