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At the "Philia" Cafe run by Caritas Japan in the town of Kamaishi, a tsunami survivor (left) talks about her experiences. The cafe serves hot drinks and also distributes free items like clothes. Trained counselors and Caritas volunteers like the one on the right listen to the traumatized survivors, many of whom are elderly. Credits: Sheahen/Caritas

At the “Philia” Cafe run by Caritas Japan in the town of Kamaishi, a tsunami survivor (left) talks about her experiences. The cafe serves hot drinks and also distributes free items like clothes. Trained counselors and Caritas volunteers like the one on the right listen to the traumatized survivors, many of whom are elderly.
Credits: Sheahen/Caritas

When you’re knocked down by a massive wave that robs you of everything you have, it doesn’t end there. The second wave is stronger.

Tsunami survivors know this. On the east coast of Japan, people who lived through the country’s worst natural disaster in centuries talk about the strength of that wave. It lifted and scattered buildings, cars, and enormous ships far inland. Boats and oddly-tilted houses now lie in the grass.

The psychological damage is similar—the first shock, then the lingering trauma that can often go deeper. There is the same disorientation and displacement. There are questions about what you’re meant to do now, with your home, livelihood, or even a family member lost.

“I kept running uphill. I was so exhausted,” says an elderly lady in a peach-colored shirt. She’s sitting in a church basement that Caritas Japan has transformed into a ‘healing centre’ for people in Kamaishi, an old steel town badly hit by the tsunami. “Once I stopped to rest, but I saw water coming right behind my feet. I met another elderly person who said, ‘Let’s hold hands and run together.’ But that person got too tired and said, ‘Leave me.’”

Though her husband and son survived, two of the woman’s friends died. Six months after the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, she is still in shock and in mourning. Now she makes her way frequently to the Caritas centre, also called the Philia Cafe. At the cafe, survivors can get free supplies like clothes; drink tea or coffee; and talk to volunteers trained in trauma care. “When I came here, the Caritas volunteer kept listening to me,” she continues. “I was given many emergency relief goods too. But being listened to really helped me.”

“Even before the tsunami, the area was tired and aging,” says Bishop Isao Kikuchi, president of Caritas Japan. The bishop grew up in this area of Japan’s coast. “Young people were leaving. It was already hard to think of a bright future, and then the tsunami happened.”

“People lost so many loved ones and needed to be cared for. People here don’t say or show that they need help,” says Une, a Caritas pastoral care worker who radiates calm, laser like attention. “I realized, first, that I just need to be with them. There are so many isolated elderly people who feel abandoned. People need someone to care about them.”

Caritas Japan holds grief care sessions for the thousands of volunteers who come to the coastal villages on a rotating basis. At one evening session, a young volunteer translates points covered in a booklet given to the trainees. “Here it says: ‘Don’t compare your pain with theirs. Don’t tell grieving people to buck up.’”

Day after day, survivors come to the cafe in Kamaishi, and other cities, to sit with volunteers over tea. If the survivors talk, the volunteers listen. If they don’t talk, they sit together in silence.

Survivors who lived for months in shelters, and now are in prefabricated trailers provided by the government, struggle with loneliness and guilt. “I am 73. I was a caregiver to an invalid lady in her eighties,” says a woman in green. “When the tsunami struck, I tried really hard to save my patient, but she drowned.”

“Her family is angry with me. I am fighting with my guilt,” she goes on. “And now I have no money, no job, nothing. I come here to the Caritas centre to let stress out. I’m more peaceful because I can talk and people here will listen.”

Along with guilt, there is overwhelming fear. “I have a relative who lost her house—her dog and cat too–and can’t accept the reality of what happened,” says a volunteer leader. “Now she always puts everything in a backpack—medical supplies, everything she needs—and carries it all the time, even to Mass. But she doesn’t go out much. She doesn’t do anything. She’s numb.”

While some are frozen by thoughts of future disasters, others focus on the past. “I went to the places I knew and saw nothing was there. I keep going back and crying,” says a third woman at the Philia cafe.

To reach traumatized people who can’t or don’t come to the cafe, Caritas volunteers drive to government-sponsored temporary housing lots. There, they hold barbecues, craft-making classes, and get-to-know-your-neighbour events. “In Japan, you don’t always know the person living next to you,” says Bishop Kikuchi. He worries that the number of suicides in Japan, already one of the highest in the world, might increase. “We need to take care of people’s hearts.”

At one grief care session, a volunteer named Sakae Chida explains why she came. “I want to help the children in the afterschool day care centre where I work,” she says. “The things they play have changed. They used to play dollhouse. Now they play hospital. Or they make the noise of sirens and ambulances, yelling ‘A tsunami is coming, run!’”

“At first glance, the kids might seem happy,” she continues. “But they might have trauma deep down in their hearts.” She describes a 10-year-old girl who lost her mother, and was silent about it for months. “Recently she’s started saying things like, ‘This is the shirt my mother made me,’” says Sakae. “She’s started opening up.”

Little by little, others are too. “For three months, there was no expression on their faces,” says a religious sister about the people in the tsunami-struck town where she ministers. “They shut down their feelings to survive. Now their faces are more expressive. Sometimes they laugh.”

The programme is transforming not just the survivors, but the volunteers as well. “At first, I thought ‘I have to take care of them,’” says Une. “But I was the one who was changed.”

“I’m thankful that so many volunteers have come, “ says Sakae. “Fewer people would have someone to open their hearts to if there wasn’t Caritas.”