Arriving in Ofunato.tsunami relief.

by | Sep 5, 2011 | Clowns Without Borders

Back story.  I have come over to Japan on a Clowns Without Borders collaboration with the Tyler Foundation’s Shine On! Smile Ambassador program. The Tyler Foundation’s focus is on childhood cancer, however following the Tsunami/Earthquake disaster last march, they, like many groups in Japan, have looked to support relief efforts. So these past four months, Guy Totaro, as Niko Niko Taishi (smile ambassador) has been traveling to the area to bring laughter and smiles to the children.  His efforts, which were initially focused on the emergency shelters, have gradually shifted towards the schools. He has also started to bring other performers with him. In Tokyo last week, I taught free workshops for performers wishing to participate in the program focusing on clown improvisation and creating material for performances. Now Guy, his assistant Keiko, and I are in Ofunato for ten days to do shows in elementary schools and childcare centers in the region.

The drive from the Mizusawa Eisashi shinkansen train station over the mountains is one of pure beauty, steep pine tree canopies climbing on either side of the winding road that follows the roaring river down towards the sea. The traditional Japanese houses intermingled with modern convenience stores and occasional flat patches of luminescent green rice fields.  There are hints of the earthquake disaster as we encounter road diversions that steer around cracked pavement and fallen roadway.  It isn’t until much later after entering the town of Ofunato, and traveling towards the fishing harbor that evidence of the tsunami starts to rear its head.

If the head are the ground floors of houses with plywood boarded windows, and tin metal sheds and warehouses torn apart with rusted strands of sheet metal torn and twisted into oblong shapes; then the body would have to be the collected mountains of debris piled in fields along the road. A football field’s worth of debris that used to be the collected belongings of people’s lives. Stories high, scraps of upholstery defining the outer edges of now colorless furnishings on one side of the road. A few hundred meters further, another consisting entirely of tortured washing machines and major appliances. A field full of bashed cars alongside, twisted into shapes no road accident could have created.

It has been already six months since the event. Inland one wouldn’t know offhand that any thing had happened. That is if one ignores the small displays in the convenience store that are selling t-shirts with logos like “Pray for Japan” alongside a photo book, the cover a sober photograph showing a devastated town, the title  simply 3-11.  This is but the surface, underneath are all the lives that have been affected, and all the lives lost. Six months in, the wounds are now buried a little deeper  into the psyches of the inhabitants.  To what degree, I am clueless at this point. No doubt I will be finding out to some degree. Ken-san, our local collaborator, in a discussion in the westernized HotPot restaurant, tells us that his 3-year-old son is showing signs of PTSD. This pops into the conversation as we discuss the rigidity of the school system, and debate to what degree the schools are recognizing, or not, the effects of the trauma in the kids behavior. (post blog note: In meetings with school principals, there is a very clear awareness of PTSD issues)

The discussion will be ongoing no doubt as we travel the region. Some are places that Guy has visited before, others not. Some of the temporary housing is located on school playgrounds and sports fields, as available open space is not the norm in Japan.  I can only imagine that is a daily reminder, however under the surface, to the school kids, of the tragedy of lost friends and family members.  It also takes away one of the outlets that might help relieve and release the stress the tragedy has created.

Before traveling from Tokyo, I had a meeting with a humanitarian worker, an emergency coordinator, whose agency was slowly shifting focus from the disaster here, to that the drought in East Africa.  My intention was, and remains, to understand how best we can be of assistance to the children to release stress from the trauma. To what degree our injections of humor and fun can help bring the children back to their normal realms of behaviors.  There are roadblocks in our way, a lack of understanding, not only of what humor and laughter can bring to the table, but of recognition that the post traumatic stress exists.  It is not necessarily readily apparent yet the coordinator points out the various ways it is surfacing in children’s behavior. The school principals are stressed out for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that they are behind in the school curriculum. In a society where educational standards are demanding, where expectations are high, where rigidity rather than flexibility are the norm, the challenges are large.

Guy’s initial focus to bring  humor into the shelters has been transitioning to the schools  as  the population living in the shelters are now in temporary housing.  The schools where he has already visited are mostly happy to welcome him back, however those not in the know, are not so eager. The understanding in higher levels of government concerning the population’s mental health needs  has not necessarily made it to the local levels. (post blog note: In meetings with school principals, there is a very clear awareness of PTSD and mental health issues) These are the stories I am hearing.  Today we go into action, a childcare center in the morning, an elementary school in the early afternoon followed by a show at an after school program.  It is time to bear witness to the realities that exist, and to share all that we have to offer, and to open as many doors as possible.

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