A Four-Year Recovery Review

Earthquake Orphans’ Hard Road to Emotional Healing

Society Culture Lifestyle

Over 1,700 children were orphaned by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Sustained efforts to lend them a sympathetic ear, along with support from the community and society, will be crucial in healing their emotional scars.

Still Traumatized

March 2015 marked the fourth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the nation’s attention turned to the reconstruction efforts that are underway in heavily affected areas of Tōhoku. Many media reports focused on how children have bravely adjusted to life following the disaster and are taking firm steps toward a brighter tomorrow. Quite a number of orphans that I have come in contact with, though, still appear traumatized by the experience and overwhelmed by the changes they have been through over the past four years.

Absenteeism and withdrawal from social life have become more prevalent among middle and high school students, and even those who do go to schools often appear emotionally empty, leaving their textbooks at home, or voice a wish to die. Relatives of those orphaned by the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake recall that the hardest period for the children were three to four years following the disaster, when they were past the phase of having to struggle for survival and were confronted with the reality of a seemingly hopeless future. While the people of Tōhoku have a reputation for stoic perseverance, these children, too, will henceforth require close emotional attention and support.

Katchan’s Black Rainbow

In 2014 Ashinaga established three new Rainbow Houses to provide such support in the cities of Sendai and Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture and Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture. The houses host gatherings, including overnight events, on weekends or during spring and summer breaks at which children are free to express their pent-up emotions—grief, sadness, hatred, pain—with one another, without worrying about what others will think of them. This enables them to take an objective look at what they are feeling so they can move on in their lives.

The Sendai Rainbow House.


The curved ceiling of the multipurpose hall makes it look less like a school gymnasium, such as those used as emergency shelters following 3/11.


There are “hideouts” along the wall of the multipurpose hall for kids who want to be alone.


The “volcano room,” with cushioned walls and a sandbag, is a place where pent-up energy can be released.

The first Rainbow House was built in 1999 in Kobe, inspired by a drawing of a black rainbow by a boy nicknamed “Katchan,” who was orphaned by the devastating quake there four years earlier. Ashinaga’s main activities at the time were providing financial support to children who lost their parents and explaining how they can apply for scholarships. In August 1995 it organized a beach camp for these children in northern Hyogo.

One of the things the campers did was to build a totem pole, alongside which children wrote messages and made drawings on a long board. Katchan was a fifth grader at the time and drew a rainbow stretching across the nighttime sky, but as he was finishing his sketch, he blotted out the rainbow with black paint.

He had been trapped for nine hours after his house collapsed in the quake. Although he could see shadows of rescuers, he was in so much shock that he was unable to call for help. Eight family members lived in the house, and he lost his father and younger sister.

When we saw the drawing, we realized that financially supporting Katchan’s school education was not enough; far more basic and important for survivors of tragic events was emotional support to heal their psychological scars. This was our objective of building a Rainbow House in Kobe. We knew that similar facilities would be needed in Tōhoku, and we managed to open three in three years’ time.

Remorse for Parents’ Deaths

Not infrequently, children who lose parents blame themselves for the loss. Such feelings of remorse can continue to haunt a young survivor for many years. One middle school student, for example, confided, six years after the Kobe quake, that it was she who killed her mother; instead of finishing her homework the night before, she let it carry it over to next morning, compelling her mother to wake up earlier than usual to make her breakfast. Her mother would have survived, she was convinced, had she not gotten up so early. Even though there was no direct correlation between the child’s failure to finish her homework and her mother’s death, she continued to blame herself—without telling anyone about her feelings.

There are moments when children suddenly come to terms with feelings of loss and sadness that they had been repressing for years. My wish is to help facilitate those moments by providing them the kind of secure and warm environment that will allow them to open up and express their deepest emotions. This, I believe, is the responsibility of the adults around them.

Unlike the Kobe quake, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami occurred in mid-afternoon, when families were scattered, with parents at work, kids in school, and grandparents at home. They all flocked to emergency shelters separately, and for some it was not until several days later that they were tearfully reunited. For others, just as tearfully, the reunion never occurred. Those swept away in the tsunami remained missing for a whole month to a half year. This was no doubt a traumatic and painful experience for many survivors.

People whose work involved dealing with children soon after the disaster have told me that, because schoolchildren had been taught to run for their own lives in case of a tsunami—without thinking about others—many of the older pupils fled leaving younger children behind, only to turn back and see waves engulfing those who could not run fast enough. The trauma children suffered was of course not confined to the immediate events of the disaster. Some middle school students helped carry corpses, while others became victims of sexual offenses, committed at night in the toilets of evacuation centers.

Keeping a Lid on Inner Turmoil

No doubt, there are some things that one would rather keep private, so the children who come to Rainbow House are under no compulsion to speak. But if the emotional load they are carrying can be lightened at all by opening up and sharing their most painful memories, we are there to listen. The people of Tōhoku may be taciturn, but that does not mean they have nothing to say. Children and adults alike may be reluctant to divulge their innermost feelings to their families or other close acquaintances, but they still appreciate a sympathetic ear.

Many of the survivors remarked in the wake of the disaster that they were among the lucky ones. “We only had one casualty,” they would say. “There are entire families that were washed away.” They were stoically telling themselves that they had no right to complain when others were going through far greater misery. Adult males were particularly wont to take this attitude, as if struggling to keep a lid on their inner turmoil and agitation.

The Kobe survivors were quite different. When approached about an Ashinaga excursion to give children a break from their shelters, most guardians were quite grateful and happy to let the children participate. But in Tōhoku, the offer would often be declined. “With volunteers here from Tokyo working so hard for us, we can’t just let our kids go play,” they would say. There is a tendency to give other people priority and to attend to one’s own needs later. They may thus take longer to come to grips with their emotional griefs than the Kobe survivors.

Meeting with Kobe Orphans

Visitors to the Sendai Rainbow House can inscribe their height on the wall alongside an illustration of Ashinaga Ojisan (Daddy-Long-Legs).

In 2014 we at Ashinaga invited Kobe earthquake orphans and their families to meet and talk with their Tōhoku counterparts. This initiative, I am happy to report, had an immensely positive impact on the Tōhoku orphans, their parents/guardians, and their grandparents.

The episodes recounted by those from Kobe were not the kind of success stories one might come across in the movies. In fact they dealt more with their hardships and frustrations, but the moral was that they were still alive and leading normal lives, in spite of all the setbacks. Seeing that the Kobe orphans had grown up to become college students and working members of society was a beacon of hope for those in Tōhoku, who were uncertain about their future.

There were benefits for the Kobe participants as well. The experience enabled them to revisit both the painful and rewarding aspects of their lives since 1995; by seeing their lives from a broader perspective, they were able to affirm that the choices they had made had been for the best.

Reaching Out to People in Need

Earthquakes and other major natural disasters are bound to occur, so in the future we will need to apply the lessons of Tōhoku to support young children and help heal their emotional scars—not only in Japan but also around the world. Only then will the loss of some 19,000 lives in the March 2011 quake not have been in vain.

Sendai is thriving again, thanks partly to the reconstruction boom. But there are coastal areas just a 20-minute drive from the heart of the city that remain ravaged today. The destruction caused by the tsunami is something we must never forget.

The same is true for the emotional wounds suffered by schoolchildren. The orphans able to take part in the events at Rainbow House are only a fraction of the total. In fact, those unable to attend may be the ones to whom we most need to reach out. The only thing we can do is to continue communicating the message that they are always welcome here and that we are ready to walk with them until they are able to stride out on their own.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 8, 2015. Banner photo: The author stands in the “chattering room” of the Sendai Rainbow House, filled with stuffed dolls, where children can converse and play in a relaxed setting.)

Great East Japan Earthquake 3/11 earthquake orphans Ashinaga emotional support