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2011 GREAT EAST JAPAN EARTHQUAKE: Survivors' daily struggle

A 92-year-old man sits down to eat a dinner prepared by a helper with his two grandchildren in their Kamaishi,

Publication Date : 11-03-2014


Today marks the third anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. In the aftermath of the disaster, foster parents raising orphaned children are showing signs of fatigue.

Many of these foster parents are relatives of the children, such as grandparents, uncles and aunts. They face various challenges, including old age and the diminished physical condition that comes with it, and a lack of experience or ease in raising children.

Of the 241 children orphaned by the disaster in the three worst-hit Tohoku prefectures, around 90 per cent are being raised by relatives.

Experts have pointed out the need for ongoing support for foster parents, including psychological care. Support organisations have started surveys to ascertain the situations in these families and pursue solutions to the problems.

Dishes such as sauteed meat and vegetables and grilled fish were set on the table in a home in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, where a 92-year-old man is raising his two grandchildren. According to the man, a helper prepares the family’s supper every day, and he heats the dishes in the microwave.

The children are a 14-year-old girl in her third year of middle school, and a 12-year-old boy in the sixth grade of primary school. Their father, who was the eldest son of their grandfather, died of illness in 2008, and their mother, who had been working at a facility for the disabled, died in the 2011 tsunami.

The man had been living with his daughter-in-law and grandchildren, but is now raising the children. He has limited mobility due to his legs and cannot drive a car. He relies on a helper for shopping and cleaning every day, and relatives living in the neighbourhood help him communicate with his grandchildren’s school.

Even with this assistance, the man fell ill and was hospitalised for around six weeks last autumn. People in the area helped manage the grandchildren’s daily lives, but he worries about the current situation, saying: “I’m really concerned about my grandchildren. I have to live another 10 years at least, until they graduate from school.”

Many foster parents receive a stipend of about 50,000 yen (US$485) a month through the foster parent support system, by which the central government subsidises children’s living and education expenses. However, unlike traditional, formal foster parents who receive sufficient training prior to accepting children, many of the people who suddenly became foster parents due to the disaster have found themselves unprepared.

On behalf of the Iwate prefectural government, orphanage staff member Yuki Konno, 41, regularly visits 12 households caring for children who were orphaned by the disaster. “Since about spring last year, the problems that foster parents are facing began to intensify,” he said.

According to Konno, one woman who had no prior experience raising children began complaining, “It’s hard to interact with the parents of my child’s classmates.” Konno also described a man who expressed concern about rearing five children, including two of his own.

In light of the situation, Tohoku University and other organisations have begun surveying the family circumstances of foster parents.

Prof. Michiyo Kato, the head of the Support Office for Children in the Aftermath of the 2011 Japan Earthquake, said: “Many of these foster parents are devoting themselves to raising children out of a sense of responsibility, thinking that it’s natural for them to do so as the children’s relatives. But they also feel sad themselves over losing family members.

“Some of these people aren’t able to voice their complaints openly.”

Noriko Tarukawa, associate professor at Tsukuba University and a researcher into the psychological effects of foster parentage on children, pointed to another problem, saying: “As their lives grow more stable, some foster parents feel overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness or find themselves lashing out. These changes can affect the children.

“We need to create opportunities for foster parents to speak freely and openly with other foster parents.”

267,000 remain evacuees

A total of 267,419 people were living as evacuees as the nation approached the third anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, according to a survey released late last month by the Reconstruction Agency.

The number was particularly high in Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, with 89,882 living as evacuees in Miyagi Prefecture and 85,589 in Fukushima Prefecture.


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