A humpbacked old woman with a walker was teetering along a busy coastal highway that cut through the debris that had been a coastal neighborhood of nearly 400 homes in Noda Village. The old woman showed me the spot where her home had been before tsunamis blendered it into shreds, then mixed those shreds with the ruins of an entire community. As tragic as that seemed, the old woman said that she did not care about her house and rice field. She motioned toward the vast wasteland of debris that had been her village and said her only concern was to find in that mess the box that contained her ancestors.
I felt like a boy scout as I helped her across the highway to the area in which 85 volunteer airmen, sailors, and civilians from Misawa Air Base were clearing debris. The old woman joined us, wandering in the debris with the aid of her walker. Eyes to the ground, she looked for her ancestors. We helped her to seek, but we did not find.
This is not an isolated case. The media focus almost entirely on the loss of life and property. Although these are tragic beyond imagination, focusing on only these aspects of disaster means that we miss the destruction of livelihood, culture, heritage, history, and religion—core elements of identity that give humans purpose and hope.
A mental health professional who is administering to survivors in a remote fishing village told me that the main challenge now is preventing survivors from killing themselves. This seems dreadfully ironic: struggling to survive, only to commit suicide. During times like these, we need to look beyond immediate survival needs and engage in administering to the psychological, emotional, cultural, and spiritual needs of survivors. We must do this within the cultural context of those who are suffering, not according to our desires to impose our reality on them. Otherwise, survival only means the beginning of crisis.