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REBUILDING IN JAPAN, By Sara D. Smith (BA f10), BYU Magazine Fall 2014

Exploring the emotional impact of physical disaster on survivors, a BYU researcher hopes to help with psychological healing.

Psychology professor Niwako Yamawaki was surprised—and a little heartsick—when she spotted a boat stranded in the middle of a Japanese rice field, so many miles from the ocean. Weeks earlier, in March 2011, northern Japan had been devastated by the worldfs fourth-largest measured earthquake, followed by a brutal tsunami. Yamawaki was in the country after the disaster on a research fellowship, and she and her husband spent downtime volunteering in cleanup efforts.

Soon Yamawaki realized there is more to post-disaster recovery than rebuilding houses and clearing streets. She saw one woman weep for the first time after the disaster when Yamawaki thanked her for the chance to serve. This woman, like her fellow survivors, was cycling through stages of shock.

gOf course, the horrible thing was a lot of people died from this,h says Yamawaki. gBut at the same time, people who survived were actually suffering from a psychological death.h

Partnering with researchers at Saga University, Yamawaki studied the mental health and resiliency of survivors from the town of Hirono one year after a post-earthquake nuclear leak forced them to relocate to government housing. The researchers, who published their findings in Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, werenft surprised to learn that exercise, healthy diet, employment, and time with others increased survivor resiliency. But they were amazed that two-thirds reported depression symptoms and more than half had gclinically concerningh symptoms of PTSD like flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, and concentration problems.

These numbers are higher than those published in any other study of disaster survivors, says Yamawaki, and are likely caused by gthe relocation because of the radiation threat.h She says that Japan has a collectivistic culture—the sense of self is centered in community harmony and group interdependence. Because the people of Hirono were separated from their neighbors in the relocation, gtheir sense of self was taken away,h Yamawaki explains. gThat has had so much damage on their psyche.h

Three years after the disaster, the survivors still live in temporary housing with no clue as to when, or if, they can go home. Yamawaki returned to Japan this summer with a grant from the Kennedy Center to see if PTSD symptoms have lessened and how participants are responding to therapy. gPeople tend not to seek help, especially people in a collectivistic culture because they donft like outsiders,h she says. gTherapy . . . has not been well accepted.h

She hopes her research can help in the psychological rebuilding after natural disasters around the world. Survivors can be encouraged to eat well and exercise—which can be as simple as walking around with a friend—and find meaningful work, paid or otherwise. gWork is not only earning money,h explains Yamawaki. gItfs about a sense of purpose and it brings us achievement and a connection with community.h