Isaac Gagné, assistant professor of Japanese studies at the University of Hong Kong, visited Binghamton University on Tuesday to lead a discussion on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and post-disaster recovery in Japan.
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook the Tohoku region of Japan. Eleven minutes later, a 10-meter tsunami added to the decimation of the area. Disrupted by both the tsunami and earthquake, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant melted down. The series of events resulted in 15,893 deaths, 6,152 injured, 2,572 missing and 400,000 people displaced.
“It has been called Japan’s 9/11,” Gagné said. “Not because it was a terrorist attack but because of how it shaped the Japanese mindset.”
In Japan, it is considered atypical for those without a chronic mental illness to seek psychiatric help or guidance. This created an unusual phenomenon after the 2011 disasters, since a large number of survivors needed mental help, but few were willing to seek it out.
Survivors experienced trauma from the loss of family members, jobs, property or a combination of the three. In an effort to comfort the survivors, many began participating in keicho gatherings. Keicho volunteers were local community members, a majority of whom were from the area that was affected by the disaster. At the gatherings, these individuals, who were not trained in mental health, would lend an ear to people who wanted to talk about their trauma. The idea was to “repair the heart” through communal rebuilding.
“From the Japanese perspective, healing must be social,” Gagné said.
Gagné’s research shows that keicho gatherings proved to be beneficial for the victims. The meetings are considered by professionals to be a combination of psychotherapeutic talk therapy and occupational therapy.
But for the participants, the talks mostly represented a return to normalcy after disaster. Groups would sit together and drink tea, just as they had done before their homes were destroyed.
“There was no expectation of revolution, but just to come close to the heart, feel warmth and empowerment,” Gagné said.
According to Gagné, the rate of suicide and long-term emotional trauma declined drastically among those who participated in these sessions.
The word “keicho” in Japanese roughly translates to “active listening.” Active listening is an unstructured tactic introduced to Japan by Americans and is used to remedy the effects of PTSD through simple exchanges of conversation. It primarily focuses on accepting the past to improve one’s current situation.
Unlike the U.S. concept of guidance aimed at drawing a desired result or immediate relief, active listening involves steady progress with no structured conclusion. In addition, the Japanese volunteer model of active listening primarily involves pairing complete strangers together to avoid any social discomfort from family or friends.
Samantha Wagner, a second-year graduate student studying clinical psychology who attended the event, was impressed by the parallels drawn between the U.S. and Japanese systems’ approach to mental health.
“It’s very interesting to me how the mental health system works in that it is targeted toward those with dementia and elder research,” Wagner said. “This contrasts with the American model where we focus on children and don’t target elder care as much.”
The event was organized by associate professor of Japanese literature and cinema David Stahl. Gagné’s research is significantly related to Stahl’s in that they both deal with the consequences and effects of trauma.
“Trauma has to be constituted in language and image before it can be known,” said Stahl. ”Otherwise you can say ‘well I lost my house, I lost these people’ … but those are just the facts and there are more emotions involved, especially guilt. However, this can’t be the be-all and end-all, but is very important for the short-term effect on a person.”