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Stress emerges as major health issue in Fukushima

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 8, 2013 at 7:31 pm •  Published: March 8, 2013

Ishitani and his family fled abruptly in the middle of the night three days after the tsunami hit. A friend called to warn them that a second reactor might explode and that their lives were in danger.

Terrified, they hurriedly packed a couple of bags and jumped in their car. Ishitani drove madly into the mountains of neighboring Yamagata prefecture, figuring they would be safe there. After two months in an evacuation center, Ishitani returned to Minami-Soma to work. The rest of the family — including his wife's two older sons from a previous marriage — later moved to a house whose rent is covered by the government for three years.

Many families are similarly split — fathers sticking it out with their jobs while mothers and children live in temporary shelters or government-sponsored housing. Sometimes, the stress of separation has gotten to be too much, leading to what the media has dubbed "nuclear divorces." Ishitani says his marriage remains strong, though his wife Yuko is lonely. His parents still live in Minami-Soma, and his 67-year-old mother, wiping away a tear, says she misses her eight grandchildren, most of whom have moved away.

All told, some 160,000 people in Fukushima prefecture remain displaced by the disaster.

Japanese authorities have sought to address the psychological strain on residents by bringing in psychiatrists and counselors to help staff mental health clinics and organize support groups at temporary housing settlements, but experts acknowledge that many psychological needs are not being met.

A huge barrier is a strong cultural resistance to visiting a psychiatrist or "heart care clinics," as counseling centers are called to reduce the stigma. That's particularly true in the northern region of Tohoku, where people are generally stoic and private matters stay private. Ishitani and others here say such clinics are for the seriously ill, not for stress that everyone is experiencing.

"No one around me ever goes to those places," he says. "Even if you go to them, it isn't really going to help the situation."

There's little to do to relieve stress. Before the disaster, Ishitani would go out with friends on a fishing boat once a month and bring home flounder and greenling that his wife would broil to perfection. But he's stopped doing that after authorities said the fish are contaminated.

He frequently talks with friends, some of whom have moved away, but the conversations often end up becoming gripe sessions about the authorities.

There's anger at the government and the utility that owns the Fukushima plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO. Ishitani doesn't know where to direct his rage. It makes him feel powerless.

He has called the utility's head office in Tokyo numerous times to complain, but feels helpless unloading on a low-level public relations staffer who can't take any action.

"It's the deception of the politicians, bureaucrats and TEPCO that makes me the maddest," he says, his voice rising slightly. "The feeling is that if we just compensate people with money, that's enough. That just drives me crazy."

His family received 500,000 yen ($5,200) per month from TEPCO as compensation until last August, he says, but he wants something different.

"Rather than stay in their big offices, I'd like to see them come out and help clean up," he says. "They are in Tokyo getting their big salaries. They aren't living here."

Hours later, Ishitani is much calmer as he sits with his wife and youngest son in the family's rented house in Yamagata prefecture. There's two meters (six feet) of snow outside, but he's warm and content eating a supper of broiled fish and hot soup, his legs tucked under the traditional "kotatsu" table, which has a blanket and built-in heater to keep warm.

It feels like home, even if it isn't.