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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Consider others' feelings in times of disaster

Rika Kayama

Western Japan's Kansai region suffered serious damage when a powerful typhoon struck the area recently. Right after that, a major earthquake in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido killed scores of residents and knocked out power across the entire island.

On a personal note, I am from Hokkaido. My parents' families and my relatives all live in the capital Sapporo, the city of Otaru to the northwest, and other parts of the prefecture. I was awoken by a call from my younger brother in the wee hours of Sept. 6, just after the quake had hit. He couldn't get a hold of our mother, who lives alone, and we spent the hours until dawn in the grips of a terrible tension.

My family members were confirmed safe, but the sense of relief was short as the blackout dragged on. I was also worried about the Tomari nuclear plant which, though not in operation at the time of the quake, had lost external power and was depending on generators to keep its fuel pool cooling system running. My mother lives in Otaru, which is only about 40 kilometers from the plant.

However, I live and work in Tokyo, so I can't make it back to Hokkaido at a moment's notice. New Chitose Airport (near Sapporo) was closed and trains up to the island weren't running. I kept my calls to my relatives' mobile phones to a minimum to help them preserve battery life. And so, far from the disaster area, I continued my daily work routine while at the same time worrying relentlessly.

And in all this, I came to understand something. This is probably obvious, but for people without family in Hokkaido, the quake was essentially just one of many natural disasters. They can't spend all their time thinking about it, and other things like discussing work issues and taking meals need attention. On the other hand, my family is suffering every moment of this disaster, and so I feel no desire to focus on work or engage in casual conversation. That is a wide gap in experience.

But, I soon asked myself, did I think sympathetically and tenderly about the people affected by the Typhoon Jebi disaster? When the faces of my friends from Kansai were clouded with worry, I did say to them, "It must be tough," but then I swiftly switched the subject and made some jokes and laughed.

As a doctor, it is embarrassing to say that it is hard to put myself in the shoes of a person directly connected to some serious event, but that is something I felt very keenly after the experiences of the past week. Of course, it would also be problematic to fall into the same despair as those in or from a disaster zone. It is likely that the knowledge that life continues as normal in other places is of significant comfort to those in a disaster area.

Nevertheless, for someone to say they have no interest in a terrible event because they don't have a connection to the people in the disaster area -- people in pain and those close to them -- is something to be avoided. I have reminded myself that, along with encouraging the people of my native Hokkaido, I want to hold close to my heart the feelings of those affected by this year's typhoon and torrential rain disasters in western Japan, as well as those of the people close to them. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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