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Devastation in Japan Has Personal Impact on AMHCA Member
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Devastation in Japan Has Personal Impact on AMHCA Member

By Roy Huggins, NCC 
Portland, Ore.

It started with Facebook, as these things so often do these days. A friend in Japan posted, “Wow! BIG earthquake hit Tokyo 5 mins ago. Shook like hell.” Soon after, my feed was covered in reports of shaking, aftershocks, and seasickness. The place I’d so recently left was in a state of disaster. 

Then it hit the news: the biggest quake in Japan’s recorded history had occurred in waters outside Tohoku, and the resulting tsunami was huge. I emailed the English teacher I worked with there for three years to ask how everyone was doing. “Sapporo is okay,” he replied without hesitation, “Don’t worry about us. We haven’t had contact with many people in Tohoku, however.” 

Fortunately for me, my friends and acquaintances were out of the disaster zone. One of them, a U.S.-trained social worker colleague named Kiku Iwamoto, visited my town of Portland, Oregon, on a work trip shortly after the disaster. We talked about relief efforts and the mental health response, and she made a comment that summed up something I’d been trying to put my finger on for quite some time: “Japan is not a social work society.” 

In Sapporo, I worked for three years as an assistant English teacher, primarily in middle school, from August 2007 to August 2010. I learned that for students, the job that counselors do in the States is largely done by teachers in Japan. Homeroom teachers are responsible for many aspects of their students’ well-being. Some are very good at it, others not as much, and none of them is specifically trained for it. Being a schoolteacher in Japan is a more-than-full-time job. 

Adults don’t have the institutional support system that kids have, however. Although social work is a licensed profession in Japan, the Japanese government doesn’t take on much responsibility for the social and mental health of adult citizens, when compared to the United States. That job is largely done in Japan by caring family members, other community members, hot baths, and social drinking. 

In some cases, people can also get help from the burgeoning class of mental health professionals that are growing their presence in the public eye. For example, rinshou-shinrishi, literally “clinical psychologist,” are master’s-trained clinicians similar to mental health counselors in the United States, although they are not yet regulated or licensed by any government. 

Shinryou-naika is a field of medicine in Japan in which general practitioners are specially trained to treat psychosomatic disorders. There are also numerous Japanese people who seek professional training in the United States, Canada, and other countries. I know of at least two examples of therapists who maintain their professional licensure from foreign governments while practicing in Japan. 

Early in my Sapporo experience, I decided to do some volunteer counseling for other English speakers. This of course required discovering the lay of the land regarding ethics, duty to report, and continuum of care. I discovered that those things don’t exist for counselors in Japan. In the case of suicidal clients, for example, I was on my own. A local police officer informed me that Japanese police cannot detain someone for being a potential danger to themselves. They may only intervene if someone is caught in the act of self-harm. There is some freedom in knowing that you can work without fear-based ethics, but it also made me appreciate the support those ethical rules provide us in the United States. 

Though Japan is not “a social work” society, it is a society with a social consciousness. About a week into the disaster, I heard about Hideaki Akaiwa (via Facebook, of course). Akaiwa is a man in the devastated coastal town of Ishinomaki. After the tsunami hit, he found himself cut off from his wife by rivers of dangerous, torrential waters flooding through the city. Not one to leave the job to authorities, he acquired some SCUBA gear and managed to rescue not only his wife, but his mother, too. These heroics are impressive, but perhaps not an example of social consciousness. According to the news reports, however, he swore to keep searching for survivors in need of rescue. After discovering what he could do for himself and his family, he decided to do the same for his community. 

According to my colleague Kiku, national relief efforts will probably be concentrated on rescue and medical response, and after that, people will be dependent on families and other community members. Various organizations such as Mercy Corps and Second Harvest are moving into the devastated areas to make sure people have food, blankets, etc. 

Children in need of help will likely find it from those organizations, their teachers, mental health professionals, and remaining family. Also, while Akaiwa’s story is inspiring and awesome, it isn’t altogether surprising to me. It has struck me many times that doing what is needed, with great focus and tirelessness, is a value of Japanese culture. People like Akaiwa will probably pop up all over the place, and will be invaluable to their local communities. 

My Facebook feed lately has been largely about follow-up efforts and concerns about the nuclear reactors. I see Japanese friends and colleagues are encouraging the world to show support through messages, pictures, and the like. That reminded me of another aspect of Japanese culture, the value placed in simply being present for others. So I’m showing my presence with a tribute to Japan as my Facebook profile picture, and encouraging others to show they care, as well. 

Roy Huggins, NCC, has been a mental health counselor in private practice in Portland since 2010. He has experience helping people with international adjustment and culture shock in Sapporo, Japan, and in Portland. He specializes in working with international couples and individuals, Americans returning from abroad, geeks, people working through the effects of past trauma, and people struggling with adjustment shock, anxiety, and social phobia. 

A board member for AMHCA’s Oregon chapter, the Oregon Mental Health Counselors Association, he manages OMHCA’s website. Click here to visit his website. Send feedback and questions to him at <>.

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