‘We Should Live’ — Surviving After Catastrophic Death

Yutaka Ono has been a close friend of mine for 30 years and is one of Japan’s most respected psychiatrists. Shortly after the massive earthquake and deadly tsunami that hit eastern Japan four years ago, he began regularly visiting Onagawacho, the hardest hit town. He became consultant to Yuri Sato, the brave, wise, and energetic public health nurse responsible for organizing the town’s medical and psychosocial response to its massive tragedy.

On a recent visit to Onagawacho, Dr Ono introduced my family and his to Ms Sato and she provided an excellent slideshow explaining the mechanics of the tsunami, its devastating impact on her town, the loss of life, and the untiring efforts she and her staff had made to help the survivors endure and prevail in the face of unimaginable trauma and loss.

Ms Sato’s presentation was understated and stoical until she reached the slide listing instructions now given to townspeople on what to do should there be a future tsunami.

Among these, I was struck by and asked about: “Escape to high ground immediately. Never go back to save people or possessions.”

Ms Sato quietly explained that the tsunami’s speed made it impossible to rescue others — that each person had to be taught to do instinctively whatever it would take to simply save themselves. Going back in a futile attempt to save others would be wasteful of life. She added that it was particularly difficult to teach individualistic self-protection to people in Japan, because it so goes against prevailing values that cherish loyalty to others and self sacrifice for family and society.

Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, Ms Sato began to cry. She described how she had lost her own son because he had gone back to save his grandmother and both were caught in the giant wave —> Read More