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Emotional impact of tsunami disaster on Japan’s children

Following the huge earthquake and tsunami which hit Japan two weeks ago, it is still far from clear what the final death toll from the disaster will be.

9,700 people have so far been confirmed dead, but there are over 16,000 still missing or unaccounted for. Save the Children estimates that as many as 100,000 children may have been displaced by the disaster, though it is not yet known how many have lost one or both parents. Aid workers are hoping that some children separated from their families will be reunited with parents.

The SOS Children’s Village in Fukuoka, 1,100 km south-west of Tokyo, will open its doors to as many unaccompanied children as possible until either families or other more suitable homes can be found. Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare will assess how many children have been orphaned and the Japanese Child Guidance Centres, a state body which looks after children who have lost parents, will also be involved in finding the best care solutions.

Even where children haven’t lost parents or loved ones, charities active in the region are reporting that many have been traumatized by the disaster and are in need of emotional support. Save the Children has set up six play zones in public buildings being used as temporary accommodation in Sendai and the fishing port of Ishinomaki. As well as helping to keep children entertained and giving stressed adults time to sort out pressing issues, play helps to alleviate children’s anxiety. The charity Worldvision has also announced it will set up two play facilities in the Miyagi prefecture to provide somewhere for children until schools begin in April and afterwards, to offer after-school hours.

The disaster coordinator for Plan, Dr Unni Krishnan, told Alertnet that many children are fearful of another disaster, especially with the uncertainty surrounding the nuclear plant. Dr Krishnan reported children asking ‘will there be another tsunami or quake, or a catastrophe with the nuclear reactors?’ He recently visited a nursery in Tagajo, 20 km from the city of Sendai, where almost all the children had survived by seeking shelter under furniture and then heading to the first floor of their building when the head-teacher knew of the approaching tsunami. Three of the nursery’s children tragically lost their lives after setting off for home following the earthquake.

The devastation of many areas – shattered buildings, upturned cars and boats everywhere – means that for many children all their routines and normal daily life has been swept away. Charities will therefore also be working with schools to help establish new routines and provide children with activities such as singing, dancing and drama to help them overcome emotional trauma.

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