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Man walking in Kesennuma, Tohoku, after the March 2011 earthquake
Man walking in Kesennuma, Tohoku, after the March 2011 earthquake

SENDAI — Alcoholism and related problems are becoming serious in the three Tohoku prefectures severely affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011. The deaths of loved ones or the stress of a prolonged life as evacuees have led to increased alcohol consumption, and some are newly diagnosed as alcoholics even 4 1/2 years after the disaster.

Many people are believed to be unaware that they have a drinking problem. Municipalities and support groups are increasing their efforts to find potential alcoholics and provide assistance to evacuees.

Saki Takeuchi, a 26-year-old psychiatric social worker belonging to the support group Shinsai Kokoro no Care Network Miyagi, visited a 76-year-old man living alone in temporary housing in Ishinomaki this summer. She looked at a diary he kept of his drinking habits.

"Great! You've been recording double circles for some time recently. I don't have any complaints."

The "double circle" means an alcohol-free day, and there were many double circles in his diary.

The man lost his house in the tsunami triggered by the earthquake. In 2012, shortly after he moved to temporary housing, his wife died. He started drinking more alcohol before he went to bed because of the lonely life he led and concerns over the future, and then he began to drink beer in the morning.

Subsequently, he fell sick and started receiving care from the group in the spring of 2013. He started keeping a drinking diary in July last year and received regular visits by staff members from the group. As a result, he managed to limit his consumption of alcoholic beverages. After moving to disaster recovery public housing in September, he sometimes drinks because there are no friends around him to talk with. But he doesn't drink alcohol every day as he did before.

"He is now able to control the consumption of alcoholic beverages," Takeuchi said.

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Drinking Japanese beer in Tokyo — Photo: Evan Blaser

According to the Sendai-based Tohokukai Hospital, the only hospital with a care unit specializing in alcohol dependence in the three disaster-hit prefectures in the Tohoku region, the number of patients newly diagnosed as alcohol dependent stood at 251 per year on average from fiscal year 2008 to 2010, but the figure increased to 314 in 2013. Last fiscal year, the figure fell, but Toru Ishikawa, director of the hospital, displayed a sense of urgency about the current situation.

"The decline is because the number of people coming to the hospital decreased due to improved support services in their communities. Medical workers on the front line feel that the number of patients is still increasing," he said.

After the March 2011 disaster, problems involving alcohol have become increasingly serious, with some residents having trouble with neighbors at temporary housing facilities or families breaking apart due to alcohol addiction. Municipalities and support organizations are taking various measures to address the situation.

The support group network has been visiting heavy drinkers living in temporary housing and holding meetings to discuss alcohol drinking experiences in an attempt to understand people with drinking problems. However, among people living in temporary housing, only one or two people join meetings held by the group.

"Only a few people speak of their own drinking problems. Finding people with potential drinking problems and connecting them to support services are a challenge for us," said Kota Shibuya, 34, a clinical psychotherapist belonging to the network.

According to a survey by Yasuhiro Ueno, a professor of forensic medicine at Kobe University, and others, about 70% of men living in temporary housing who died alone of liver-related diseases within 3 1/2 years after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake are believed to have had ailment caused by excessive drinking.

In the Great East Japan Earthquake, life as an evacuee likely will be prolonged due to the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant and other reasons, prompting concerns that drinking problems could become even more serious.

"The number of heavy drinkers is increasing. It's necessary to promote support for such people, such as helping them find new purposes in life at evacuation sites or providing assistance through families," said Seiichi Uchiyama, deputy director of the Fukushima Center for Disaster Mental Health.

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