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What Japan is doing to fight older generation's post-tsunami isolation

Support centers that offer activities are part of plans by Japan's government and aid agencies to head off isolation among the elderly struggling in the wake of the March tsunami.

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On a recent rainy morning, three people sit chatting in the Wanokko House Support Center for disaster victims in Japan’s Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture. There was Nisaburo Sasaki, a karaoke-loving, costume-jewelry-wearing retired steel worker; Shigeru Kanahama, a bonsai enthusiast; and staff member Akiko Sasaki, a middle-aged nurse.

The group likely wouldn’t have gathered before the tsunami swept away their town in March 2011. But now the two men, who live in temporary housing units nearby, meet at the center most days.

Over 300,000 people were temporarily or permanently displaced last spring after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck the island nation. Japan’s elderly population was hard hit, and remains one of the most vulnerable groups among disaster victims. With limited mobility and shrinking support networks, many elderly Japanese find themselves isolated and alone seven months after the tsunami devastated their communities.

Equipped with exercise machines, baths, kitchens, and friendly staff, support centers like the one in Iwate Prefecture are part of plans by government agencies and aid organizations to stave off isolation and depression among the elderly.

“I don’t have any friends here, except this guy,” says Mr. Kanahama, giving his quiet companion a pat on the back.

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