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Published:March 8th, 2012 15:21 EST
Anniversary Reactions: From 3/11 to 9/11 Re-Experiencing Trauma in Japan and America

Anniversary Reactions: From 3/11 to 9/11 Re-Experiencing Trauma in Japan and America

By Dr. Judy Kuriansky (Mentor/Columnist)

 As the first anniversary of the tragic earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan approaches, Tomoko Shibata is experiencing double trauma: her home country`s tragedy just one year ago and the memory of the attacks on the World Trade Towers when she was in New York 10 years ago.

"My heart races and my body has aches," she says.


Tomoko is describing "anniversary reactions," emotions and behavior stimulated by remembering trauma associated with an important event. Symptoms include feeling inexplicably anxious, panicky, or angry or having trouble sleeping, withdrawing under the covers or getting into arguments.


The reaction can be multiplied by "anticipatory anxiety," where just knowing an upsetting event is imminent triggers emotions before the actual experience.


Shibata is controlling her feelings by throwing herself into her passion- music. On March 11, the anniversary day of the Japanese disaster, she will be performing in the 4th of her series of concerts called "Concerts for Hope." The concert takes place this Sunday evening at the prestigious Yamaha Hall in Tokyo. "I use music to fight against threatening experiences," the opera star says.


Her previous three "Concerts for Hope" have all been dedicated to survivors of the disaster in Japan ( Though in Tokyo when the natural disaster hit, Shibata felt shaky and sensed what the people in Sendai and northern Japan were going through.

Her mind went back to 9/11. She was walking to the subway from Chambers Street to get to an opera audition at Lincoln Center when she saw the second hijacked plane crashing into Tower Two. Down in the subway, a mob of people crushed to get out, trampling an elderly lady.


Once outside, seeing signs urging people to volunteer, she went to nearby St. Vincent`s hospital emergency room to hold people`s hands for comfort. "I was scared for weeks, couldn`t sleep and felt very alone," she said. On the fifth day after 9/11, she accompanied a friend to her Battery Park apartment, near Ground Zero. Inside, they faced the gruesome sight of an airplane seat from one of the ill-fated crashed airplanes now in the middle of her living room, having catapulted through her window. A deceased passenger was still belted in the seat.


"I am still haunted by that vision," she says. Another way to quell panic is to help others. Shibata made rice balls and brought them to people at St. Paul`s Chapel on lower Broadway, the community center of reconciliation and pilgrimage, where 9/11 recovery workers received round-the-clock care. She also hugged firefighters and sang to them in whispers.


Then she buried her emotions in music again, flying to do an opera in Seattle. "I had to sing, "she said. "My `Songs for Hope` concerts are my way of healing myself and to open the hearts of people in the earthquake area." "Songs for Hope 1" was performed in her music salon, "Jiyugaoka-Operaza," in Meguro-ku, Tokyo on May 22, two months after the tragedy.


Shortly after, Shibata visited the Sendai earthquake area, and met children she talked and sang with, who would inspire a later "Songs for Hope" concert. To connect the two tragedies, 3/11 and 9/11, with hope, Shibata returned to the U.S. to perform "Songs for Hope 2" in New York City on September 9th 2011.


The performance in the elegant Kosciuszko Foundation mansion was dedicated to remembering 3/11 in Japan and 9/11 in New York, timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the tragedy on American soil. Bridging cultures is another of Shibata`s healing techniques, evident in her song selections from diverse traditions (e.g. Mozart, George Gershwin`s "Porgy and Bess," John Lennon`s "Imagine" and a Finnish Love Song).


Two days later, Shibata performed on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 at the Japanese Floating Lantern ceremony interfaith concert and memorial at Pier 40 on the Hudson River. There Shibata sang the anthem "Towers of Light" (, co-written by this author and internationally acclaimed composer and pianist Russell Daisey for the second year. The song honors the victims and the heroes of that and other tragedies worldwide, offering hope and light for the survivors.


"My heart expands and people feel like crying when I sing the `Towers of Light` song," Shibata says. "It expresses my love for both peoples," says Shibata.


The American songwriters - myself and my song-writing partner Daisey - are flying to Tokyo for Sunday`s concert where Shibata will sing the 9/11-3/11-dedicated song for the first time in her Japanese translation. As an international psychologist and an NGO representative at the United Nations, that cross-cultural connection has intense meaning and brings me to tears.


It reminds me, too, of so many post-disaster sites I have been to providing psychological first aide and training, including after earthquakes in Haiti and China, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Asian tsunami, and of course 9/11. Yet another way Shibata copes is by giving back.

All proceeds beyond basic costs of the production go to the Ashinaga Foundation, specifically targeting plans to build Rainbow House for orphans. Proceeds from "Songs for Hope 2" in New York were donated to the "We Are Family Foundation" founded by Nile Rodgers who famously produced Madonna`s "Like A Virgin" album, David Bowie`s "Let`s Dance" and a re-recording of his hit "We Are Family" song after 9/11 with 200 musicians, celebrities, and personalities. "Charity is a chance to help each other," she says. "It`s about being strong yourself to give your heart and energy for good things. That`s what I want to do in these concerts and in my life."


Shibata gets further satisfaction from encouraging other people to give their time and talent.


"Offering professional musicians mere $50 to perform is not as important as teaching the value of volunteering," the noted soprano says. Shibata also gets comfort from communicating messages of hope. "Songs for Hope 3" included recited poetry of Mattie J.T. Stepanek, the American boy who died from muscular dystrophy whose "Heartsongs" series of poems became New York Times Bestsellers featured on Oprah and Good Morning America. An eleven-year old girl survivor of the Japanese 3/11 tragedy was similarly inspiring with her poetic interpretation of the popular nursery rhyme, "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," which was comforting when she was perched on her schoolhouse roof for hours, to escape death from the tsunami.


"I want Japanese people to think of peace and doing for other people, like the song is about," says Shibata. "I also want them to dream of a better future," the reason for Shibata choosing to sing "Over the Rainbow," the classic Academy-award ballad written for the movie "The Wizard of Oz" that became Judy Garland`s signature song, as her concluding song in the concert.


Bridging cultures is evident is Shibata`s cross-over musical style. Once a back-up singer for Pink Lady, a Japanese female pop duo, she became a classical operatic singer, starring in Rigoletto yet also performing in musicals like "The King and I" and being the first female vocalist to record an all-Beatles cover album "Let it Be" in classical style.


Shibata has volunteered in other disasters, helping after the earthquake in Chiba. "You have to do more than donate money," she says. "My husband and I bought furniture for people, and helped remove sand from damaged buildings." Another way to control anniversary reactions is to remember how you are a survivor. On Christmas Day 2007, Shibata was told she had breast cancer, but despite suffering from post operation chest pain and breathing problems from 9/11, she kept giving concerts and teaching children music.


Her intention is to keep her concert series going into the future. "After 49 days, people tend to forget" she says, referring to the Buddhist tradition of mourning for 49 days - during which time a dead person`s soul transitions to a new mode of existence - and then getting on with life. "But I want to be a channel over the long-term, to show the hope and the light, but so people will never forget what happened."


"Tragedies will always plague the earth so we have to live with them," says Shibata. "But music as the universal language can let our inner voices fight against the pain, share the love and give courage to live on."


To deal with anniversary reactions;


1) Be prepared for emotions related to an earlier significant event to resurface


2) Be reassured that the feelings are normal, but if they persist or become disabling, seek professional help


3) Comfort yourself, in whatever way you feel good. Shibata uses music and volunteering to help others. Watch funny TV shows, go out with friends, and cuddle with a love partner.


4) Talk through feelings if needed


5) Beware of "couple Trouble" when partners have different styles of coping with trauma: "Sharers" want to talk and "Doers" want to get busy and not think about the past.


6) Pay particular attention to children hearing about the events on media, and who may display symptoms, like trouble sleeping or eating, withdrawing or refusing to go to school.


Dr. Judy Kuriansky is an internationally known clinical psychologist and relationship expert who also does trauma recovery after major disaster worldwide. She provided psychological assistance on 9/11 at Ground Zero and the Family Assistance Center in New York and has spent years in Japan, hosting a N.Y. radio show, lecturing in Aoyama Gakuin University, writing books and doing TV shows for NHK.