Kujira no Shippo Vocational Support Center for the Disabled

Story: Ishinomaki Shoshinkai Foundation, Kujira no Shippo Vocational Support Center for the Disabled
Trainee: Ms. Ayako Ogawa (woman/ age 29 at the time/ mental disability)
Manager: Ms. Kayoko Abe
Employee: Mr. Takamasa Tada
Kujira no Shippo Group Home Himawari, Life Support Staff Ms. Yasuko Abe

An earthquake during work

Were you working at the time?

Ogawa: Yes. We were making bread.


Around how many of you were working?

Ogawa: I think there were around 4 or 5 of us.


How did you protect yourselves when the earthquake happened?

I imagine there were all kinds of dangerous things around you while you were working. How was everyone?

Ogawa: The earthquake was really strong, so some people were holding on to the dollies. Then we grabbed onto the arms of the staff and they brought us outside.


Did you go outside with the staff?

Ogawa: I escaped right away with a trainee who had frozen and couldn’t move.


Was anyone injured or anything at that time?

Ogawa: No, no one.


How did things look around you?

Ogawa: Things had fallen down, and papers were scattered everywhere.

Evacuating to high ground

Did you establish someplace to evacuate?

Tada: We were sleeping in the place we use as a workshop now. The non-disabled people who took refuge with us were using the rooms and halls in the Seiyu-kan Building, so we were kind of separated.

Yasuko: There were 500 people here (in the Seiyu-kan Building) at the highest. A lot of people evacuated here. (Including non-disabled people.) (Mr. Tada and Yasuko were in different offices at the time of the disaster.)


Around how long did you take refuge here?

Tada: Until summer or so?

Ogawa: Yes.


Did people get sick or anything?

Kayoko: Rather than getting sick, I think it was more mentally difficult. As you can see, this is the only high ground we have here. So a lot of people came, right?

Ogawa: Yes.

Kayoko: You couldn’t open a door without seeing a bunch of strangers, so it was a really unstable environment.

Heartless words

Kayoko: There were a lot of people in the region who didn’t know this was a place for people with disabilities. So they thought it was strange that only we (at Kujira no Shippo) were getting special treatment. If there was a problem with the toilets, or they found someone who wasn’t following the rules properly, they would say, “I bet the Kujira no Shippo people did this.”

We didn’t want our trainees to feel hurt hearing all these negative words, so we thought, well there just happen to be toilets in another one of our buildings. We talked about it and decided that although it would be hard for our disabled trainees to walk over there, we would have someone go with them at nighttime to use it. But as we were doing this, the people around us gradually started to understand them (the trainees).


What inspired that understanding?

Kayoko: It was inspired by the shelter meetings we had in the mornings with everyone to determine the rules for managing the building (as a shelter). We had decided to set rules because this was a place everyone was using together. Kujira no Shippo also participated. Our trainees expressed their willingness to clean and do what they could just like everyone else, and when they started working together with the non-disabled people, the prejudice and misunderstanding went away.

But people would say things like, “Oh, so you can talk normally.” It’s really a shock to hear something like that from people who know nothing about disabilities.

I realized a lot of people think people with disabilities can’t do anything in life without help.

For example, once the abled people realized that if you told our trainees to line up and wait their turn, they could wait in line with everyone else, they started asking us to help when they needed more hands to distribute the relief supplies that arrived. Sometimes our staff and trainees would pair up to help, and that helped some people to gradually understand. We were happy when those people started talking to us and gradually losing their prejudice.

Dedicated effort

When you saw the staff managing the shelter, did you feel like you had to do something?

Ogawa: Umm…

Kayoko: I don’t think they even had time to think about it. We (the staff) were responsible for some severely disabled people, so we had to protect them first. We didn’t know if our own families were okay, and we didn’t know what had happened to the families of our physically handicapped users or our users in wheelchairs, either. And so Ms. Ogawa and others who would jump into action with one or two words from us helped us out. The ones who took action right away listened to us attentively.

The situation was so urgent that it was like, they had to do it for everyone else. We also had severely handicapped people to think about, so I think their thought process was that they didn’t want to be any trouble. She (Ms. Ogawa) also had parents and siblings in the region, and I’m sure she was worried. But she never said anything about that, and just kept working hard without even making a face.

Shelter closure

I heard you were in the shelter until summer or so.

Kayoko: We were the last ones to leave.

First the non-disabled people started moving into temporary housing. The number of evacuees gradually decreased, and once all the non-disabled people finished evacuating, evacuations to the Seiyu-kan Building were called off. We were surprised as we were still living in the workshop.

Yasuko: It was already closed.

Tada: The temporary group home still wasn’t finished at that time, right?

Kayoko: It was September when the temporary group home was completed and we moved.  We were hit by a big typhoon in fall that year. We had just moved two days before and were finally settled in. It was the time when we were like, wow, I can sleep in my own room now, right?

Ogawa: Yes.

Kayoko: I was relieved there were no major damages. But I think they really put up with a lot.


Is Ms. Ogawa usually the type who tries really hard?

Kayoko: Yeah, with work. She helps everyone too.

Temporary housing for vulnerable people

The group home Ms. Ogawa used to live in was close to the ocean, so it was flooded in the tsunami.

Yasuko: The temporary housing (group home) was completed around September or August.

Tada: There was originally a group home (that Ms. Ogawa was living in) in town (in the Ayukawahama area). Until the current temporary group home was completed, she had no place to live. Temporary homes for the non-disabled people were first in line to be completed, so she was waiting in the shelter for over 7 months.


Was the house Ms. Ogawa moved to a publicly funded rental shared with a group of disabled residents?

Tada: No, it was specifically built as a temporary group home.

Yasuko: There are quite a few publicly funded rental houses for disabled residents in the city, but only one in the Oshika district.

Distributing bread to local people

The trainees had saved a whole freezer full of the bread they had made at work just in case. This turned out to be useful.

Kayoko: You were making bread just in case something happened, remember?

Ogawa: Yes.

Kayoko: That day, the earthquake happened right after they finished the bread. They were working until 15:00. Starting that night, we handed out the bread first to the elderly, then small children, then elementary school students, and then junior high school students. The people who evacuated to the Seiyu-kan Building got by eating that bread from that day.

There were some people who said all kinds of heartless things to us. But after someone had told them, “The bread you got was from those disabled people,” those same people said, “We’re sorry. We said all those things, but you were actually the first ones to help us.”


The publicly-owned designated shelters usually provided instant rice and water and such, but the Seiyu-kan Building was a private institute.

Yasuko: I don’t think there were any reserves here in the Seiyu-kan Building, but there were blankets in storage to get through the cold.


What kind of bread was this?

Kayoko: They were large loaves. We had around 100 of them (in the freezer).

Disabled people who came from shelters

It’s hard to lend a hand to weaker people when you’re evacuated and weak yourself.

Tada: At the time of the disaster, I was working at a disabled counseling center in front of Ishinomaki station. After it happened, I went to one of the houses I make rounds to for work. There was nothing left on the first floor (because of tsunami damage), yet there was a severely mentally and physically handicapped person living on the second floor.

Then when I talked with that person’s parents, they said that at first (when the disaster happened), they took refuge in a nearby school. But they had to leave that shelter that night, so they stayed in their car for a long time. Their child is severely handicapped, so at night the child had made noise (because of symptoms), and the other people there had said heartless things. But it got hard just staying in their car, so they went back to their house. Then, the first floor was destroyed, but they were somehow able to get to the second floor, so they went up there. Hearing this story made me realize that when people are in a difficult enough situation, rather than feeling sorry for someone with a disability, they’ll just be like, “Shut up, we can’t sleep.”

Kayoko: Yeah, that’s who you become.

Tada: What you don’t know is scary. That’s what it really means.

Yasuko: But I think it’s almost always like that.

Tada: That’s why so many disabled people and their families couldn’t go to shelters.

Kayoko: So you know, these disabled people are blamed by non-disabled people in an atmosphere where no one understands. They don’t feel comfortable staying in shelters, so they stay in their cars, or they have nowhere to go but their houses even though the houses could collapse at any time. That must be really hard.

Relief supplies

Even though help wasn’t coming and everyone felt like giving up, they didn’t forget to speak up.

Did supplies arrive after the temporary group home was built?

Kayoko: For start-up supplies, we had declared these 7-piece sets our trainees would need when they entered the group home, so we got those.

But there was a general temporary housing complex behind our temporary group home, and they got daily supplies for each household there, but none came to our group home. Even though daily supplies had arrived for everyone in the region, our group home was ignored in spite of this perfectly visible building.

Ogawa: Like potatoes and mandarin oranges. Only the people in the house behind us got those.

Kayoko: Not that we really wanted those things.



Kayoko: You can see the entrance of that temporary housing complex right outside our group home window, so our trainees could see supplies being brought in. So I think maybe they felt a bit bad.


Why were those group home residents left out from the daily supply distribution?

Kayoko: We weren’t on the local registry somehow. When I noticed that, I tried to identify the problem by asking questions like, “What number of what district are we?” If you’re not on the registry, you don’t get local information, and it’s difficult to live in the region if you haven’t built a community with local people in case something happens, so I had us put in the registry. As we started getting involved like that, the region started cooperating with us.

Ogawa: Anyway, no supplies came for around the first 2 months after we moved into the temporary group home.


What supplies came?

Ogawa: Vegetables and stuff.

Kayoko: They were living in a different place than before, so they didn’t know who the ward mayor was, and often felt uneasy about communicating with neighbors and such. I heard them say, “How are we different from our neighbors?” It seems they were treated differently from the average temporary housing complex.

Wakame core removal

Thanks to a local information magazine, the group was contacted by a wakame seaweed company that was short on hands.

Kayoko: But you know, what saved us from the lack of work (because of the disaster) was when the company that had hired us to clean their building saw how hard everyone was working, and actually paid more than required.


Around when was this?

Kayoko: This was in 2012, after the disaster.

We also thought we had to do something new to make our living. So I asked the trainees, “What did you guys do when you were younger?”

Then one of them said they used to remove wakame cores. An acquaintance of mine just happened to be volunteering to run a local information magazine, and so I had a little blurb published in an article saying, “Kujira no Shippo can remove wakame cores. Please contact us.”

Tada: So then we were contacted. We were asked if we wanted to try it. So I tried it out first on behalf of the trainees.

Kayoko: The wakame company had been rebuilt, but they didn’t have enough workers. So we just happened to match up with them quite well. But we had one condition, which was that we couldn’t commute to their site. So they brought the wakame all the way here to our workshop. Once we contacted them saying we were finished, they came to pick it up. That was how we started removing wakame cores in our office, and we’re still doing it every year.

Kayoko: This disaster was really hard, but we also gained a lot from it, and it changed our perspective. Lots of people are leaving the Oshika region, so society is aging here. With the wakame thing, it’s like we’ve become a major part of this industry. So we are responsible for doing our part, along with everyone in this community.

(日本語) くじらのしっぽのいま

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(日本語) 小川絢子さんのいま

Sorry, this entry is only available in Japanese.