Mr. Kenichi Tatsumi

Story: Mr. Kenichi Tatsumi (man/ in his 60s at the time/ visually impaired)


Where were you at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake?

I was at my home in Jusanhama, Kitakamicho, Ishinomaki. I was working from home as a massage therapist.


What were your thoughts when the earthquake happened?

I wasn’t really thinking, but I was amazed how big the quake was. I knew it was a little different than normal. There had been earthquakes before, but things like my Buddhist altar had never fallen from the shelves. But I heard things fall down. I thought it was going to be a lot of work to clean that up later. When I went outside, I noticed the house was groaning and creaking. Then I thought, “Wow, this is not good.” When things settled down, someone from the Ishinomaki Social Welfare Council (hereafter, “Council”) that had been assisting me came by car. They said, “You have to evacuate.” So I grabbed my windbreaker and my cane and evacuated by car to Kitakami Junior High School, which was on top of a hill.

The tsunami and evacuation

Were you aware at that time that a tsunami would come?

No, not at all. I was just startled by the shaking. I guess all I could think about was all the cleanup work there would be. Then someone at the evacuation center said, “Houses are being washed away.” And I thought, “What do they mean, washed away?” I had this strange feeling. At that time, the tsunami had already come, but I couldn’t see it. I just happened to evacuate quickly enough– I mean, the person from the Council came. I probably wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t come.


Was your house near the ocean?

It was in Jusanhama, which was some distance from the ocean. They had been saying on the radio for some time that there would definitely be an earthquake off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, so I was aware that an earthquake would probably happen. But the river in that area is around 600 meters wide, and the embankment is around 8 meters high. So I thought we would be fine even if a small tsunami came. Neither myself nor my parents had ever experienced a tsunami. But people living closer to the ocean had had such experiences. One person had built their house on a hill, and was using their first floor as storage while they lived on the second floor. They had a staircase with no handrails. When I asked them why, they said their home had once been damaged by a tsunami. They said their family members who had stayed at home were carried away. This was an elderly person, who just happened to be out at the time and was saved. They said they had no idea what was going on. It was the same way this time.


So even on the coast, different communities have different levels of awareness of tsunamis.

They do. My community didn’t really have much tsunami awareness. I think that’s why we lost so many.


Was your house washed away?

It wasn’t entirely washed away, but the whole first floor was washed away except for the pillars. I went back after all the rubble was cleaned up, and I was impressed that the pillars were still there. I guess they did float in the water, but the rubble stopped them from being carried off.

Living in the shelter

So then I was evacuated at Kitakami Junior High for three days, in the Council building for two days, and in my nephew’s house in the city for two weeks. The Council was located in the foothills of our neighborhood. The water came right up to it, but the building was fine.


Around how far was Kitakami Junior High from your house?

It was around 2-3 kilometers.


Was Kitakami Junior High a designated evacuation center?

I’m not sure if it was a designated evacuation center, but since we’d always been told there would be an earthquake off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture at some point, I think people did think of it as an evacuation center. It has a lot of space, it’s easy to get to by car, and it has a building.


Had you planned to evacuate to Kitakami Junior High if something happened?

I never planned it. I never even thought about a tsunami.


Was there food and drinks at Kitakami Junior High?

Someone from the nearby hot spring spa came with cooked food, things like bite-sized rice balls, sausages, and eggs. We were in no position to hope for anything fancy.


Were there any other people with disabilities besides yourself?

I think I was the only one there, but there may have been some who never identified themselves. The people there offered to help me a lot.


Did you have any problems at the shelter?

I can’t really say I had a problem, but… For example, we had to fill a bucket with water to flush the toilet, but I could do that by feel so it was honestly no trouble for me. But people still did it for me because they were trying to be considerate. That was nice of them, but I’m used to relying on my sense of touch, so if one thing gets moved around it throws everything off for me. That can make it difficult for me to go to the toilet.


So people went out of your way to help you, and you didn’t want to seem ungrateful?

Yes, that’s exactly it. When I’m on my own, I can find a way to flush the toilet or whatever. But I don’t think that’s really the issue. For some reason I held back and didn’t say anything about it.


Because you were being polite.

After that I moved into the Council building. They got cup ramen and all kinds of other provisions. I was really aware of the fact that I was the only visually impaired person from my community. The next day they started searching for missing people or whatever, and I was the only one who couldn’t help. Even if I’d paired up with someone, I would have been a burden. No one wants to spare the energy to deal with that. That was when I started to feel uncomfortable being there. My other nephew who lives in Yokohama came to visit later, and I decided to go to Yokohama with him. Although I didn’t want to impose. And so I stayed in Yokohama for around four months. I didn’t have my cane or anything, so I called the Miyagi Prefecture Visually Impaired Welfare Association, and they introduced me to the Association in Yokohama. I called and they came right away. At that time I also met someone from a vocational support center for the disabled, and they invited me to fold boxes with them and that sort of thing. I would work half the day, and in the afternoon I would go for walks with the volunteers. I got to walk to all kinds of places. I have to admit I was really fulfilled. It’s different with social workers, but at home I feel bad about asking people for help.


I guess that’s what happens when you stay somewhere a long time.

Yeah, this situation helped me realize that. Then an opportunity came along to move into an apartment in Sendai, so I moved. I stayed there for five years. Even after moving to Sendai, I got a lot of help from the Miyagi Prefecture Visually Impaired Welfare Association and various other people. In both Yokohama and Sendai, I had a full life and learned a lot.

The importance of connections

You said you contacted the Miyagi Prefecture and Yokohama City Visually Impaired Welfare Associations while you were in Yokohama. Was that because you wanted something to do?

I suppose so. I didn’t know what was going to become of me, and I think it was really good for me to build relationships with local people. I still maintain a lot of those relationships now.


So you’re still connected and stay in touch even from afar.

Yes. I started attending the Yokohama Visually Impaired Welfare Association ping-pong club after the director of the vocational support center introduced it to me, for instance. I felt bad for receiving help all the time and not giving back, but I really was fulfilled.


So even in that situation, you always had the desire to contribute somehow.

It’s nothing so noble as that, but I did feel like I wanted to do something. I’m still exploring it at the moment, but I’m thinking I’d like to do something to help visually impaired people in the Ishinomaki area find jobs. Some of my friends feel the same way too. Helping visually impaired people find work is quite difficult, but you won’t get anywhere if you give up just because it’s hard. For example, there’s a vocational support center for the visually impaired in Sendai that makes braille business cards and envelopes, and my other visually impaired friends and I are trying to find a way to do that ourselves. We just want to do something tangible. Once you have something tangible, then it’s easy to show the local government and such, and you can see the next step. We plan to keep moving forward with the cooperation of the local government and the Council. I also feel like the information network for visually impaired people isn’t very reliable. Information just doesn’t tend to make its way to us. Not all visually impaired people are part of a Visually Impaired Welfare Association. They might stay away from the Associations because they don’t like that kind of formality. I want those people to be able to get information, too.


You seem to be very active. Was any of this inspired by the disaster?

I suppose so. When I was in Kitakamicho, the public transportation wasn’t very convenient, so I stayed cooped up at home a lot. But then my parents died the year before the disaster, and I was all alone. I was thinking about what to do when the earthquake happened and I had to leave my hometown.


When you returned to Sendai from Yokohama and moved into an apartment, were you alone?

I was alone, with just one room. The apartment was privately owned, but the government treated it as temporary housing for disaster victims and paid the rent.


Did you receive any assistance there?

I had a home helper come help me with everyday things. Volunteers from Eye Support Sendai and the Japan Guide Dog Association Sendai Training Center also came. I also had a helper to assist me when I went out. I’ve learned to walk on my own so I can do it, but I’ve also heard of accidents happening, so I have someone help me whenever I go out.


Were your neighbors aware of your visual impairment?

I used my cane when I walked, so I’m pretty sure they knew.


Did any of your neighbors ever help you when you were walking, for instance?

I had a professional helper, so the neighbors didn’t help me, but once when I was practicing walking outside, someone said, “Feel free to let me know if you need help.” That was really nice.


I’ve heard from other visually impaired people I’ve interviewed that adapting to a new environment is really difficult for them, and that when they move into a new place it’s really frustrating until they become familiar with the space. Listening to what you said just now, I thought it must be really difficult for you to cross an intersection on your own and figure out how wide it is, or figure out how high steps are.

I think it’s more difficult indoors. Foot bridges and things like that have handrails and steps at consistent heights, so it’s fine. It’s in the inconsistent places, like really wide spaces, where I completely lose my sense of direction. When I was living in Sendai, I had just one room with a kitchen, a bath, and a toilet. So I could always stretch my hand out and touch something. I think that’s best for living alone. But it’s been more difficult recently living here (in a new house in Ishinomaki City). I moved here on August 7th last year, and a moving company moved all my things here so I had no idea where anything was. I couldn’t find the dish soap or anything. There was something that seemed like a drink sitting next to the stove for a while, but then I thought, “Wait, this can’t be a drink.” It turned out to be toilet cleaner! I ended up stumbling around running into things until I managed to rearrange them.


Have you made any preparations for earthquakes since the disaster?

I have an emergency backpack. It has things like water, instant rice, thermal sheets, and a poncho. There’s a manual radio and a lantern, too. Then a whistle and gloves. The whole works.


As someone with a disability, do you have any advice for abled people on emergency preparations?

Rather than collecting things, it’s more important to get connected with different places before a disaster happens. Then you’ll have a broader perspective. I think sharing information is important.


So it’s important to put out your own feelers and do whatever you can to collect information.

Yes, I think so. I think that’s where you have to start to get supplies and such.


When the disaster happened, did you get your information from the radio?

Yes. It’s easier to understand than TV. The problem with TV is that the onscreen text is useless to me. It’s helpful when they say every little thing out loud. In the Ishinomaki area, a cell phone is also convenient. If you register, you can get your cell phone to play announcements for drills, tell you what areas are being evacuated in a flood, and so on. You just register with the city.


And it plays audio?



Was that feature added after the disaster?

No, it was available before. How many years ago? It was quite a while ago. You just send a blank email from your cell phone to register. I received so many emails from the city, such as about disaster victim registration.


So if you register for services like that and stay connected with the people around you on a daily basis, you won’t have a problem when something happens.

That’s right. If you do that, you get information quickly. And that’s not only limited to disasters.

Understanding of visually impaired people

Is there anything you would like abled people to know about visually impaired people?

Recently more people have been offering to help me. The other day when I ended up alone on a train, a crew member spoke to me for the first time.


What did they say to you?

They asked where I was headed. At first I wasn’t sure if they were talking to me, so I asked, “Are you talking to me?” They said, “I noticed you have a cane, but the other person already got off right?” I said, “Oh, that was my helper.” They said, “I saw you were alone so I came to check on you.” When I told them where I was getting off, they said they would inform the attendants at that station. Someone pressed the button to open the door for me, too.


So such things have only been happening more recently?

It was the first time for me. Maybe it’s because there have been a lot of train accidents around the country. Even if they install gates on the platforms, it’s not that simple. The easiest way is to just talk to me. I really appreciate it when not only station staff, but also regular people offer to help.


Would you say that your life purpose now is your massage work, and the information sharing and job creation network that you mentioned earlier?

Yes, I try to focus on those things. And yet sometimes when I’m watching TV and such, I’ll start talking to myself. I don’t want to remember (the disaster), but I still remember it. Even if I try to forget, I don’t suppose I can. There’s no way to forget, after the things I went through every day. Because I’m alive, and I survived. So I say to myself, you know what, I’m going to keep smiling. I drink alcohol too sometimes, but sometimes I also cry. And I tell myself, I’m going to keep living a little longer. I guess I’m comforting myself. That’s how it’s become.


So the disaster has strengthened your conviction.

That may be. I’m sure different people have different ways of thinking about it, but I think maybe everyone has gotten stronger.


I know you’re very active. I think people like you spreading this message give everyone else strength.

Well, that is the goal.


I think there are a lot of people who still don’t know about all the support available to them. If we can get the message out to those people, it will really enrich their lives and help them live fully.

I hope they might come to us, to work together with others who want the same things. My other visually impaired friends are always looking for some way they can help too. Rather than just waiting around, they get help from the local government and the Council, and use the radio and newspapers.


You said you’d like visually impaired people to get involved more. Do you think a lot of them are reserved? Or do they just not have opportunities?

I guess they don’t have opportunities. They probably don’t know what to do. I think that’s the issue. For example, even if you talk to someone from the government at a mixer, I don’t think one time is enough. You have to participate a few times and then think about it. If you just hear about it one time and then jump into action, you won’t keep it up for long. You have to take your time to think it over.


So first you just have to participate.

Yes. I want people to participate, and for that purpose we need to get information to them.


The reason you want these people to get involved is because you want them to find their purpose, right?

Yes, I want them to find their purpose. If they don’t want to go out in public, they can use the various audio information that’s available. For example, there’s Plextalk (a device for visually impaired people to listen to and edit audio). If you ask your local government office, they’ll issue you a Plextalk. Some people don’t know such services exist. Someone will even come teach you how to use it if you need them to. I imagine they would even do a training session in your home for three or four people. I want us to reach that point. For that we need the help of the government offices and the Council.


I’m sure not all visually impaired people are as positive and proactively social as you are. I get the impression you’re playing the role of giving those less social people a push. Hopefully more visually impaired people will be able to obtain information so they can choose what they want to act on.

For sure. There’s nothing better than choosing for yourself. Maybe some people will feel like being active too. Then they could get involved in disabled sports.


Information expands your world.

It does, definitely. That’s why it’s such a shame not to be informed.


It’s a shame not to know.

Information is really what it’s all about. That’s what I want to do something about.


You’re a powerful person, Mr. Tatsumi.

Well, there are a lot of amazing people out there. But it’s nice being able to do all these things, with the help of all these people. A lot of volunteer organizations sprung up in Ishinomaki after the disaster. I hope these organizations will build stronger connections with disabled people. It seems like people are out there doing all kinds of things.


So that’s the next goal.

Hmm, yes I think so.


The house Mr. Tatsumi was living in before the disaster was completely destroyed except for its foundation. There were many deaths in the area, which speaks to just how unexpectedly huge the tsunami was. This interview brought home not only the importance of connections Mr. Tatsumi spoke of, but also the necessity of preparing for major disasters.