Changes in trainees’ work after the disaster

How did your trainees’ work change after you reopened?

There were major changes in our activities. In Arahama, our main focus was agriculture. We had been farming in a field around 3 square kilometers large, but the tsunami destroyed our field, so after that crafts became our main activity.

Our trainees accepted this willingly, because they knew it was all they could do in this situation. They were happy just to have something to do. I don’t think it’s about what exactly the work is. I think they were just happy to have something they could do while spending time together. Because they’ve always been close.

Changes in the trainees after the disaster

So did the trainees get a stronger sense of the value of their work?

Yeah, well I don’t know about work, but I think their way of thinking about life itself changed. For them I think that change was a real strength, and a significant change in their lives. They said so themselves.

Sometimes when you get sick, your relationship with society changes. Mental illnesses especially aren’t very well understood by society, and sufferers can be forced to quit their jobs because of their condition, or become isolated from their friends. They might not be able to build healthy relationships with their families, and many concerned people have very difficult experiences.

Some of them feel alienated, or become very negative thinking there’s no more hope for them because they’re sick.

But even though some of these people saw themselves negatively before, through the disaster they were able to find a role they could play in that moment and improve their self-esteem. They realized they were one step ahead just by being alive, and they were grateful.

The idea is that they were starting life from square one rather than square zero. That’s a big difference in thinking. They’ve become more positive, you could say, and have learned to value themselves more. Such realizations and changes in self-perception are something that’s difficult to bring about with our support alone.

When you come to your own realization about your existence, that belongs to you. The disaster brought on that realization.

These sorts of changes brought about by difficult experiences are an invaluable source of strength for our trainees’ future lives.

How Nozomi’s work changed after the disaster

Before the disaster, most of our work came from local companies that outsourced to us. There were maybe a dozen or so companies. We didn’t make our own products.

There wasn’t immediately any work to do when we reopened, so we just kind of celebrated being together and decided to do whatever was in front of us. So we started working in the fields. Not everyone was used to the work, but we just had to do it.

But on rainy days, there wasn’t enough space in the prefab for both the employees and the disabled trainees to fit sitting down.

So when it rained, we just went out somewhere. Normally it’s the other way around, but that was how we lived.

Now that we had a place to get together, some people were seeing each other for the first time in a while, so everyone was smiling. There were different people coming from JDF each week too.

Some of our trainees’ family members were also glad to have a place they could leave the trainees during the day, since temporary housing procedures had started around that time.

The start of paper making

When Mr. Hatakeyama and I thought about the future, we knew the trainees couldn’t work in the field in winter, so we had to find something for them to do indoors.  Then someone just happened to suggest paper making.

When staff members from the “Sendai Te o Tsunagu Ikuseikai” Foundation came to visit, they gave us a set of paper pressing and stenciling tools. After we had begun making paper, the “Setagaya Lions Club” social services group also provided a paper pressing machine.

We moved to the next prefab in November before it got cold. It was a little bit bigger than the one in Iriya. We could all fit inside on rainy days, and there was heating, so we were relieved we could get through the winter.

So the things we had to do kept expanding, but for the first two or three years it was kind of chaotic. We all just sort of kept going without getting ourselves organized.

Of course there were also times when we solved various problems on our own. But there were lots of people thinking of us, so sometimes it seemed to me like things were decided more by the people who came to help us than by us.

We really met some amazing people, and they came at just the right time to support us. Not that we didn’t notice it at the time.

I think it was the same for our trainees. Myself and Mr. Hatakeyama suddenly brought in all these people, and before our trainees knew it we had a paper pressing machine. It wasn’t so much of their own accord as that they were almost forced into it, but they sensed what was happening and said, “We’re doing this!” I think they just adapted to the changes that were happening every day.

With the stencils we first received, it wasn’t like the product would come out the same way no matter who used them. Paralyzed people needed support, for instance. So we had to find our own ways to help them use these tools as we watched them.

As we kept devising ways and means, one of our trainees became really motivated after we got busy with the paper making. He used to take off work a lot to help with his family farm before the disaster, and it would have been fine for him to keep spending time on that, but he still came to Nozomi every day and confidently said, “We won’t get it all done if I take time off.” I realized he was taking pride in this work.

About growth through experience

JDF volunteers were coming every week, and the trainees started opening up to them. They started telling those volunteers about their experiences, because all they could talk about was what they themselves had gone through.

I feel like this helped our trainees grow. They would be telling the exact same story to a different person, but they would tell it differently from the previous week.

You might speak about the same experience in a different way as time goes by. That’s natural, whether you’re disabled or not.

They had this invisible trauma from the disaster, but as they talked about it they were healed and learned to accept the experience more.

For example, this is something I think still gets to a lot of our female trainees. After the disaster, they started carrying a lot of things around because they’re worried an earthquake might come while they’re out. We see that, and we realize it’s still affecting them. Because their houses were washed away and their treasures disappeared.

But as they talked to different people each week about the feeling of losing their homes and other important things, they eventually began to accept it.

They couldn’t accept it at first, but as they continued talking to the different people who came each week, they were able to digest it and overcome it gradually. Though of course there was no changing what had happened.

One trainee who used to have trouble communicating with people of the opposite sex now enjoys taking photos with them after repeating the process of asking people to be in his photos. He matured and got better at communication.

I think it was a really precious experience for our trainees because they could learn while interacting with others after the disaster.

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.

Changes in works

Some of the works we used to do became impossible because of the disaster. These are works that we did outside of the facility. The client companies were also damaged by the disaster.

At the beginning as a vocational support center for the disabled, we collected recyclables little by little from households that offered to collaborate with us, and we walked a long distance between these residences. After the disaster, we made a clear shift in this work. We now involve community organizations for this work and obtained a truck together with this change. Some of the households that we first found as our collaborators were near to other support centers under the same foundation with us, so we handed collection tasks of those households to these sister centers. The volume of collected items decreases at the beginning because of this handover. However, once we start our operations in nearby communities, the volume goes up without fail. So the initial decrease gets compensated in a couple of months. In our new method, we can fill the truck just by moving around in a small area. That was the change.

It was also after the disaster our project for collecting foam polystyrene started. With these two projects we tried to counter the temporal decrease in revenue. They actually did and now they are making more revenue.

We try to make profit so that our trainees can earn more as they work more. We can’t say that we secure their earnings but we have tried to create stable revenue and to keep the level of trainees’ earnings as stable as we could.

Our trainees are like professionals. We try to do what they are good at. At the same time we keep in mind that we need to provide works that everyone can do.

After some time, the atmosphere and work flows became similar to what we had before. Though we lost certain things, not all the work procedures changed. We were doing the same things in slightly different manner or in new applications. So, the trainees didn’t have much problem, and they continued accepting the new environment.

We were supported by those who provided us with works to do.

Changes in trainees

Many of the trainees had been waiting the reopening of the center, I believe. They held back their individual desires and waited patiently. As we had gone through that huge event together, it seemed we had created a kind of comradeship. We endured the same hardship together. I don’t find any big change in the trainees before and after the disaster. They look as they used to be and live without making much fuss. Fortunately, none of them had trauma from the experience. There was no one suddenly suffering from flashbacks or things like that. We were lucky in that sense.

A place where people can visit everyday

As I see everybody getting older, it makes me feel that quite long time has passed since the disaster, even though at the same time it seems like a flash.


Were there any changes in the trainees like Ai or Shoko after the disaster?

Kumai: One thing is that members have changed, but more than that some trainees like Ai has started taking leadership. She was 20 years old and soon will become 26.

What the previous director and I tried to achieve was to make our facility a place where persons with disabilities, who otherwise stayed at their houses, could come every day.

Just before the disaster, we started to receive young ones who had recently graduated from special-needs schools. That made the group at our facility a good mixture of long timers and new comers. Most of our trainees suffer serious disabilities but they also grow quite well. For example, ones who used to have self-harming behaviors grew and started to take leadership roles.


These are changes that have been formed through group works, I guess.

Kumai: I remember some of them were always sleeping and not doing their tasks. We can’t tell how young people grow.

Shoko’s future

Before coming to Orion, Shoko didn’t like going out and avoided interacting with others. But she grew a lot through her disaster experience.

Do you feel like you’ve changed since the disaster?

Shoko: Um, I don’t really feel like I have.

Kumai: She used to be a normal office worker. Then when she was 25, she developed a blood vessel disease. Around ten years after that, she started coming here (to Orion).

For those ten years before she came to Orion, apparently she didn’t want to see anyone. But then someone strongly recommended us to her, saying it would be better if she had friends. I guess she was pretty reluctant to come.


So going out was a really big decision for her.

Kumai: Yes, definitely.

Because of the disaster, all kinds of people came to interview her. That helped her get better at interacting with people. She doesn’t even seem to mind getting her picture taken now. I think she’s really changed.

Shoko’s parents are getting on in years now, so we’re trying to encourage her to be independent. Right now we’re helping her prepare to stay here for short periods.

Thoughts after experiencing the disaster

 Do you feel like you’ve changed mentally or physically since experiencing the disaster?

Yes. I lost a lot of weight. My daughter did too. My daughter, who was in her first year of junior high school at the time, helped me with a lot of things, but she also panicked sometimes. What my daughter hated the most were the warning announcements. She got scared every time there was an announcement that water levels would rise or the roads would be blocked if it rained. Whenever there was an aftershock, we would immediately wake up, grab our things, and leave the house. It was really mentally exhausting doing that over and over.

We put a bunch of portable LED lamps and flashlights in our rooms to make sure we had lights when we went to bed so we could take those and immediately flee if something happened. We still have them now. Food, too. We still stock up even now.


So your disaster prevention awareness has increased. What were you doing to access emergency information before the disaster?

I accessed it through TV and my smart phone. I used apps and stuff. Whenever my daughter is gone at school or something, I can’t get any information orally, so I get it by watching my smart phone and the TV. When I’m out, I often think it would be nice if there were electric notice boards or something. In my case, I have to go ask people in writing what happened, or use my intuition to try to interpret what people around me are saying. If I keep asking over and over, after a while hearing people start to avoid talking around me because they don’t want to be rude, and then I start to feel bad about bothering them. I would be grateful if there was something I could see visually in addition to audio broadcasts.


After experiencing this disaster, do you have any advice or suggestions on preparations we should make for hearing impaired people?

I saw on the news about the Kumamoto earthquake that some families with hearing impaired members didn’t get information and missed food distributions for three days. I know the situation of each shelter is different, so if you’re hearing impaired I think it’s important to tell your neighbors you can’t hear, and although it might make you uncomfortable, you have to tell them with a smile. Rather than looking pained or disgruntled, if you just say, “Could you help me out?” people will say “Sure.” I heard one deaf person say, “When I’m the only deaf person surrounded by a bunch of hearing people, I tend to hold back and feel somehow ashamed.” One disabled person also said, “Putting abled and disabled people in separate rooms might also be a good idea.”


What sorts of things should hearing people be aware of when helping hearing impaired people?

Since you can’t identify a hearing impaired person by looking at them, I think it’s important for hearing impaired people to tell those around them that they can’t hear. You have to tell them yourself. But there are some people who don’t say anything. Of course this also depends on individual personalities. There are also some people who get frustrated, thinking, “No one helps me even though I can’t hear.” So I think it would be easier if supporters would start by writing on paper, “Is there anyone who can’t hear?” “Does anyone have a disability?” “Is anyone ill?” “Is anyone on medication?” They should check for these things first and then respond accordingly. I think it would be good if everyone could see and share this information before receiving support.


Is writing the simplest way to communicate with a hearing impaired person if you don’t know sign language?

Yeah, I think writing is best, but gestures are also effective.


Is there anything you want hearing people to know? Any requests?

Yes. Hearing people can listen to conversations or warning announcements to find out a tsunami is coming, but people who can’t hear don’t know. When an emergency happens, I would be grateful if hearing people would include hearing impaired people. Even just taking us by the hand or a piece of clothing is fine. Rather than acting of their own accord, I think hearing impaired people tend to evacuate by watching and imitating hearing people. If you don’t have any paper, you can make do by writing on your hand or using gestures or facial expressions to help hearing impaired people evacuate with you. It’s fine to split up after that. I’m talking about immediately after the disaster happens.

Then you also need flashlights. We can communicate by writing on paper or typing on a smart phone screen and showing it to hearing people. A flashlight is essential so we can help them see in dark places. Now there are convenient apps that enlarge the letters you type. When we don’t have anything to write on, we use smart phones and such to transmit and receive information. But when the battery dies, it’s over. When the battery gets low, you get anxious.

Living in government-paid housing

So you were in the shelter until around May. Did you move into temporary housing after that?

I moved into a vacant house that was paid for by the government as temporary housing for disaster victims. I lived there with my family, about a 20 minute drive from my hometown.


Around how long did you live there?

Until September 2016, five years and four months. The house had been built a long time ago and no one was living there, so at first I had a hard time getting used to the environment, and it was quite hard because I couldn’t move around freely inside. But it was better than prefabricated temporary housing because it provided private space for our family, and we were grateful we were able to get it because all the apartments and such were full at the time.


Did someone from the city give you the information about this house?

A friend actually introduced it to me. We knew we couldn’t stay in the shelter forever, and my family really wanted to find a place to settle down soon. So although there were a lot of inconveniences and concerns for me because of my disabilities, we decided to move into the vacant house. There were lots of other vacant houses in this region, and disaster victims did live in them for some time, but the area is surrounded by mountains and has a lot of bugs like stink bugs, ladybugs, and centipedes, so a lot of people moved into prefabricated temporary housing. The house we lived in had also been vacant for six or seven years, so even if we cleaned it there were still a lot of bugs. But even so, we were grateful to have private space for our family and be able to live together as a family.