The consideration and help of others

For the first night, we had the biology laboratory assigned to us. People from the Minami-Sanriku Social Welfare Council, Nozomi, and retirement homes had all evacuated to the school, and the teachers decided they should assign each group a room. They got us the rooms the next day. I think this was the morning of March 12th.

What saved us was that they had water. They also passed on all the information from the radio because there was no TV or anything.

Around midnight on March 12th, rice balls were distributed.  A key person from the Minami-Sanriku Social Welfare Council and the school staff paid special attention to our trainees and got these rice balls especially for us from the Asahigaoka housing complex north of the high school. We were grateful for that.

The disabled trainees at the evacuation center

I think they were trying to be strong. A few of them had injuries from debris hitting them while the tsunami attacked, but we were able to evacuate without any major injuries that stood out.

No one really made a big fuss. I imagine they probably felt in their gut that something major had happened, so everyone just cooperated without complaining. It also helped a lot that we had the room set aside for us.

There were also non-disabled people from the community there with us, around 3-4 of them. Those people also responded with understanding.

Life at the evacuation center

Members of our group were worried not to bother each other in one sense, and I believe many of them hold their feelings.

There were situations people looked irritated as we all had to endure very inconvenient life. When we don’t have anything to do, we tend to withdraw and feel irritated.

There was a new initiative at the evacuation center to use water from school’s swimming pool for the bath rooms as we didn’t have water to flush. We relayed water in buckets from the swimming pool to the bath rooms and kept it there for flushing. Relaying water became a routine of life at the center. Our trainees had opportunity moving and using their body in this routine. We volunteered to clean the floor space we were using at the school as well. We wanted to have some kind of assigned tasks to do.

Persons in charge of the evacuation center were very helpful and considerate. While basic rule was for all the evacuees to stay in a gym except for the ones who were certified as being in need of care, we were offered separate room just after one night in the gym. They spared a classroom for us. With about 40 adults lying on the floor, the room was packed and without enough space to walk around. Still, it was really a relief for us. We would have felt much more pressured if we had to be with other evacuees and had to watch our group not to bother others. It was very helpful and we appreciated it very much.

Difficulties at the evacuation center

Nothing was easy, but there was no use just us complaining about it, and members of our group bore the hardship without complaining.

As I recall, there were more occasions we were supported and we felt appreciative.

Since Shiogama city was close to a port and there were quite a lot processing plants for sea food, these companies supplied what they had in their refrigerator for evacuees.

This is an example of how different the impacts of the disaster were depending on the characteristics of the area. We heard that in the city of Tagajo people really suffered because of lack of food. We were lucky in a sense that we had some food, though not enough to feel full of course.

The evacuation center was a school, and of course prolonged stay of evacuees in their gym impeded their normal operations. There were a couple of factors that led us to decide to leave the place. One was the fact that we started receiving inquiries about possible dates for our departure. The other was about operational issues of the place.

It was very reasonable and understandable that the place had to be vacated for school kids. New school year was approaching, and in fact they hadn’t had the graduation ceremony yet. Not having graduation ceremony would be an unpleasant memory for kids. We said to each other in our group that we would better leave the place soon.

Still, I could only recall being very much supported there. I am totally grateful to people at the school.

To public housing

When did you start living in public housing?

Konno: I think I moved at the beginning of 2016… I guess it had been a year? My aunt and uncle helped me move.

Yanagibashi: It’s a stand-alone house, a big one-story bungalow built for disabled people and elderly people with weak legs and hips. We were just thinking he should start living in public housing like this soon, so we were happy.


And now you come on a shuttle bus from there. What time does your work start?

Konno: Usually… I get up at 6 in the morning and eat breakfast, then leave home around 9. (Work starts from 9:30.)

And since living in my new house, I’ve also made friends with the neighbors. A nice old couple.

Yanagibashi: The relatives who helped with the move said the house was designed to match the neighboring houses.

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.

Requests for hearing people

Do you have any requests for hearing people? What can hearing people do if they want to help people like you?

There are all kinds of ways to do it, like writing on paper, writing on your hand, or even writing on the ground if you don’t have a pen, so we would be grateful if you try to communicate with us however you can. You can also add facial expressions, and even just gestures can be understandable. It’s a big help to us when we’re able to communicate with you like that.

Living in the shelter

Where was the evacuation center for your region?

We’d been told that when a big earthquake came, we should start by evacuating to high ground. The people from the elementary school had also climbed up the mountain to escape from the tsunami. So there were a lot of people in the evacuation center on the mountain.


Around how many people gathered at the evacuation center?

I think there were around 200. It was completely packed. It wasn’t only people from my neighborhood, but also people from surrounding neighborhoods whose homes had been washed away. The people living in the hills were also in danger, so everyone gathered in the shelter and stayed together. Because I mean, that night it just kept on shaking.


Around how long did you stay there?

Until the end of May, so around two and a half months. It was a long time.


Did anyone besides your family and friends offer to help you at the shelter?

All kinds of people at the shelter offered to help me and got meals for me. Sometimes I would receive my meal and chat with the people nearby who had helped me. But because I can’t see or hear much, I had no idea what was going on around me and couldn’t offer to help anyone. So there were times when I wanted to do something, but couldn’t.