Release from the shelter

Did you release your trainees starting with the ones whose families you could contact?

That’s right. Some were picked up by their families, and we took others in the workshop car.


Ten days later, everyone was gone

Our number of trainees staying in the shelter every day decreased, until finally there was just one person left. Because of various circumstances, this person was doing her best to live on her own in the region. Her apartment was half destroyed, and because she was sick and disabled, we wanted to make sure she was able to return home and had the necessary support before leaving the shelter.

During our ten days living at the shelter, we worked with her to make sure she could go home with peace of mind. It wasn’t perfect, but things fell into place ten days after the disaster.

Afterwards, she would have to live by her own means after returning home. Our staff also had other trainees to deal with, so we weren’t in the position to support only her.

First we brought her to her regular physician, and then we also helped her tidy up her apartment so she could make a smooth transition back to her ordinary routine after returning home.

She couldn’t find her bank book and cards in the house, so we went to the bank together to have them reissued and went through all the procedures to make sure she didn’t have to worry about money, to make life just a little easier for her.

Of course the workshop continued to support her after she left the shelter, but we suggested she try living on her own first, and released her from the shelter with her consent.


How were your trainees doing when you released them, and how did they feel about the workshop?

At the time we left the shelter, only one of our trainees was aware that our workshop in Arahama had been washed away. Because we evacuated immediately after the earthquake, and there was no way to know. It was the same for the trainees who didn’t come to the workshop the day of the disaster.

During our ten days at the shelter, we went to Arahama with the last trainee who remained and confirmed that the workshop had been completely washed away. So that trainee and we staff were the only ones who knew.

The other trainees probably only heard what was on the radio, so I don’t think they were really able to sense that the workshop was gone. I think our trainees in the shelter felt relieved at first just because they were able to go home and their families were alive.

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.

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.

Communication tools and handing over to families

We had difficulty having contact with trainees’ parents or family members, but tried to phone one by one and as much as we could.

There was one public telephone, a pink one, at the school. It was functioning without any restraints at the beginning. People made a line with ten yen coins in their hands. We did too. I remember that we limited ourselves to make only a few calls at a time not to impede others to make theirs, and then go back to the end of the line again. It was in the late afternoon of the first day.

There were families we couldn’t get hold of. We could with some and couldn’t with others. Some families came to pick the trainees up at the school as they guessed we were taking shelter there. Others went to look for them in other places first and then came to the school. We started handing trainees over to their guardians in the evening of that day as they came to the school.

Users from Moshiono Sato were taking refuge with us too. There were some users at that facility who lived by themselves. We thought some of them, depending on their ability to support themselves, should stay with us longer.

We decided not to send them home until we could get hold of their families. We didn’t know how their houses were like and the situations didn’t allow us to verify the status of their houses one by one. I guess the trainees and users themselves felt like to stay with us because of that very uncertain situation. That evening of the first day, we didn’t go with them to their houses or go out to see the situation of their houses.

On that day

Ai was at Orion in Ishinomaki city as usual and cooking stew in her training, when the huge earthquake hit.


Ms. Kumai: We contacted families of trainees through mobile phones. We were lucky to be able to talk to her mother on the phone. She was so happy to know that you were safe, wasn’t she?

Ai: Yes.

Ms. Kumai: Our (previous) facility was about thirty minutes on foot from her house. When the initial tremor calmed down, her father came through the debris to pick her up at the facility. He was the first family member of trainees who got there.

We were doing our cooking training at the time of the tremor. After the earthquake, we heated again rice and things that we were eating at the class. We didn’t have much problem about food.

Ai’s bag

Ai has a very special treasure. It’s a large bag full of stuff such as her favorite manga books and stuffed animals.


Kumai: Please show her your bag Ai.

Ai: (hesitating) No! Until when that kind of thing…? (She went to look for it mumbling.)

Ms. Kumai: This is one thing that Ai never leaves without. Her father came to pick her up carrying her rubber boots and walking on top of roofs of houses because the streets were blocked with debris. As he said they would walk back the same way, I recommended not taking Ai’s belongings. It would take a lot of time to go through that path even though it was about half an hour away on foot in normal situation. However, the father insisted that Ai needed this bag, right?

Ai: Yes!

Spending nights at roadside rest area

Ai’s house was damaged by the tsunami on the first floor.


Kumai: After the disaster, former director of the facility and I visited Ai’s house. I asked if she was able to sleep on the second floor of the house. I was worried she may not have been able to sleep there. She was scared of aftershocks, and they went to a roadside rest area called Johbon no Sato at night and slept in their sedan car, I was told.

I talked with Shoshin Kai (another social welfare foundation) and asked them to provide a room for Ai and her family in their facility, which was authorized as evacuation center for the disabled (in which persons with disabilities and their families took refuge). Luckily, they had one room available.


What did you talk about in the car with your parents?

Ai: About people affected by the disaster, and so on.

Kumai: You were also cleaning.

Ai: Yes!

Kumai: She went home during the day and helped clean the house.

Living in 9 tatami mats single room

Difficult thing for the family at temporally housing was to live all four members together in a 9 tatami mats (about 15 square meters) single room.


Kumai: I heard that they moved to disaster recovery public housing in 2016. They had moved from Shoshinkai’s evacuation center for persons with disabilities to a temporally restoration housing for the disabled run by the same organization. They lived in that temporally housing until they moved to the more permanent public housing.

Her father worked as a caretaker of the temporally housing complex though now he has a different job. The fact that he worked very near to their house made the family feel very comfortable and secure, I think.


Did you help with house chores, Ai?

Ai: I helped with laundries and cleaning.


Did you find anything difficult at that time?

Ai: It was hard for me to use the vacuum cleaner.

Kumai: Ai and her sister used to have their own rooms. Her mother told me that it was difficult for the whole family members to live in the same room.


Did you hear anything about the life of Ai and the problems they had at the temporally housing?

Kumai: It seemed that they needed quite a lot effort to get close to people at the housing complex since it belonged to Shoshinkai, a different organization than ours, even though Ai’s father worked for the organization. Ai’s family had a neighbor at the complex who was a trainee at Orion, but beside from that they didn’t have much contact with people around them. So, they didn’t know their neighbors at the housing complex.


Shoko’s home was far away from Orion, so her family who lived with her could not easily go check on her.


Was there anything that worried you?

Shoko: I was worried that I couldn’t get through to my family on the phone.


Around how many days was it before you were able to talk to them?

Shoko: My parents heard from their neighbors that I’d been taken to the Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital, so they came to the hospital and we were able to talk a little there.

Kumai: Shoko’s family really had deep roots in the local community. Her parents owned a store.

Shoko’s mother and father weren’t able to come check on her, but a neighbor came here by bicycle (to the building they had evacuated from, where the old workshop was).

I was just trudging through the mud to get water when I happened to meet the neighbor. I told them Shoko was safe.

Even though our workshop was far away from Shoko’s house, this person empathized with Shoko’s parents who were worried about her and came to check on her. That made me realize how deeply connected Shoko’s family was with the community.

About family

Was your family okay?

Konno: (*Mr. Konno has a father, mother, older brother, and older sister.) The tsunami took our house, and my mom and dad went missing. My brother happened to get rescued by someone and was okay. My sister was working when the earthquake happened, but was also okay.

My brother was at Hashiura Elementary School, and my sister had evacuated to Kitakami Junior High School. My sister says someone with a small truck gave her a ride and helped her (to evacuate). I met up with the two of them after that.

To the Evacuation Center for Vulnerable People

I hear you had been receiving vocational guidance from the foundation for a while, and you came to this evacuation center after talking with the foundation’s staff and nurses.

Konno: Yes. (To “Hitakami-en,” part of the same foundation that operates Kanan where Mr. Konno is currently working.)

Yanagibashi: (After the earthquake,) Mr. Konno was depending on a general evacuation center, but he was immediately taken in by relatives along with his siblings. But they needed to think about the future because they had lost their parents (in the earthquake), so they discussed their options with their relatives and nearby social workers. They ended up deciding to enter an evacuation center that had just been established at “Hitakami-en,” which is part of our foundation. The three of you started living in the evacuation center after that, right?

Konno: Yes. I was with my brother and sister at “Hitakami-en,” so we could eat meals and take baths there.

Yanagibashi: Then you moved to temporary housing, and now the three of you are living in public housing.

Mr. Konno’s future

Is there a job you’d like to try doing in the future?

Yanagibashi: You’ve said you’d like to try working outside the foundation again, right?

Konno: Right now there’s nothing in particular I want to do in the future… And I’m not sure yet about going outside the foundation. But my work here is fun and fulfilling for me.


What are your thoughts after experiencing the disaster?

Konno: I guess just that I hope no more earthquakes will happen. I don’t know how I would go on if I lost any more of my family. I love my brother and sister so much, so I want to stay close to them. (Mr. Konno lost his father and mother in the disaster.)

Living at the temple shelter

What did you do after you were reunited with your daughter on March 13th?

I wanted to go home to the prefectural housing complex with my daughter, but my coworker stopped me saying it was better not to go home, and that we should go to a nearby shelter. I didn’t know why myself, but my coworker knew that the electricity in our house was cut off, that there was no gas or running water, and that there was nothing to eat. They knew this information because they could hear. They used gestures to tell me “No water,” so I saw that and understood. Because I can’t hear, my coworker was worried about my daughter and I being alone and told me it would be better to go to a shelter. This coworker went with us to the shelter, introduced us, and explained our situation. The shelter was at a temple, and my daughter and I lived there for a while. I can’t get any information at all on my own, so I was really relieved when my coworker told me about the gas and electricity and went with me to the shelter.


Around how long were you at the temple?

For around a month and a half. Until the electricity came back on.


What kind of food did they give you?

Bread and rice balls and such. Oh, and there was also curry rice. The real kind with chicken in it. When I ate that, I knew they had really put their hearts into making it. It was so delicious that I said, “I’m full!” But there was still more, so it was actually a little too much for me. We also got lots of vegetables like lettuce, so we ate those too. We couldn’t cook things to eat often, so we ate lots of plain red leaf lettuce every day. There were snacks and drinks by the entrance of the main building, and those were free for everyone to eat. We also had newspapers, so we passed the time reading those.


Had a lot of people evacuated to the temple?

I hear there were around 100 people. To go to the bathroom, we had to take the flashlight sitting near the entrance of the main building where we were sleeping. There were lots of people sleeping with no space between each other, so I always worried I might step on someone, but I shuffled my feet as I walked.


What was the biggest problem you had while staying at the temple?

Right after I arrived at the shelter, there was a misunderstanding because the other people there didn’t know I couldn’t hear. One morning in particular was problematic. People were greeting each other saying, “Good morning,” and they thought I was ignoring them. These two old ladies gave me this look that seemed to say, “How rude! Young people should be more respectful,” and I thought, “I wonder what happened? This is weird.” So I asked the old woman next to me, “Did I do something wrong to those people?” She said, “Don’t let it get to you. Be strong,” and then I realized what was wrong. I thought, maybe these people don’t know I can’t hear, and maybe I have to tell them myself. So I wrote on paper, “I can’t hear. I’m sorry for not noticing your greeting before,” and showed it to the two old ladies the next morning. So then they said, “Oh really? We thought you could hear.” That dispelled the misunderstanding, and then we started laughing together and getting along. After that, they told everyone around us, “She can’t hear,” and people started tapping me on the shoulder when they wanted my attention. Those two old ladies really helped me. I realized it was important not to just wait around, but to take the initiative and tell people I can’t hear.


Did anything leave an especially good impression on you?

Some things were really hard at first, but once I told people I can’t hear, I guess I felt like I’d gotten a weight off my chest, and it became easier to communicate with people. I was really relieved. After that, I was able to live my life in peace. Communication was quite difficult at times, but I managed to correspond with people in writing.


What did you do about clothing and such? I imagine it would have been quite difficult to do laundry.

There was no water, so there was no way to do laundry. There was nothing else to do, so I wore the same clothes the whole time. It was impossible to take a bath, and my hair got all rough. There were also people who had no socks and had fled barefoot. There were a lot of people who looked cold, too.

We also couldn’t charge our cell phones, so I lent out my phone because it was fully charged, and after the generator came in late March, I lent out my charging cable and everyone used it. I didn’t want it to disappear, so I labeled it with my name.

A lot of relief supplies including clothing came from Tokyo and Osaka around the end of March. My daughter told me there was an announcement saying, “We’ve received women’s clothing. Please line up if you want something,” and the old lady next to me also said, “They’ve got good clothes for young people. Let’s line up together.” She gave me a lot of suggestions, like “You’re young, so red suits you.” It wasn’t really my style, haha, but I took what she suggested. I also saw other people forgetting about their difficult situation and chatting away, smiling and saying “You’d look good in this or that.” When something disastrous happens, people feel more positive if they know they’re in it together.


How did you evacuate?

We scrambled into my brother’s car and fled.

Suddenly we noticed the road was already covered with around 30 centimeters of water, and we had to drive over scattered blocks and wreckage as we evacuated.

Traffic was jammed all the way to the coast and the elementary school our grandkids go to, and there were a lot of cars stopped in the junior high school yard, so we took another narrow road, left the car under the highway, and clambered up to the highway on foot to evacuate.

When we looked towards the ocean, we saw the enormous tsunami with ships, pine trees, huge numbers of cars, and adults and children all being carried away. It was really scary.

Pine trees were smashing into houses, and the power and speed was incredible. The water surface was rising alarmingly too, and then we sensed we were in danger where we were.

The car we’d left below was still okay, so we got into it again and fled onto a narrow road beneath the highway. We went inland towards Fukurobara, the Natori City Cultural Center, and Masuda Junior High School, but traffic was jammed wherever we went, and we couldn’t park because there were too many cars. My niece was living in the Medeshima Apartments near the mountains inland in Natori, so that was where we ended up evacuating to.


Around what time did you arrive there?

I think it was around 5:00. So it took a little over two hours.


That was fast. So you went to the Medeshima Apartments where your niece lived and escaped the danger.

Yes. Our son and his wife and our relatives had all evacuated to the Medeshima Apartments near the mountains, so we were happy to reunite with them there and see they were all okay. We stayed at our niece’s place for five days, and after that we stayed with my daughter-in-law’s family in Nishikatsuyama in Aoba, central Sendai, until we moved into temporary housing.


Did you have any problems at your daughter-in-law’s family’s house during that time? What did you do about food and such?

We didn’t have much food, and there was no gas or running water. We couldn’t cook anything, so we couldn’t eat like we wanted to. So we got handouts of rice balls, bread, water, and things like that at the hardware store.

The city also handed out food here and there, and we got some that way too.

The power was out, and tiles were falling from the roof of the house, so we covered it with tarp. It was an old house, so a lot of things were broken. We couldn’t bathe for a month, so our bodies were itchy. We couldn’t do laundry, and there were no clothes being handed out, so we had nothing but the clothes on our backs and it was really rough.


So you didn’t move to a shelter, support center, or community center in Nishikatsuyama, where your daughter-in-law’s family lived in Sendai?

We didn’t think of moving. We had more space in the house.


Where were you at 2:46 on the day of the earthquake?

I was alone watching TV in my private room on the second floor. Then it started shaking. The shaking was really severe, so I thought it was the end of me along with the building.


So you thought it was different from a normal earthquake?

I mean, it just started shaking like crazy all at once. I was in shock. Fortunately I moved right away, and walked five steps to reach the wall near the door of my room. I stayed there for a really long time.


How did you escape from the second floor to the first floor?

It was my house, so I knew the way by touch. I could see a little better than I can now, so I was able to get out to the yard from the second floor.


Were you aware a tsunami might come when the earthquake happened?

Yes. My region is the area where the Sanriku Earthquake tsunami and the Great Chilean Earthquake tsunami struck, so I’d had evacuation drills for both earthquakes and tsunamis since elementary school. There was also an earthquake two days before, right? I’d heard that earthquake had also caused an around 1 meter tsunami that almost flipped ships over, so I was sure. My instinct told me this tsunami would be at least 5 or 6 meters. But I never thought it would be a 15 or 16 meter tsunami that would wash my house away.


I’d like to ask you about the damages. Do you mean your entire building was swept away?

The house and the shed were both completely destroyed. Only the foundations were left.


Was your family okay?

My family members were all at work and experienced the disaster in their separate workplaces, but they were all okay. That was a relief. I thought they’d all been swept away. I couldn’t get reception on my phone after the disaster, and it was a few days to a week before I was able to meet them in person and confirm they were safe. A lot of the information coming into our region was tragic, and although an acquaintance who had walked back home from far away reported seeing some of my family members, I didn’t know their exact status. I couldn’t rest at ease until I saw them face to face. I’ll never forget how that felt.