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.

Troubles at the evacuation center

The first problem we had was food. We were also afraid we could die of weakness as we were wet after being swallowed by the tsunami. There was a stove that saved us because we could get warm. Otherwise things would have been much worse.

Then, one of our disabled trainees needed to use the toilet. The area in front of the biology laboratory was the school yard and it was full of cars, so there was no place to go. I remember the school made a temporary place for us at the back of the gym.

Pretty soon the women needed to use the toilet too. We made a toilet and gave them privacy by using the desks and curtains in the classrooms and turning off the lights of the cars in the yard. But it was cold and there wasn’t much privacy, so they didn’t feel comfortable and couldn’t go even though they had the urge.

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).

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.

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.

Returning home

Did you move to another place after the temple?

I went home when the electricity came back. Everyone was really happy when the power came on.

I was told the water would take another 2-3 months to come back on, but I also heard the Self-Defense Force was delivering water in trucks, so I went home. As long as I had electricity, I could communicate at night too. But I didn’t have any food, so I discussed what to do with the mother of one of my daughter’s classmates. I had her tell me in writing what she was doing about food, and at what time the water delivery trucks would come. Volunteers were making curry for us on Sundays, but I didn’t know that at first. My daughter just happened to hear about it, and so I took a pot to where everyone was going. I checked the time for the water trucks and lined up, but when the water ran out before my turn, I used gestures and such to find out when the trucks would come next. The gas in my house was LP gas, so I could use it, but I didn’t have access to a lot of water, so I couldn’t take a bath. Towards the end of March a friend came from Iwate by car and said, “Let’s have a bath and go out to eat together.” So my friend took my daughter and me to Iwate for a bath and a good meal.

The water finally came back on after around two months. After that we could take baths and cook meals.


Around how long after returning to your home did you get back to your normal routine?

I had lost my job, so things were tough for one or two years. I never went back to the life I had before. I think it really has changed completely. I used to be able to live my life without thinking much about it, but after the disaster all the roads to go shopping were closed or flooded, and I felt really insecure. I used to be able to talk and go drinking with my friends from the sign language club, but after the disaster I was so scared another earthquake might come that I couldn’t go out at night. After 2-3 years I finally got together with my friends again, but there was nothing left where there used to be a lot of houses, and it was hard for me because whenever I saw that I remembered the difficult experience I went through.

When it was time for my daughter to start high school, I discussed it with her and decided to move to Sendai, since I would need to start working again. My daughter seemed to be calmer after we moved and seemed to feel a lot better, so I was relieved. Both my daughter and I are feeling better now, although we’ve been through a lot.


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.

Problems at the shelter

Did you have any problems or troubles in this shelter full of so many people?

At that time I was just focusing on getting through each moment, so maybe I wasn’t really aware of it, but various things did happen that were stressful. The biggest problem was the toilet. I couldn’t use the toilet by myself. I couldn’t see, and I couldn’t get around on my own. Sometimes I held it from 8 in the morning until my family came back around 5 in the evening. Of course, even though I couldn’t see, eventually I did manage to find routes I could take by myself, started using the outhouse by the house near the shelter, and got used to living in the shelter and learned to go to the toilet on my own, but I think it took around a month.


Did you have any other problems?

Let’s see. It was also difficult having no private space. Always having someone looking at me. Although of course there were also people I knew there and they were taking care of me, it was just mentally exhausting. I was grateful to the people who were looking out for me, but also resented being constantly watched. So my feelings were a bit complicated. So sometimes when I went to use the outhouse by the house down the mountain, I felt this indescribable sense of liberation. It was like the outhouse was my only private space, so sometimes I went there even though I didn’t need to go.


So you needed someplace to be alone.

I’ve also heard from other visually impaired people that private space is especially important to them. When you can’t see, you don’t know what’s going on. But when you’re in a private room, you can relax. I mean, I can’t really be alone, because I need other people’s knowledge and help. That’s kind of frustrating to me. I have complicated feelings about it. Of course, people are helping me, taking care of me, and looking out for me. I’m the one receiving their help, and I’m nothing but grateful for that. But aside from that, it really is hard not having privacy. There was also one more problem I had.


What was that?

The amount of food. When the Self-Defense Force started handing out bento boxes as relief supplies, the elderly people would just try hard to eat up their portion even it was sometimes too much for them. They couldn’t throw away what they’d received in this kind of situation. Some people did force themselves to eat everything. It was a lot even for me. But I thought, I have to eat everything or it will be thrown away, and it’s easier to clean up if I eat it all anyway. After a while, I heard one old lady who was trying to eat all her food mumble, “It’s too much.” Then I realized elderly people just aren’t capable of eating that much. So I said, “Don’t worry about leaving some of it. It’s not good for you to eat it all. You’re not doing anything wrong.” Then from the next meal she started leaving some of her food. At first I think everyone felt pressured because they felt they had to be grateful for what they’d received and treat it with respect. It might seem outrageous for me to say this even though everyone was just trying to help us, but people normally have a certain amount they can eat, and when they can’t regulate the amount, it’s a problem. It something you don’t even think about in ordinary life.


When you said there was a problem with food, I thought you were going to say there wasn’t enough, that there was far too little and you had to figure out how to split it up. But it was the complete opposite. So everyone has a certain amount they’re capable of eating.

Even things we normally enjoy eating like rice balls from the convenience store or supermarket gradually become hard to get down after weeks in a shelter. That was a unique shelter experience.
In those circumstances, I remember that the normal, everyday foods like miso soup and boiled vegetables the women made with the supplies that came to the shelter were really delicious.

Emergency supplies

What did you do about food? I suppose you ran out of cookies soon.

You are right. Food ran out soon. The first person who came with supplies was from Kobe. He saw the situation in Kesennuma in news reports and immediately drove all the way with emergency supplies. He saw Himawari’s signboard and found many people here. He said “You must need some more food, don’t you?” and left a box full of food such as instant noodles. His Kansai dialect sounded very warm. He said there was food at evacuation centers, and he knew there were places near evacuation centers where people were taking refuge without being recognized as official evacuation centers. These places were where people suffered the most in the case of Great Earthquake of Hanshin-Awaji, he recalled. That’s why he was specifically looking for places in that category to deliver supplies. We were so grateful to that person. As people nearby our workshop did not have any emergency supplies, many of them came to Himawari hoping that we had something here. We wanted to give something warm to these people, so we did our best by bringing food from our houses, taking water from the river next to our workshop, boiling the water and made warm things for them. Luckily we had propane gas cylinders here. There were iron plates for baking cookies, so we used them to cook food. We did everything possible to serve the people, so that the trainees who came here would say they would come again.