What happened while living in the evacuation center

What were the 10 days in the shelter like? Did you have any problems?

Hmm. Well, everything was a problem. Our trainees and staff weren’t able to receive or transmit the necessary information. We were isolated, and couldn’t contact anyone.

We staff need all kinds of information to protect our trainees to get them home safely. We need information about the situation around us, like if the buses are running or not, how and where to obtain medicine, and so on. We had difficulty making surefire plans on site without such information.

I think it was also really stressful for our trainees because we couldn’t secure personal space for them in the shelter.


Were you sharing a room with abled people the whole time? Was there any trouble?

Yes. We shared a room with abled people for 10 days. Though the evacuation center made no special arrangements for our disabled trainees, we didn’t cause any trouble for the people around us.


Because the local people from the same Arahama area were understanding?

Yeah. We had a good relationship with the former neighborhood association chairperson who happened to be in the same room with us, and thanks to that connection we got along well with the locals who didn’t know us as well. We also talked proactively to the people in the room, so we were able to get to know each other and support each other without any trouble.


How was your relationship with the shelter management?

The school teachers took the lead at the shelter. We communicated proactively with them, and told the teachers about our situation as social workers.


Did you get any special consideration from the management?

Not really. But everyone was in a state of confusion when the disaster happened, and if we had just expected others to support us, I don’t think it would have gone well. In a disaster, the people who support you are all in the same position. They’re evacuees too.

If we hadn’t gotten involved in managing the shelter ourselves and had the mindset of doing it together, I don’t think things would have gone well for us at the shelter.

So after we took refuge at Shichigo Elementary, we went to the faculty room right away and talked about what the situation was, any information to be shared, how we could contribute, etc. Through such communication, we naturally got involved in management.

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.

Verifying information

We didn’t know at all what was really happening, and no information was available as there was no electricity. We could have stayed in cars and listen to the radio to obtain some information but I guess I was kind of disoriented myself and couldn’t think of those alternatives at that moment, frankly to say.

There was a rumor that tsunami tidal wave had hit, and I was wondering what happened to Sakura Gakuen. I wanted to verify the situation and sent a staff member next morning to a place where he could see the national highway and the area around the facility. When the person came back I asked how the situation was, and was informed that the place is inundated. The support center was totally flooded on those days.

The situation changed slowly. We were informed at an early stage that water was still waist level. At one point it receded to knee level, and then we were told that we would be able to go there in our rubber boots. That was on the second or the third day, and we went inside the facility to check the damages.


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.


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.