Crafting and Sakuranbo 1

Before that disaster happened, we had been receiving work from companies in the Sendai Harbor area, but those companies were also damaged and we lost all our work. Our trainees were physically okay, but we had lost our workshop and work, meaning we had lost our livelihood.

We wanted to give our trainees work somehow, so we started having them clean parking lots and such. Then several people suggested we try crafting. So we started having the trainees make clips and key holders with treble clefs on them.

Our trainees used to do mainly cleaning work and never made crafts, but in any case our outsourcers had been damaged and couldn’t rebuild. It was a time of crisis, but it was really hard for the trainees having no income, and especially having nothing to do. So we decided to have them make things and try to sell even a few of them to give the trainees some pay.

Crafting and Sakuranbo 2

They used to complain about being busy when they had work, but once it was gone they said they were bored, haha.

I think they learned to be grateful for having jobs. I guess they were just reminded of the importance of having something to do. It changed the way they saw their work. They have started getting used to it and changing their tune again, but in a way, I think that’s happiness because it means they’re getting back to normal.

Some trainees who were absent a lot before the disaster also started coming every day once we started crafting. We ended up getting a lot of orders. We tried different things every day to make sure they wouldn’t get bored.

Since after the disaster until now, we’ve somehow been able to raise their wages. We still haven’t gotten back the work we had before the disaster. It’s really like we started over from square one. It’s thanks to the kind assistance of so many people around the country that we’ve been able to recover this much. It’s really put me in awe of the power of the support we have received.

Our trainees needed work clothes, gloves, etc. because everything had been washed away. We had to buy them. So I realized that it was important to recover and sustain our business, because a sound cash flow was actually quite essential for their lives.

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.

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.

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.

Our relationship with local community

We don’t have much recreational activities with local people. Our connection with them is mostly through our service such as collecting items for recycling.

Most of our collection for recycling is done in the local area. We first leave flyers at each residence to let them know about the collection. The flyer says “Please leave the items at your doorway on the date and time indicated. We will pass by and pick them up.” The population in Shiogama is rapidly aging as well, and even taking a bundle of newspapers to collection points is a hard work for elderlies. They appreciate our service very much and often thank us when we visit and pick the item up.

We greet them too. It is very important that we properly greet people, and we emphasize on this point to our trainees. Furthermore, we have kept our promise of coming to pick things up on the date and time announced. In case we can’t do so, we tell people in advance. As we have fulfilled people’s expectations, the demand has never decreased. Some people start putting items for recycling and then keep putting more in later collections. Some people observe first how things come out. When a block in a neighborhood had ten households and only two of them put recycling items in our first try, for example, we keep leaving flyers and going to pick the things. We will see three households putting items, and then four in the next time. The number gradually increases.

I think local people know well that we have kept our promises and fulfilled our tasks. They trust us and rely on us, so when items are not picked as was promised, some people phone us to complain. We deal with these cases immediately to keep the good relationship we have established with these people. The good relationship we have is a result of all the efforts of staff and the trainees. People have known us for quite long time through our work. People mention our name at all our sister facilities and say “oh, you are a group facility of Sakura Gakuen.”

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.

To “Kanan”

Konno: (After the disaster,) I kept working at the cake shop cleaning up things that had fallen down in the earthquake. At that time I was already living in the temporary housing.

But one day when it was raining really hard, I had an accident. I bumped into a car and hurt my foot.

(Being physically and mentally unstable at that time), when I started living in the temporary housing I was in no state to go to work. I took a long time off, and ended up quitting the cake shop.

Then I was introduced to Kanan, and I started working there.


Yanagibashi: As Shoshinkai’s staff in charge of career support heard about Mr. Konno’s case from HItakami-en, they started to liaise closely with Kanan. After having experienced the disaster, a changed home environment, his accident, and especially what happened with his parents, Mr. Konno was missing work often. He was no longer able to continue working. So after discussing it amongst themselves, the staff who had been seeing Mr. Konno introduced him to “Kanan” and suggested he try it for a while until things calmed down.

An enjoyable job

How do you like working at “Kanan”?

Konno: The work growing shiitake mushrooms is interesting. There are around 10 of us in charge of the mushrooms now. (They order shiitake mushroom substrate from Iwate, cultivate it for around a week, and package the mushrooms to sell.)

My job is watering the mushrooms and packaging them to sell. I put on stickers and do all kinds of other things. I use scissors to cut off mushrooms that have gotten big. I have things to do every day.


How is your work going?

Konno: I’m more used to it now, so I can do more things. I also sometimes teach new people who come in.

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.)

Lifestyle changes after the disaster

How has your life changed since the disaster?

Before the disaster, I lived a normal life with my family even though I couldn’t see or hear well, but after the disaster the biggest change was that I could no longer move around my home and my neighborhood by feel like I used to, even though I couldn’t see much.  Even after I left the shelter, for around a year I couldn’t get around because I was in a new environment.

After that I thought, I can’t go on like this, and searched the Internet for “visually impaired people and jobs.” At that time I could still see my phone screen. The first thing that came up was the Sendai Support Center for the Late Onset Visually Impaired. It was near the place I had lived in Sendai for four years as a student, so I decided to go check it out. They told me a lot of things, like that my current vision would raise the degree of blindness indicated in my disability identification booklet, and that I could apply for a cane.

After that I received cane training and computer career training, and even started going to braille training. After I started going to braille training, I got direct access to information on fellow visually impaired people.

The Miyagi Prefecture Visually Impaired Information Center gave me all kinds of information on visually impaired people, and I also heard from some visually impaired people directly. Being able to access this information was quite a big deal. It helped me develop a positive attitude and move forward a little at the time, thinking about what to do and my needs in each moment while also keeping the future in mind. That was really major.

I went to braille training for around half a year, but I’m hard of hearing while most visually impaired people can hear, so I sometimes can’t keep up with the speed of conversations and have trouble understanding when I’m with visually impaired people. At the time I wasn’t wearing a hearing aid and had more trouble hearing than I do now, so it was hard for me to get information. So I sometimes just pretended to understand based on the few words I did manage to catch.

Then a staff member at the Visually Impaired Information Center told me that there were other people in Miyagi who were both visually and hearing impaired, and that there was an organization called the “Miyagi Deaf-Blind Friendship Association” (hereafter “Friendship Association.”) That was the first time I realized that I’m deaf-blind. When I participated in a mixer, an interpreter specialized in assisting deaf-blind people accompanied me. They interpreted what people were saying orally, and that made me realize just how much I’d been unable to hear and just how much information I’d been missing until then. I was so grateful for the interpretation, and it made me feel so comfortable and much more cheerful.

I also experienced using a guide dog. I don’t actually use a guide dog now, but the experience connected me with all kinds of information. I also met other deaf-blind people and learned that there are all kinds of ways to communicate even if you can’t hear or see.

For example, some deaf-blind people are hard of hearing but can use a hearing aid to have close-up conversations in quiet places, whereas others can hear sounds but can’t make out words. Then I decided I wanted to communicate directly with deaf-blind people who could use finger spelling, so I learned to finger spell the alphabet. I learned to tell them “Good morning (showing actual finger spelling),” at around that speed. I’m also learning a little sign language, a few words at a time. I also learned a communication method called finger braille. I’m still practicing it. I’ve learned about all kinds of communication methods, and learned that there are other deaf-blind people like me. By participating in activities with them, I’m able to participate in society centering around those activities. Now I’m continuing those activities while thinking about all kinds of things like maybe becoming independent someday– I mean, there are things I can do alone and things I can’t, so I’m thinking about how to go on with my life with the support and cooperation of society, friends, my community, and all these people I’m connected with.


So your life has completely changed because of the disaster.

It has. My living environment has changed over and over, and sometimes people have said to me, “How nice you’ve moved into a new place,” but sometimes I’ve struggled with it. It’s really hard because I have to start from scratch learning to recognize my environment. But even so, through the activities of the Friendship Association, I’ve gone from being unable to do anything since becoming deaf-blind to having opportunities to learn in seminars and going to Tokyo, and even to Kobe and Shizuoka for national meetings. I’m able to do things that I would have thought impossible not long ago. I’ve met friends and supporters all around Japan, and now we socialize and exchange information. I’ve also been invited to speak at seminars in other prefectures, so my world has really expanded. Just going out and getting one piece of information led to all these connections. Visually impaired people are also called information impaired, and of course that applies to deaf-blind people as well. Rather than just asking myself why I can’t do this or that and being negative, I want to keep learning to find concrete solutions and think about what I can or can’t do or explain. I’ve learned to think like this thanks to the Friendship Association’s activities and all the people I’ve met.


How would you like abled people to offer their help or support when they see a disabled person, such as a deaf-blind person, in their neighborhood who appears to be having trouble?

Visually impaired people and deaf-blind people will be startled if you suddenly talk to them. So it’s best to gently tap them on the shoulder before speaking. Then you can say, “I’m so-and-so, and I’m wondering if you’re having trouble? Do you need any help?” It’s best to understand the person’s situation first, then provide them with whatever assistance they need. Deaf-blind people are also hearing impaired, so you need to find out how to communicate with them. I don’t think awareness and understanding of deaf-blind people has spread much in society yet, and part of the reason I’m doing what I do is in order to spread that awareness. There are all kinds of ways to convey information like speech, close-up sign language, tactile sign language, writing, writing on palms, finger braille, and so on. This is something I learned through interpreter aids, but deaf-blind people can often think and act the same way as everyone else when we are just told, right now so-and-so is making this face, there’s this thing here and this is the situation, and so on.


Is there anything else you would like people to know about visual impairment?

Different visually impaired people have different environments and different access to information depending on where they live. Public transportation varies by area as well. For people who are only visually impaired, they have various ways of getting information orally. I can’t use them, but there are many people who are skilled at using smart phones and tablets by voice command. But there are also lots of people who don’t know about those methods. Though some people might find that information unnecessary even if they discover it. And about braille, a lot of people might think all visually impaired people can read braille, but braille users make up only 10% of visually impaired people. People also tend to assume hearing impaired people know sign language, but only 10-20% of hearing impaired people are proficient in sign language.


Really? That’s less than I thought.

Also, I’m sure everyone can recognize a visually impaired person with a cane, but I’d also like people to know what visually impaired people need, how to talk to them, and how to assist them. There are all kinds of specialized organizations, so I hope people will work with these organizations to spread information far and wide for improved understanding and awareness of the visually impaired, hearing impaired, and deaf-blind. It would be great if we could get the assistance we need when we need it.