Mutual understanding

The role of social workers

The real estate agents discriminated against us, but on the other hand I also think the people of this world are truly kind. I felt that way at the shelter.

Some people were like, “What do you mean, disabled?” because they just didn’t know, and so when our staff stepped in and explained it to them, they were just like “Oh okay,” and naturally accepted it. I think one of our roles is to be like coordinators who connect with people who aren’t yet aware of disabled people and their conditions.

I experienced that living at the shelter. I asked our trainees if it was okay to tell people about their disabilities just in case they needed help, and after obtaining their consent, I told the abled people in the shelter.

Once when one of our trainees was taking his medicine, someone asked us, “Is that guy feeling sick?” It seemed they were just curious. When we answered, “He’s taking his medicine from his psychiatrist,” the person was like, “It doesn’t seem that way. I couldn’t tell.”

When we step in and explain like that, they feel at ease and want to learn more about disabled people. Then they even help watch over them. That’s really nice. It’s mutual understanding. It’s important for people to know.

Heartless words

Kayoko: There were a lot of people in the region who didn’t know this was a place for people with disabilities. So they thought it was strange that only we (at Kujira no Shippo) were getting special treatment. If there was a problem with the toilets, or they found someone who wasn’t following the rules properly, they would say, “I bet the Kujira no Shippo people did this.”

We didn’t want our trainees to feel hurt hearing all these negative words, so we thought, well there just happen to be toilets in another one of our buildings. We talked about it and decided that although it would be hard for our disabled trainees to walk over there, we would have someone go with them at nighttime to use it. But as we were doing this, the people around us gradually started to understand them (the trainees).


What inspired that understanding?

Kayoko: It was inspired by the shelter meetings we had in the mornings with everyone to determine the rules for managing the building (as a shelter). We had decided to set rules because this was a place everyone was using together. Kujira no Shippo also participated. Our trainees expressed their willingness to clean and do what they could just like everyone else, and when they started working together with the non-disabled people, the prejudice and misunderstanding went away.

But people would say things like, “Oh, so you can talk normally.” It’s really a shock to hear something like that from people who know nothing about disabilities.

I realized a lot of people think people with disabilities can’t do anything in life without help.

For example, once the abled people realized that if you told our trainees to line up and wait their turn, they could wait in line with everyone else, they started asking us to help when they needed more hands to distribute the relief supplies that arrived. Sometimes our staff and trainees would pair up to help, and that helped some people to gradually understand. We were happy when those people started talking to us and gradually losing their prejudice.

At the evacuation center

Did you spend the first night at Himawari?

No, we all took refuge at nearby public facility K-Wave (Kesennuma City General Gymnasium). We took with us cookies we had for sale. There had been a shared understanding that K-Wave was going to be our place if a disaster like that happened because it’s on a hill. There were many people taking refuge when we got there.


Were there any heaters at K-Wave?

No. We didn’t even have blankets there. We were at a part of the same big room as other evacuees at the beginning. However, because of the changes of places and situations, and because they couldn’t meet their family, some of our trainees started acting in hyperactive ways. Every evacuee felt insecure and anxious because of the disaster and their situation. It was difficult for our trainees to keep their rhythm of life in the middle of all other evacuees. They were treated indifferently when they went to bathrooms. Nobody was acting wrong but everybody was feeling overwhelmed by the situation. It was difficult for our trainees to understand and accept the situation. They talked very loudly at bathrooms, and they jumped around even though they were not feeling happy. We explained the situation and asked persons in the facility administration to let us use a separate room. They didn’t understand our necessity. We emphasized that having us there would cause troubles to other evacuees and finally convinced them to spare a meeting room for us. All the staff and the trainees spent in the room eating cookies that night. The situation at the gym didn’t allow us to stay there any longer, and we came back to Himawari the next day.

Changes in perceptions

Did you have measures set for earthquakes before the disaster?

We didn’t prepared anything special. Only materials we prepared for disasters were candles and flash lights. We added radio after the disaster. We can’t take out car radios, so we now have portable radios and batteries. We keep lists of contacts such as telephone numbers of our trainees in our service cars now. We also added chargers for mobile phone.


Did people experience changes in how they see things before and after the disaster?

I suppose family members of the trainees experienced changes. People witnessed incidents that took life so quickly. Parents seemed to have started thinking in detail what would happen to their children with disabilities if those kids lost their support. If the children have siblings, these can help them, but not all have siblings. Who will take care of the children then? That’s what parents started wondering. Some opened bank account with their children’s names. Some are trying to obtain special category status for their kids so that they can receive residential care services. Some of these parents send their kids for short stay programs to prepare them for residential care. People started thinking about practical matters on what they can do for the time they leave the children.


Final question. Is there anything you want persons without disabilities to know or things you want to tell them?

We produce bread and cookies at Himawari. These products are tools to facilitate people’s contacts, I believe. The trainees talk to people when they sell our products. With smiles on their faces, they take these products to clients’ residences or offices. People will see that persons with disabilities can also be so cheerful with smiles. I believe that it will be much easier for the trainees to ask for help to someone they have met before when they lost any other support like their family or workshop staff. We are trying to increase the contacts they have with local people. I’d really like to build a base for the trainees with disabilities to be able to keep living here in Kesennuma. Our tools to make this base are these sweet flavored cookies and bread with fresh aroma. These tasty food items help people to get to know each other. I am hoping that the trainees, not only make monetary reward by selling these, but also build their connections to local people for their future. We are now visiting with our products 17 offices such as local companies and local governments. It is more important that people get to know that our trainees are always cheerful and with smiles than they know what Down’s syndrome is or autism is. I am trying to get rid of discriminations against persons with disabilities through these projects. Cookies and bread serve as tools to let people know about the trainees, who are working hard, lighthearted, and with full of smiles. Our trainees can’t live by themselves, but with some supports they can live and shine with smiles. It’s hard to talk to people if you don’t know them. Knowing people makes communicating much easier.


Communication is very important I think. That leads to preparedness for disasters.

I believe that’s the most important thing as preparedness for disasters. Candles and electricity are important, but being able to ask for help and having a secure gathering space are the best ways to keep people safe at disasters.

Hardship experienced for reopening

How many staff members do you currently have?

We are five including me. We also have three part timers for shop keeping, driving and serving meals. Two staff members quitted last year. Part timers are helping with the work for those positions but the work volume is quite big and it’s not easy to handle. Fulltime staff is putting extraordinary efforts to complete these tasks. What they do is really amazing. I really respect them.


With some new and nice buildings, it looks reconstruction work in this area has accomplished quite a lot. What were the things you felt most difficult along the way?

The hardest part was the day of the disaster itself. After that, there was no choice we had to push ourselves forward. The most impressive thing was the gap between the places that were affected by the disaster and those that weren’t. I came here from Tottori prefecture before the disaster to help establish a vocational support center for the disabled in the town of Onagawa. My plan was to stay for a year or two to start up and help the project run smoothly before going back to Tottori. There came that disaster.

It actually took two years to restart the workshop in Onagawa. I really did everything possible to bring it back. We would have lost our clients if we had just waited things to happen. We had to restart production lines and supply them to our clients as soon as possible. We couldn’t lose their order to bring our business back on track. However, there was no way we could start operating in Onagawa for some time because of the severity of damage caused by the disaster. I decided, therefore, to take advantage of my connections in Tottori and open a workshop there, and started supplying items in June 2011. I was honored to welcome people with disabilities who were willing to work with me in Tottori as well. Some people complained for the volume of work that they had not experienced before. I travelled between Onagawa and Tottori back and forth keeping in myself the reopening of the workshop in Onagawa as the goal. We didn’t even have a place to gather in Onagawa, so I met with the trainees once a month in a restaurant in shopping mall in the nearby city of Ishinomaki to update ourselves. Those people lost their houses, places to go, and jobs. I kept the phrase “we are busy in Tottori” in myself when I met with them. I felt very sorry that I had to make them wait, and told them I was trying thing little by little. As the time finally came for us to restart what we were initiating in Onagawa, I had to come here. People with disabilities and their families I was working with in Tottori asked me what would happen with them and asked me not to leave Tottori. That was when I felt a big gap between the areas affected by the disaster and the places that were not. I could only explain to them that people were still suffering from the damages caused by the disaster. Of course the workshop in Tottori is still going in parallel and a lot of people work there.