The prejudice barrier and property hunting with trainees

We were only able to borrow the room in the disabled welfare center until the end of May, so we were also property hunting alongside our activities. Our trainees seemed to notice how hard the staff were working to prepare to rebuild, and they asked us of their own accord if there was anything they could do. And so we thought of something they could do that wouldn’t be too burdensome, and asked them to search for properties.

But during the property search process, they repeatedly heard prejudiced statements about disabled people.

Unfortunately I think the real estate agents and property owners were worried there might be some sort of trouble with an organization for disabled people. We hadn’t done anything to deserve such criticism and humiliation, so it was sad. I wished people would be more understanding of social welfare organizations.

When we went to see real estate agents with our trainees, they would refuse to rent to a facility for disabled people. Right in front of our trainees, they would say, “We could never rent to disabled people.” I don’t ever want to have such a sad experience again.

It was really hard until we secured our current property, but I think it was a really good thing that we did this along with our trainees.

We somehow found the Wakabayashi building we’re in now, and opened on June 7th. But our contract with the disabled welfare center was until the end of May, so we had to suspend our activities for the 6 days until our opening, although we felt bad for our trainees. They were understanding about this. During that time we did consult with them over the phone.

It’s because we worked together with our trainees until our reopening that we know the value of our workshop and of everyone who’s cheered us on. And because our trainees searched for properties with us during that process, they now feel like this workshop belongs to them.

Prejudice and understanding cooperation

What are your thoughts about your current activities?

We still have a long way to go. We’ve only just now established a basis for running our organization, including our activities.

We ended up at our current location with no other options, so we would like to look for our next base, but it’s quite difficult and there are a lot of issues. We faced prejudice against disabled people when we were looking for our current workshop, after all.

We found the building we’re in now through a real estate agent who was understanding of our organization, so we were grateful. We were introduced to this agent by a key person in the neighborhood we’re in now.

When I look back on it now, I realize we were accepted by our neighbors right away in Arahama where our previous workshop was located, and I’m really grateful for how kind those people were.

And so this time around I’ve realized how severe society’s judgment is. It’s sad to think our trainees face judgment like this every day.

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.

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.

Light of hope

When did you have your lifeline services back?

We got them back late here. We saw repair trucks for electricity nearby but they didn’t come this way for some time. We were so happy when we could turn the lights on. The water service resumed later but we managed with water from the river next to our workshop. We boiled the water from the river. We wanted to clean the hair and faces of our trainees. Some trainees cried and said “I could finally wash my face” when we cleaned their faces. It was impressive to recognize that something we do everyday without appreciating was actually so precious. Warm water was something we really needed.


Anything particularly difficult?

It was very difficult to obtain medications for trainees because hospitals were also damaged. In that chaotic situation, the director and I took turn and went to hospitals everyday carrying our backpack. Another hard thing was to look for the corps of director’s mother and those of our trainees’ family members. We went opening the blue plastic sheet one by one. The images come back to me every time I see blue plastic sheets. We were so anxious and worried about what would happen as we stood on top of the hill and saw the city of Kesennuma on fire. However, we talked among staff members that we shouldn’t show our tears to the trainees and that we had to keep our smiles. Staff members did their best, including the person who lost her husband in the disaster. We experienced discriminations against and misunderstanding toward persons with disabilities, which was yet another hardship. We tried our best in explaining but people didn’t understand. I think that social welfare works are only possible when you have enough emotional capacity. In that sense, it was understandable that in those chaotic situations people didn’t comprehend about disabilities, and I don’t mean to blame them. Still, it was difficult to experience discriminations and misunderstanding just because some people had disabilities. Once we know that people have these sentiment, it makes us difficult to ask them for help. I felt sorry about that situation. Himawari resumed its operation in less than a month from the day of the earthquake. It was the first of all the support centers in the area, I think. The director had said “If there was even only one trainee who needed Himawari and wanted to come, we had to speed up and open the workshop again soon. We might not have electricity or water, but we will be able to manage with our creativity. Let’s make a space for the trainees to gather.”


I can see that Himawari served as a light of hope for the trainees and their families.

That’s right. Some said they could bear the situation because they could rely on Himawari.