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.


Our trainees never got particularly depressed or anything. It did seem like they took pride in Sakuranbo. Although the building was gone, our trainees had the strong determination to keep up their spirits. Even though the workshop had physically disappeared from their lives, you know… I think they were still so proud of it and felt a strong sense of belonging. You might feel the same way if your company went bankrupt. They had a dream for Sakuranbo to be rebuilt in the same place one day.

A decision, and the future

The month after the disaster, we were able to rent a space in the Tagajo Elderly Welfare Center and reopen our facility. It was supposed to be just until September, but we somehow got them to extend it until December. Then one day we happened to find a newspaper article about a suitable property and moved into the Recovery Park (in Sony’s Sendai Technology Center) in January the following year.

We had hoped to find a place and rebuild in 1-2 years, but we just couldn’t find a location or land to move to. We did consider our original location, but then we thought, what if the same thing happens again? We wanted a place we could feel safe, where no tsunami would come, and so it was rough going finding the right place.

However, we were being pressured to make a decision to rebuild or demolish Sakuranbo and Ouka  by June. It was a big decision, but we ended up deciding not to rebuild in the same place.

We had lost everything, but we were strangely at peace because we were all together. We were able to find the will to keep going step by step. We staff do this job (social work) because we like it. We had to keep supporting our facilities. We had to be the voices of our trainees. It was like having a message to share brought us together.

Recovery and legacy

Looking around our prefecture, I think we have a mix of places that have made progress with their recovery and places that still have a long ways to go. I imagine most of the people living on the coast still feel like they’re not there yet. I mean, where should we set our recovery goals? People who come from outside the prefecture can’t even tell which areas were damaged and which weren’t. They don’t know if a place has recovered, or if it was always like that. Knowing a place makes you feel sympathy for it.

It’s been six years since that disaster, and sometimes I wonder if it’s over now and it’s all in the past. I think the most important and most difficult thing is deciding what to leave behind and pass on as our legacy.

“What do we need to remember about the disaster?”

“Is it the tragedy of it?”

“Helping each other?”

“And what should we pass on to the next generation?”

Looking back on the disaster, I do think we were able to find the strength in our daily gratitude to keep going despite an uncertain future. Until the day we can rebuild, we’ll still keep going.

Preparing to rebuild the workshop

On March 30th, the trainees and staff who were able to come went around and reported on the status of the workshop. At that time, everyone knew about Arahama from the newspapers and such.

I guess because people already had an idea of the situation in Arahama, when we told them the workshop had been washed away and only its foundation was left, they were just like, “Oh, I see.” And they didn’t say anything more.

We also reported to our trainees that our farmland had been flooded and was unusable, that neighbors had died, and that all their crafts and materials had been lost.

We figured reporting the situation was the place to start. Our trainees are the focus of our organization, so it wasn’t just about the intentions of the management. We didn’t want to rebuild on our own without consulting the trainees.

So after explaining to them that we had no support, only two staff members, and no funds to rebuild now, we asked our trainees, “We have no idea where we would rebuild it, but should we rebuild the workshop?”

Then our trainees said, “Let’s build the workshop. We need it.”

With that sentiment, we reported to the city government and our foundation that we were going to rebuild the workshop, and started taking action.

It was important to us to move forward alongside our trainees.

Movements to reopen

Mr. Hatakeyama and I talked about looking for a place to reopen in the Iriya area (an area in the Minami-Sanriku-cho valley). Not that we had any prospects.

After agreeing to keep checking on our trainees and look for a place to reopen, we left the evacuation center on March 18th.

Mr. Hatakeyama and I started working again on March 22nd. Our foundation’s car was fine, so we used that to get around. We were really grateful that Kesennuma City designated vehicles belonging to foundations as emergency vehicles early on, so we got priority access to gasoline.

So I would meet with Mr. Hatakeyama every morning, and we would go around visiting our trainees in different evacuation centers.

Meanwhile we found a location to reopen in at the end of March.

The whole while, as different problems came up, like being unable to get a prefab building, we made a list so we could ask for assistance later.

In the rush to build temporary housing, we did manage to get a prefab even though it was just a rental, so I guess it did go smoothly.

But I think it took a long time from our trainees’ point of view. Every day was long for them. It’s easy for us to say it went quickly, but I think it felt longer to the people in evacuation centers.

I think it was around mid-April when we made a suggestion in order to get our trainees together as they were all scattered in different shelters. They couldn’t bathe at the shelters, so we decided the employees who were available would take the trainees to a bath house 2-3 times a week in Naganuma, Tome City. They just went to take a bath and have a meal. Though it wasn’t everyone.

We did that in April and May, mainly with the trainees living in evacuation. We had no place for everyone to gather, so we went on this way until we reopened in Iriya. It wasn’t everyone all the time, but we were able to get together at the bath house.

Thoughts for the future

We’re still operating in the prefab building, so I think we’ll only really be able to say we’ve recovered once we have a headquarters, or you know, a proper building. I think the completion of that building in spring 2019 will be a crossroads for us.

But the completion of that building won’t be the goal. We’ll still have to keep going one step at a time. We have to keep treasuring not only the building itself, but also the great assets we have, including the people we’ve met along the way.

The JDF volunteers who came at the time of the disaster said they would keep coming for ten years, and I think that’s incredible. So it’s important not to forget the warmth of the people who always take care of us, too.

I truly admire their deep commitment, as I don’t think I could go to the same length for others if I were them. I’m still in over my head with what I’m dealing with now, but one day I also want to commit myself to helping others like they’ve helped us.

We’ve been influenced by all these people, and we are thankful for all the experiences we’ve had that have led us in a good direction.

Living in temporary housing

Did you have any problems when you moved into temporary housing in May? Or were there any good things about moving?

At first I thought it was good that we had temporary housing, but the walls and rooms weren’t insulated, so it was hot in summer and cold in winter. That was the hardest thing. We also had trouble because we couldn’t communicate with our neighbors. When we lived in Yuriage, the hearing people around us had learned how to communicate with us, so we were able to communicate through writing and simple gestures, but this didn’t go very well in the temporary housing.

There were also no sign language interpreters available for the procedures we had to go through in various government offices, so it was really hard because we couldn’t understand how to fill out these detailed documents. But after around three months, volunteer interpreters from around the country came to the temporary housing complex, so we were really grateful for that.


What are you doing to prepare for disasters now that you’ve had this disaster experience?

If we had experienced tsunamis before in the past, I imagine we would have made some preparations. Now we feel safe because we live far from the ocean, but we have made emergency preparations anyway.

Mindset after the disaster

Now that the area has recovered so much and the scenery has changed, do you want to return to Yuriage?

This place will close in March next year, so we talked with our son about whether we should return to Yuriage or move into government housing for disaster victims. But our son stopped us from returning to Yuriage, saying there might be another tsunami if another earthquake happens, and he was worried about us because we can’t hear. Yuriage is where I was born and raised, and it’s a place that’s familiar to me, but after what my son said I thought it wasn’t a good idea, and decided not to return. Even if we build a new house, if another earthquake comes it could be destroyed by sinking land and cracks and such, so we decided to give up on living in Yuriage.


Has your mindset changed since the disaster? Would you say you’ve found a new sense of purpose?

Earthquakes are still happening all around the country, and I’m worried that the same kind of earthquake could happen again somewhere else in Japan. My hobby is illustration, and I wanted to pass on the lessons I learned from this disaster to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so I made a file of illustrations documenting the disaster.


Have you shown this file or exhibited it somewhere?

I’ve gotten requests to borrow it from Osaka, Tokushima, Tokyo, Kobe, and so on.

I’m worried about the predictions of a Nankai Megathrust Earthquake happening in the future, so I hope my illustrations will help people be prepared when something like that happens.

Out of business for 2 years

When did you start considering the reopening of the workshop?

We couldn’t think about anything other than confirming our trainees’ safety in the days following the disaster. We moved from there to think about the future of the trainees. We had to face our challenge of “living together” and it was not yet time to talk about reopening the facility. But of course we weren’t giving up. None of us thought about leaving things we had built in the past.


You can’t abandon your trainees, right?

I believe that not doing what we can do constitutes abandoning the trainees. Our continuous efforts to do what we could have led us to where we are now, I think.


I heard that it took two years before you reopened the workshop.

Yes. The experiences in that disaster differ person to person, and it is not possible to summarize them into one story, right? It took two years for us to reopen our workshop, but yet it was the first building that had been built in Onagawa after the disaster. That tells how badly the town was damaged.


You restarted the workshop in Onagawa two years after the disaster. How were the people working there at the beginning?

When the reopening of the workshop was decided, people finally opened their mind and told frankly “I have been waiting all the time” or “It’s been so long.” Yes, they were holding their true feelings. Some were even worried how I was doing.

They were filled of hope, and their happiness was far beyond any words could express, I believe.

However, our place was the first built structure in town after the disaster, and many residents and companies were still struggling in rebuilding their lives and premises. I was hesitant to openly celebrate our achievement.


You felt some kind of constraint because there were gaps between who had basic necessities and who didn’t, and your place was the first building to have been built after the disaster.

I myself felt very difficult not to have place to go or work to do while I was in the evacuation center. I wanted to keep my work all my life if possible. I imagine our trainees who had worked at the workshop felt the same.

As we restarted, trainees felt so happy about the simple fact they had work to do, and they enjoyed it so much. They committed to the work and completed the tasks very quick. They are still very eager to work and they even look for more thing to do.


What do you think is keeping the motivation of both staff and the trainees?

It’s the fact that they have work to do. The most difficult part of vocational support projects is to create jobs, but it is the challenge staff members have to take. As the name “vocational support” clearly suggests, we always have to face this issue.