Shelter life

Living in evacuation at Shichigo Elementary

Around how long did you stay at Shichigo Elementary?

We were there for 10 days after the earthquake with our trainees.


Were you able to secure a place to stay?

We were able to get into one of the school’s rooms. There just happened to be some people from the same Arahama area there. When we went inside and found some places to sit down for the moment, they were there next to us.


How did the trainees do in the evacuation center?

I think they were worried, but they looked calm. When I asked them why, they said it was because they had done evacuation drills at the workshop, and they knew I had been studying disaster prevention for a long time, so that helped them to feel a little more at ease.

Disaster prevention awareness

I took a disaster volunteer coordinator course as part of my studies. A volunteer coordinator is a person who takes a leadership position to manage people who come to volunteer at an evacuation center in the event of a disaster. The coordinator needs to have knowledge of disasters, the types of needs that can arise, and how to manage an evacuation center. I learned how to run a reception desk and manage a shelter through role playing.

For example, in this course you learn how to use damaged homes and whatever you have to rescue people and keep activities going when you have no proper equipment, how to get past this kind of situation, how to manage a shelter, and so on. I had been interested in disaster prevention for a long time, and had been learning about it for a few years.

Long before the disaster happened, I often told our trainees about what I’d learned. I think this accumulated so the trainees themselves felt like they would be fine because I had studied these things.

So at that time they often asked me what they should do next.

I really feel glad I studied all this. I had thoroughly prepared disaster prevention equipment and secured all the furniture because of what I’d learned, so not a single thing fell over and no one was injured.

If even one person had been injured then, we would have been late evacuating because we would have had to tend to that person, and I think the tsunami would have gotten us. And if you let the people who are okay evacuate first, you end up splitting into a few groups. I think our initial response was good because we were able to evacuate without a single injured person. In some ways my preparations and learning paid off.


What inspired you to start your studies?

It had been common knowledge for many years that an earthquake would happen in Miyagi Prefecture, so I had a personal interest in disaster prevention studies. We have to protect our trainees, so it was natural that I was making all these preparations for disaster prevention.

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.

Interactions between disabled trainees and surrounding people

What was good about living in the shelter? Anything that helped you?

Our trainees were really amazing. Abled people generally can’t help feeling like disabled people are coming from a position of weakness. Unfortunately this is the usual way of thinking.

Our trainees do have difficulties in life because of their illnesses, and so they do have a tendency to sort of hold back.

At that time, I think everyone felt like they had to do something in that situation.

There’s a retirement home called “Shioneso” in Arahama. Some residents of that home evacuated with us, and our trainees helped those people get up to the second floor.

I think there’s something to the idea that you become weak if you go in expecting to be protected. In a situation like a disaster, however, those who can move should do whatever they can do. There were a lot of elderly people in the shelter, so our trainees helped clean for them and carried meals to the 4th floor for elderly people who had trouble walking.

They also took initiative to start fires for everyone, to boil water for babies’ milk and things like that. Our trainees joined in these tasks of wood chopping and fire building, and I am very proud of them.

I think people, myself included, tend to think negatively when they’re feeling down emotionally.

In a situation like a disaster, I think it’s better to take some sort of action yourself so you can see things change a little.

Most of the people staying in the shelters during the day were elderly. The younger generations left the shelters for work in the mornings.

And so the elderly people who stayed at the shelter got bored during the day. Disabled welfare organizations like us have a lot of young trainees, and there are all kinds of things young people can do, not just physical labor.

For example, elderly people normally don’t use cell phones. But in a disaster situation like this, you have to use a cell phone to contact people. Our trainees did what they could by teaching elderly people how to use cell phones.

Normally it might not mean much, but this kind of support is really helpful in a disaster so people can contact their families to make sure they’re okay.

They would ask questions like, “How do you do this?” And “Where is my daughter’s contact information?” So our trainees taught them how to open their contact lists. When these elderly people got phone calls, they didn’t know what button to press to answer, and so we helped them together because we were nearby. This really seemed to be a big help to these elderly people.

These everyday things seem so simple, but I don’t think the volunteer helpers or school teachers at the evacuation center could have done this because they were so busy with general volunteering and management. We were able to help because we were there, spending every day in the same room with these elderly people.

Leaving the evacuation center

We ended up staying at Shizugawa High School from the night of March 11th to March 18th, about a week. What concerned us was that some trainees were saying they didn’t want to leave the high school, because they were worried that Nozomi, their gathering place, was gone. Some of them asked when we would meet again, and that left an impression on me. Some of their parents asked the same thing too.

Because of this disaster, we unexpectedly ended up living as a group, even sleeping in the same room for a week at the longest.

They felt at ease there because they were with people they could trust.

Some families said the hardest part was after the group left the high school and each family moved to different places.

After they moved, we employees visited all the trainees at their respective evacuation centers. Then they would light up with this knowing look and say, “Mr. Mori is here!” or “Mr. Hatakeyama is here!” But when we left they would have to face reality again and got depressed.

Some families asked right away, and some asked after a few visits, but the whole time we were asked when we would reopen.

We went to see them individually although it was on different days, so we saw almost everyone, but our disabled trainees themselves couldn’t leave the places they were staying, so they didn’t know if everyone else was all right.

Disabled people who came from shelters

It’s hard to lend a hand to weaker people when you’re evacuated and weak yourself.

Tada: At the time of the disaster, I was working at a disabled counseling center in front of Ishinomaki station. After it happened, I went to one of the houses I make rounds to for work. There was nothing left on the first floor (because of tsunami damage), yet there was a severely mentally and physically handicapped person living on the second floor.

Then when I talked with that person’s parents, they said that at first (when the disaster happened), they took refuge in a nearby school. But they had to leave that shelter that night, so they stayed in their car for a long time. Their child is severely handicapped, so at night the child had made noise (because of symptoms), and the other people there had said heartless things. But it got hard just staying in their car, so they went back to their house. Then, the first floor was destroyed, but they were somehow able to get to the second floor, so they went up there. Hearing this story made me realize that when people are in a difficult enough situation, rather than feeling sorry for someone with a disability, they’ll just be like, “Shut up, we can’t sleep.”

Kayoko: Yeah, that’s who you become.

Tada: What you don’t know is scary. That’s what it really means.

Yasuko: But I think it’s almost always like that.

Tada: That’s why so many disabled people and their families couldn’t go to shelters.

Kayoko: So you know, these disabled people are blamed by non-disabled people in an atmosphere where no one understands. They don’t feel comfortable staying in shelters, so they stay in their cars, or they have nowhere to go but their houses even though the houses could collapse at any time. That must be really hard.

How trainees were at the evacuation center

The trainees looked kind of lost not knowing what exactly happened, and as I recall, I was feeling the same. We were all shocked by that huge tremor we had just experienced. We were also worried, I think, about what would happen next.

No one lost control nor scream or things like that. I remember that the ones who were usually kind of frivolous at evacuation drills also listened to staff’s directions carefully. I felt the evacuation process went much more smoothly than I had expected, and it is something I remember well even now.

I guess people understood we were facing a severe situation. We shared a sense that something extraordinary had just happened. Frankly to say however, I was not convinced about the possibility of tsunami at that moment. We evacuated to follow due process. This, I still think, was my lack of awareness toward those incidents.

Communication tools and handing over to families

We had difficulty having contact with trainees’ parents or family members, but tried to phone one by one and as much as we could.

There was one public telephone, a pink one, at the school. It was functioning without any restraints at the beginning. People made a line with ten yen coins in their hands. We did too. I remember that we limited ourselves to make only a few calls at a time not to impede others to make theirs, and then go back to the end of the line again. It was in the late afternoon of the first day.

There were families we couldn’t get hold of. We could with some and couldn’t with others. Some families came to pick the trainees up at the school as they guessed we were taking shelter there. Others went to look for them in other places first and then came to the school. We started handing trainees over to their guardians in the evening of that day as they came to the school.

Users from Moshiono Sato were taking refuge with us too. There were some users at that facility who lived by themselves. We thought some of them, depending on their ability to support themselves, should stay with us longer.

We decided not to send them home until we could get hold of their families. We didn’t know how their houses were like and the situations didn’t allow us to verify the status of their houses one by one. I guess the trainees and users themselves felt like to stay with us because of that very uncertain situation. That evening of the first day, we didn’t go with them to their houses or go out to see the situation of their houses.

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.

Number of trainees at the evacuation center

At one of Sakura Gakuen’s business partners, people got trapped in flood and couldn’t evacuate. Fortunately, they were all safe escaping to and stayed on the second floor of the company. They were rescued by the Self Defense Force and came to the evacuation center a few days after the earthquake. I was feeling very uneasy until we knew what was happening with them.

We couldn’t just go around. Some areas were even cordoned off by authorities. We could though send some of our trainees back to their family homes from the evacuation center. There were about 30 trainees, probably 40 including the ones from Moshiono Sato. The number went down slowly to about 20 on around the tenth day.

We operated group homes and their residents were with us too. Not all the facilities were damaged by the tsunami but they were cut off from lifeline, and we didn’t have enough staff members to task in different places. We thought it wasn’t a good idea to have our staff scattered in different places. We wouldn’t be able to deal with all the necessities in that situation with limited number of staff members in different places. All the staff was at the evacuation center. Some of them were taking care of the safety of the trainees, users and residents.

Life at the evacuation center

Members of our group were worried not to bother each other in one sense, and I believe many of them hold their feelings.

There were situations people looked irritated as we all had to endure very inconvenient life. When we don’t have anything to do, we tend to withdraw and feel irritated.

There was a new initiative at the evacuation center to use water from school’s swimming pool for the bath rooms as we didn’t have water to flush. We relayed water in buckets from the swimming pool to the bath rooms and kept it there for flushing. Relaying water became a routine of life at the center. Our trainees had opportunity moving and using their body in this routine. We volunteered to clean the floor space we were using at the school as well. We wanted to have some kind of assigned tasks to do.

Persons in charge of the evacuation center were very helpful and considerate. While basic rule was for all the evacuees to stay in a gym except for the ones who were certified as being in need of care, we were offered separate room just after one night in the gym. They spared a classroom for us. With about 40 adults lying on the floor, the room was packed and without enough space to walk around. Still, it was really a relief for us. We would have felt much more pressured if we had to be with other evacuees and had to watch our group not to bother others. It was very helpful and we appreciated it very much.

Difficulties at the evacuation center

Nothing was easy, but there was no use just us complaining about it, and members of our group bore the hardship without complaining.

As I recall, there were more occasions we were supported and we felt appreciative.

Since Shiogama city was close to a port and there were quite a lot processing plants for sea food, these companies supplied what they had in their refrigerator for evacuees.

This is an example of how different the impacts of the disaster were depending on the characteristics of the area. We heard that in the city of Tagajo people really suffered because of lack of food. We were lucky in a sense that we had some food, though not enough to feel full of course.

The evacuation center was a school, and of course prolonged stay of evacuees in their gym impeded their normal operations. There were a couple of factors that led us to decide to leave the place. One was the fact that we started receiving inquiries about possible dates for our departure. The other was about operational issues of the place.

It was very reasonable and understandable that the place had to be vacated for school kids. New school year was approaching, and in fact they hadn’t had the graduation ceremony yet. Not having graduation ceremony would be an unpleasant memory for kids. We said to each other in our group that we would better leave the place soon.

Still, I could only recall being very much supported there. I am totally grateful to people at the school.

“Hitakami-en” as an evacuation center

I want to ask about what “Hitakami-en” was like after it became an evacuation center.

Yanagibashi: Near our residential facility for the disabled, “Hitakami-en,” there’s a big canal attached to a river. Water (from the tsunami) came flowing over the banks of that canal, but miraculously the area around our facility was the only place spared from tsunami damage.

Then the Self-Defense Force came with helicopters to pull people out, starting with the most damaged areas by the sea. They brought the rescued people to Hitakami-en since we had this big, safe building. It’s a residential facility for disabled people, so we had no intention of running an evacuation center.

The Hitakami-en staff and residents had already fled inland, so at that time there was no one at the facility. So when the waves withdrew and everyone came back, they were all like, “People are living here!?” That was how the evacuation center got started.

But non-disabled disaster victims needed a different kind of support from disabled victims, and since it was exhausting for them to be together, we decided to have them live in separate places. We were sorry to inconvenience them, but we had the non-disabled folks move to a different building in the residential complex. The non-disabled evacuees stayed around 1-2 months. We just told them, you’re welcome to stay here until you can move to an evacuation center in another region. We started dividing them up like that around 4-5 days after we became an evacuation center.

How the disabled gathered

When Hitakami-en first became an evacuation center, around how many people did you have including non-disabled folks?

Yanagibashi: I think there were around 20-30 non-disabled people from the region at first. That’s including small children and such.

As for disabled people, at first there were only a few. But then of course we heard about all kinds of problems happening at other evacuation centers (such as schools, where both disabled and non-disabled people were living).

So the Shoshinkai staff went around all the general evacuation centers (in the region), told them about the kind of center we were running, and asked disabled people if they’d like to move. After that, more and more disabled people gradually came to the Hitakami-en evacuation center.

By the first week or so, the big hospitals nearby were already full. Nurses couldn’t really do anything for people whose hometowns were unknown, who couldn’t talk well, or who were injured but couldn’t go home after treatment, so they sent them to our evacuation center.

For the first few days after we started the evacuation center, people were brought to us because their names were unknown and they seemed to have special needs, or because they had dementia. But we also got people who just didn’t really need medical treatment, and we completely immersed ourselves in caring for them all.

The people who evacuated to Hitakami-en

Around how many people transferred from general evacuation centers (like schools)?

Yanagibashi: I’m not sure about that number right now, but I don’t think many people came alone (most of them came as families). There were probably a few, but anyway, I think a lot of people were feeling lonely because they had lost their homes and families.

Since this was a residential facility, the rooms were around 9.5 square meters. We usually had two residents to a room, but then we assigned one room per household.

After the earthquake on 3/11, the victims had to face new problems for their futures as they lived together in evacuation centers. Almost all of them didn’t even have homes. So, with the cooperation of the Nippon Foundation and various other related entities, we built temporary housing (for the vulnerable people) in Oguni (a place in Ishinomaki City) to offer victims a place to think about their next steps.

It’s difficult to provide this kind of support with the staff of our foundation alone, so a lot of volunteers got involved with the evacuation center. We were able to continue operating the evacuation center thanks to their enduring support. After one or two months, some volunteers started bringing us ramen or cake. The staff of one vocational center for the disabled that makes cakes even brought us cake all the way from Aichi and Niigata. All kinds of people supported us from great distances.

Difficulties with the evacuation center

What problems did you have with the evacuation center? What’s left an impression on you?

Yanagibashi: Personally, I had never met an elderly person with such severe dementia before.

I had heard about elderly people who shout obscenities and such, but I had never experienced it before, so it was a bit of a shock (to see with my own eyes).

But some of the volunteers (who came to the evacuation center) were good at caring for those people, so they helped with all kinds of things and taught me. I really learned a lot.

Ultimately, we did end up finding the families of some of the elderly people with no known relatives. Since it would have been difficult for their families to look after them if they stayed, some of them were moved to retirement homes in other prefectures with their families. Though it was kind of hard saying goodbye to one old lady who had really depended on our staff, and kept saying “I don’t have anyone.”

Evacuees also sometimes compared our center with other evacuation centers, and said things like, “They fed people meals over there, so why don’t we get fed here?”

Of course, we had never actually been certified as an evacuation center, so it did take some time before we were acknowledged and started getting reliable, regular support from the Self-Defense Force.

We used the ingredients we had at Hitakami-en or brought things from the foundation for people to eat, but sometimes non-disabled evacuees would go to other evacuation centers and hear all kinds of things, and then they would say, “Why is this evacuation center like such and such?” I remember that made me really sad.

Although I did feel like we did the best we could at the time, I also felt the pain of the disaster because we couldn’t understand each other’s feelings, and I realized the earthquake damaged us in these sorts of ways too.

That was the situation of people in general, but our disabled residents were with their families, so I think they were able to spend their time without worrying too much.

Living in the shelter

So then I was evacuated at Kitakami Junior High for three days, in the Council building for two days, and in my nephew’s house in the city for two weeks. The Council was located in the foothills of our neighborhood. The water came right up to it, but the building was fine.


Around how far was Kitakami Junior High from your house?

It was around 2-3 kilometers.


Was Kitakami Junior High a designated evacuation center?

I’m not sure if it was a designated evacuation center, but since we’d always been told there would be an earthquake off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture at some point, I think people did think of it as an evacuation center. It has a lot of space, it’s easy to get to by car, and it has a building.


Had you planned to evacuate to Kitakami Junior High if something happened?

I never planned it. I never even thought about a tsunami.


Was there food and drinks at Kitakami Junior High?

Someone from the nearby hot spring spa came with cooked food, things like bite-sized rice balls, sausages, and eggs. We were in no position to hope for anything fancy.


Were there any other people with disabilities besides yourself?

I think I was the only one there, but there may have been some who never identified themselves. The people there offered to help me a lot.


Did you have any problems at the shelter?

I can’t really say I had a problem, but… For example, we had to fill a bucket with water to flush the toilet, but I could do that by feel so it was honestly no trouble for me. But people still did it for me because they were trying to be considerate. That was nice of them, but I’m used to relying on my sense of touch, so if one thing gets moved around it throws everything off for me. That can make it difficult for me to go to the toilet.


So people went out of your way to help you, and you didn’t want to seem ungrateful?

Yes, that’s exactly it. When I’m on my own, I can find a way to flush the toilet or whatever. But I don’t think that’s really the issue. For some reason I held back and didn’t say anything about it.


Because you were being polite.

After that I moved into the Council building. They got cup ramen and all kinds of other provisions. I was really aware of the fact that I was the only visually impaired person from my community. The next day they started searching for missing people or whatever, and I was the only one who couldn’t help. Even if I’d paired up with someone, I would have been a burden. No one wants to spare the energy to deal with that. That was when I started to feel uncomfortable being there. My other nephew who lives in Yokohama came to visit later, and I decided to go to Yokohama with him. Although I didn’t want to impose. And so I stayed in Yokohama for around four months. I didn’t have my cane or anything, so I called the Miyagi Prefecture Visually Impaired Welfare Association, and they introduced me to the Association in Yokohama. I called and they came right away. At that time I also met someone from a vocational support center for the disabled, and they invited me to fold boxes with them and that sort of thing. I would work half the day, and in the afternoon I would go for walks with the volunteers. I got to walk to all kinds of places. I have to admit I was really fulfilled. It’s different with social workers, but at home I feel bad about asking people for help.


I guess that’s what happens when you stay somewhere a long time.

Yeah, this situation helped me realize that. Then an opportunity came along to move into an apartment in Sendai, so I moved. I stayed there for five years. Even after moving to Sendai, I got a lot of help from the Miyagi Prefecture Visually Impaired Welfare Association and various other people. In both Yokohama and Sendai, I had a full life and learned a lot.

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.


How did you evacuate?

We scrambled into my brother’s car and fled.

Suddenly we noticed the road was already covered with around 30 centimeters of water, and we had to drive over scattered blocks and wreckage as we evacuated.

Traffic was jammed all the way to the coast and the elementary school our grandkids go to, and there were a lot of cars stopped in the junior high school yard, so we took another narrow road, left the car under the highway, and clambered up to the highway on foot to evacuate.

When we looked towards the ocean, we saw the enormous tsunami with ships, pine trees, huge numbers of cars, and adults and children all being carried away. It was really scary.

Pine trees were smashing into houses, and the power and speed was incredible. The water surface was rising alarmingly too, and then we sensed we were in danger where we were.

The car we’d left below was still okay, so we got into it again and fled onto a narrow road beneath the highway. We went inland towards Fukurobara, the Natori City Cultural Center, and Masuda Junior High School, but traffic was jammed wherever we went, and we couldn’t park because there were too many cars. My niece was living in the Medeshima Apartments near the mountains inland in Natori, so that was where we ended up evacuating to.


Around what time did you arrive there?

I think it was around 5:00. So it took a little over two hours.


That was fast. So you went to the Medeshima Apartments where your niece lived and escaped the danger.

Yes. Our son and his wife and our relatives had all evacuated to the Medeshima Apartments near the mountains, so we were happy to reunite with them there and see they were all okay. We stayed at our niece’s place for five days, and after that we stayed with my daughter-in-law’s family in Nishikatsuyama in Aoba, central Sendai, until we moved into temporary housing.


Did you have any problems at your daughter-in-law’s family’s house during that time? What did you do about food and such?

We didn’t have much food, and there was no gas or running water. We couldn’t cook anything, so we couldn’t eat like we wanted to. So we got handouts of rice balls, bread, water, and things like that at the hardware store.

The city also handed out food here and there, and we got some that way too.

The power was out, and tiles were falling from the roof of the house, so we covered it with tarp. It was an old house, so a lot of things were broken. We couldn’t bathe for a month, so our bodies were itchy. We couldn’t do laundry, and there were no clothes being handed out, so we had nothing but the clothes on our backs and it was really rough.


So you didn’t move to a shelter, support center, or community center in Nishikatsuyama, where your daughter-in-law’s family lived in Sendai?

We didn’t think of moving. We had more space in the house.

Living in the shelter

Where was the evacuation center for your region?

We’d been told that when a big earthquake came, we should start by evacuating to high ground. The people from the elementary school had also climbed up the mountain to escape from the tsunami. So there were a lot of people in the evacuation center on the mountain.


Around how many people gathered at the evacuation center?

I think there were around 200. It was completely packed. It wasn’t only people from my neighborhood, but also people from surrounding neighborhoods whose homes had been washed away. The people living in the hills were also in danger, so everyone gathered in the shelter and stayed together. Because I mean, that night it just kept on shaking.


Around how long did you stay there?

Until the end of May, so around two and a half months. It was a long time.


Did anyone besides your family and friends offer to help you at the shelter?

All kinds of people at the shelter offered to help me and got meals for me. Sometimes I would receive my meal and chat with the people nearby who had helped me. But because I can’t see or hear much, I had no idea what was going on around me and couldn’t offer to help anyone. So there were times when I wanted to do something, but couldn’t.

Problems at the shelter

Did you have any problems or troubles in this shelter full of so many people?

At that time I was just focusing on getting through each moment, so maybe I wasn’t really aware of it, but various things did happen that were stressful. The biggest problem was the toilet. I couldn’t use the toilet by myself. I couldn’t see, and I couldn’t get around on my own. Sometimes I held it from 8 in the morning until my family came back around 5 in the evening. Of course, even though I couldn’t see, eventually I did manage to find routes I could take by myself, started using the outhouse by the house near the shelter, and got used to living in the shelter and learned to go to the toilet on my own, but I think it took around a month.


Did you have any other problems?

Let’s see. It was also difficult having no private space. Always having someone looking at me. Although of course there were also people I knew there and they were taking care of me, it was just mentally exhausting. I was grateful to the people who were looking out for me, but also resented being constantly watched. So my feelings were a bit complicated. So sometimes when I went to use the outhouse by the house down the mountain, I felt this indescribable sense of liberation. It was like the outhouse was my only private space, so sometimes I went there even though I didn’t need to go.


So you needed someplace to be alone.

I’ve also heard from other visually impaired people that private space is especially important to them. When you can’t see, you don’t know what’s going on. But when you’re in a private room, you can relax. I mean, I can’t really be alone, because I need other people’s knowledge and help. That’s kind of frustrating to me. I have complicated feelings about it. Of course, people are helping me, taking care of me, and looking out for me. I’m the one receiving their help, and I’m nothing but grateful for that. But aside from that, it really is hard not having privacy. There was also one more problem I had.


What was that?

The amount of food. When the Self-Defense Force started handing out bento boxes as relief supplies, the elderly people would just try hard to eat up their portion even it was sometimes too much for them. They couldn’t throw away what they’d received in this kind of situation. Some people did force themselves to eat everything. It was a lot even for me. But I thought, I have to eat everything or it will be thrown away, and it’s easier to clean up if I eat it all anyway. After a while, I heard one old lady who was trying to eat all her food mumble, “It’s too much.” Then I realized elderly people just aren’t capable of eating that much. So I said, “Don’t worry about leaving some of it. It’s not good for you to eat it all. You’re not doing anything wrong.” Then from the next meal she started leaving some of her food. At first I think everyone felt pressured because they felt they had to be grateful for what they’d received and treat it with respect. It might seem outrageous for me to say this even though everyone was just trying to help us, but people normally have a certain amount they can eat, and when they can’t regulate the amount, it’s a problem. It something you don’t even think about in ordinary life.


When you said there was a problem with food, I thought you were going to say there wasn’t enough, that there was far too little and you had to figure out how to split it up. But it was the complete opposite. So everyone has a certain amount they’re capable of eating.

Even things we normally enjoy eating like rice balls from the convenience store or supermarket gradually become hard to get down after weeks in a shelter. That was a unique shelter experience.
In those circumstances, I remember that the normal, everyday foods like miso soup and boiled vegetables the women made with the supplies that came to the shelter were really delicious.

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.