Shelter management

Evacuating to high ground

Did you establish someplace to evacuate?

Tada: We were sleeping in the place we use as a workshop now. The non-disabled people who took refuge with us were using the rooms and halls in the Seiyu-kan Building, so we were kind of separated.

Yasuko: There were 500 people here (in the Seiyu-kan Building) at the highest. A lot of people evacuated here. (Including non-disabled people.) (Mr. Tada and Yasuko were in different offices at the time of the disaster.)


Around how long did you take refuge here?

Tada: Until summer or so?

Ogawa: Yes.


Did people get sick or anything?

Kayoko: Rather than getting sick, I think it was more mentally difficult. As you can see, this is the only high ground we have here. So a lot of people came, right?

Ogawa: Yes.

Kayoko: You couldn’t open a door without seeing a bunch of strangers, so it was a really unstable environment.

Dedicated effort

When you saw the staff managing the shelter, did you feel like you had to do something?

Ogawa: Umm…

Kayoko: I don’t think they even had time to think about it. We (the staff) were responsible for some severely disabled people, so we had to protect them first. We didn’t know if our own families were okay, and we didn’t know what had happened to the families of our physically handicapped users or our users in wheelchairs, either. And so Ms. Ogawa and others who would jump into action with one or two words from us helped us out. The ones who took action right away listened to us attentively.

The situation was so urgent that it was like, they had to do it for everyone else. We also had severely handicapped people to think about, so I think their thought process was that they didn’t want to be any trouble. She (Ms. Ogawa) also had parents and siblings in the region, and I’m sure she was worried. But she never said anything about that, and just kept working hard without even making a face.

Shelter closure

I heard you were in the shelter until summer or so.

Kayoko: We were the last ones to leave.

First the non-disabled people started moving into temporary housing. The number of evacuees gradually decreased, and once all the non-disabled people finished evacuating, evacuations to the Seiyu-kan Building were called off. We were surprised as we were still living in the workshop.

Yasuko: It was already closed.

Tada: The temporary group home still wasn’t finished at that time, right?

Kayoko: It was September when the temporary group home was completed and we moved.  We were hit by a big typhoon in fall that year. We had just moved two days before and were finally settled in. It was the time when we were like, wow, I can sleep in my own room now, right?

Ogawa: Yes.

Kayoko: I was relieved there were no major damages. But I think they really put up with a lot.


Is Ms. Ogawa usually the type who tries really hard?

Kayoko: Yeah, with work. She helps everyone too.

Distributing bread to local people

The trainees had saved a whole freezer full of the bread they had made at work just in case. This turned out to be useful.

Kayoko: You were making bread just in case something happened, remember?

Ogawa: Yes.

Kayoko: That day, the earthquake happened right after they finished the bread. They were working until 15:00. Starting that night, we handed out the bread first to the elderly, then small children, then elementary school students, and then junior high school students. The people who evacuated to the Seiyu-kan Building got by eating that bread from that day.

There were some people who said all kinds of heartless things to us. But after someone had told them, “The bread you got was from those disabled people,” those same people said, “We’re sorry. We said all those things, but you were actually the first ones to help us.”


The publicly-owned designated shelters usually provided instant rice and water and such, but the Seiyu-kan Building was a private institute.

Yasuko: I don’t think there were any reserves here in the Seiyu-kan Building, but there were blankets in storage to get through the cold.


What kind of bread was this?

Kayoko: They were large loaves. We had around 100 of them (in the freezer).

“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.

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.