To convey

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.

Sharing experiences

Do you have any thoughts or things you want to share now?

Since that disaster, we’ve had opportunities to talk about our experience and how we prepared ourselves.

Of course, other welfare organizations located near the coast around Japan are worried that the same sort of disaster or tsunami might happen to them.

I have been invited to speak around the country for a few years now, but I sometimes wonder if my speeches are actually raising people’s disaster prevention awareness, and if people are actually putting what I say to use.

The Kumamoto earthquake was a big shock to me when it happened. I have passed on our earthquake experience and the things we did to prepare in the hope people might put it to use. However, I’ve seen how people have had the same experience in Kumamoto and various other places, so I feel like my efforts haven’t been useful.

Whenever I hear about a natural disaster, I feel really frustrated. I know this isn’t a small problem that can be solved by someone like me telling people about it, but that doesn’t change how I feel.

People’s memories fade too, and every day I think about how best to appeal to people around Japan to overcome the awareness problem, how to protect their lives in the event of a future disaster, and how to help them better understand the challenges social workers face in a disaster.

Ultimately, the only thing I can do is talk about it like this.

First, I hope that learning about our disaster experiences will be the first step for people to change their way of thinking and come to new realizations.

Social workers do face different challenges in a disaster than lay people do, so I want people in the social work field especially to understand this. Because both our trainees and our staff went through a really hard time in the disaster, and I don’t want our peers around the country to go through the same thing if a disaster happens to them.

After the disaster, a welfare organization located near the ocean in another prefecture once came to us saying they’d like all their employees to hear our workshop’s story. Later I heard that they started taking disaster prevention measures based on our experience.

I feel somehow relieved when I hear that a social welfare organization is now putting the things we told them to use to make preparations. It’s also really great when the organization doesn’t just copy the preparations and responses we adopted to protect our trainees, but discusses things amongst themselves to arrange their own strategy. It’s scary not knowing what might happen.


Would you say that your life purpose now is your massage work, and the information sharing and job creation network that you mentioned earlier?

Yes, I try to focus on those things. And yet sometimes when I’m watching TV and such, I’ll start talking to myself. I don’t want to remember (the disaster), but I still remember it. Even if I try to forget, I don’t suppose I can. There’s no way to forget, after the things I went through every day. Because I’m alive, and I survived. So I say to myself, you know what, I’m going to keep smiling. I drink alcohol too sometimes, but sometimes I also cry. And I tell myself, I’m going to keep living a little longer. I guess I’m comforting myself. That’s how it’s become.


So the disaster has strengthened your conviction.

That may be. I’m sure different people have different ways of thinking about it, but I think maybe everyone has gotten stronger.


I know you’re very active. I think people like you spreading this message give everyone else strength.

Well, that is the goal.


I think there are a lot of people who still don’t know about all the support available to them. If we can get the message out to those people, it will really enrich their lives and help them live fully.

I hope they might come to us, to work together with others who want the same things. My other visually impaired friends are always looking for some way they can help too. Rather than just waiting around, they get help from the local government and the Council, and use the radio and newspapers.


You said you’d like visually impaired people to get involved more. Do you think a lot of them are reserved? Or do they just not have opportunities?

I guess they don’t have opportunities. They probably don’t know what to do. I think that’s the issue. For example, even if you talk to someone from the government at a mixer, I don’t think one time is enough. You have to participate a few times and then think about it. If you just hear about it one time and then jump into action, you won’t keep it up for long. You have to take your time to think it over.


So first you just have to participate.

Yes. I want people to participate, and for that purpose we need to get information to them.


The reason you want these people to get involved is because you want them to find their purpose, right?

Yes, I want them to find their purpose. If they don’t want to go out in public, they can use the various audio information that’s available. For example, there’s Plextalk (a device for visually impaired people to listen to and edit audio). If you ask your local government office, they’ll issue you a Plextalk. Some people don’t know such services exist. Someone will even come teach you how to use it if you need them to. I imagine they would even do a training session in your home for three or four people. I want us to reach that point. For that we need the help of the government offices and the Council.


I’m sure not all visually impaired people are as positive and proactively social as you are. I get the impression you’re playing the role of giving those less social people a push. Hopefully more visually impaired people will be able to obtain information so they can choose what they want to act on.

For sure. There’s nothing better than choosing for yourself. Maybe some people will feel like being active too. Then they could get involved in disabled sports.


Information expands your world.

It does, definitely. That’s why it’s such a shame not to be informed.


It’s a shame not to know.

Information is really what it’s all about. That’s what I want to do something about.


You’re a powerful person, Mr. Tatsumi.

Well, there are a lot of amazing people out there. But it’s nice being able to do all these things, with the help of all these people. A lot of volunteer organizations sprung up in Ishinomaki after the disaster. I hope these organizations will build stronger connections with disabled people. It seems like people are out there doing all kinds of things.


So that’s the next goal.

Hmm, yes I think so.


The house Mr. Tatsumi was living in before the disaster was completely destroyed except for its foundation. There were many deaths in the area, which speaks to just how unexpectedly huge the tsunami was. This interview brought home not only the importance of connections Mr. Tatsumi spoke of, but also the necessity of preparing for major disasters.

Requests for hearing people

Do you have any requests for hearing people? What can hearing people do if they want to help people like you?

There are all kinds of ways to do it, like writing on paper, writing on your hand, or even writing on the ground if you don’t have a pen, so we would be grateful if you try to communicate with us however you can. You can also add facial expressions, and even just gestures can be understandable. It’s a big help to us when we’re able to communicate with you like that.

For future development

Do you still feel you are putting all your energy in the reconstruction, Ms. Matsubara?

I don’t think I’m putting all my energy, but I think things will go backward if we stop. My goal was to establish in Onagawa a place for people with disabilities to be able to work, and help it run smoothly. From this particular point of view, I feel I could achieve something.

Considering the characteristics of the area, I believe we don’t need to expand the capacity of this workshop in Onagawa.

However, I am always considering expanding the business and tasks. They are related to work flows and economic aspects such as efficiency of the work, their improvements, about making better quality products, and the way how we could raise the payment.

Not doing things frantically but calculating for better outcome and trying with helps of people around us; that is what we could do. If things don’t work out, we find ways to promptly withdraw. We need to secure not to accumulate financial loss, that’s the bottom line I think.

We have been doing in this way by trying different methods, I suppose.


What is Kirara Onagawa trying to do in view of its future?

It is to hand our visions down to next generations. There are two key points I need to convey to staff members. Our role of course is to support persons with disabilities for their employment.

Firstly, we need to form sense of due responsibility and skills to check our own work. It’s a plain standard for private companies.

Second point is not to spare any effort to help improve trainees’ skills.

I will try to convey these to the staff, and I hope they do the same to future generations. Expanding the things what trainees can do is beneficial both for them and for the workshop.

We, staff have to show how to do first. With efforts of the trainees themselves and the perseverance of the staff, they will acquire the skills. It would be ideal that one day a trainee pushes staff’s hands away and says “I don’t need your help anymore.”


Message to people

Do you have anything that you want tell people about daily things?

A friend of mine who participates in activities of Nyokkiri-dan is doing welfare trainings at elementary schools. Children nowadays have much more opportunities to relate to welfare than when we were kids. They don’t get too curious about wheelchairs for example. I think that adults have more prejudice. Kids are simple, so they stare at things that are new to them, and it is normal. I think they are used to seeing persons with disabilities. I’m saying it in a positive sense. I expect that when these kids are grown up, Japan will be really a good country to live in. It is very disappointing to see adults saying to kids something like “Don’t get close to these people.”


It is us adults who need to learn more.

I heard that children are learning in their ethics class different things such as how to use wheelchairs or how people feel when they have hemiplegia. We didn’t even see persons with disabilities when I was a child. The environment has changed.


Do you have occasions when you go out by yourself?

I go out by myself to stroll around in the neighborhood. When I go for shopping and things like that, I ask someone to drive me there, and then I move around by myself. I went to the prefectural art museum to see exhibitions with friends of Nyokkiri-dan this summer with assistance of professional helpers. It was really fun.


I can see that Nyokkiri-dan has become a very important group for you Mr. Tobikawa.

Yes, it has. It is nice to have a channel to consult with the city authorities or to bring your opinion to them. It is also nice to have a forum of exchanging information, and friends you can go to see art exhibitions with. I think people need to have these opportunities. I hope more people overcome their worries and come close to people like me. We are not so special, just that our bodies move less. People’s hesitation to approach makes us difficult to talk to them. You can just be natural. When people ask “Are you ok? Really ok?” with too much willingness to help, it is too heavy for us (laughing). In emergency situations, however, we’d rather like people to come straight to help us. It’s all about balance, I guess.


I see. So, we can show that we are willing to assist even with our limited knowledge on disabilities.

In some cases, we are to be blamed for not clearly say what we want people to do. I myself get a bit nervous if I meet a person for the first time. Personal relationship is a sensitive matter even for persons without disabilities, right?

(日本語) 織音のいま

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