This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on May 19, 2014
Rikuzentakata City in Iwate Prefecture suffered catastrophic damage in the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.
On high ground overlooking the town there is a special nursing home for the elderly called Kojuen.
Three years ago, most of the evacuation shelters in town were inundated by the tsunami.
Hundreds of people who had nowhere else to go sought refuge at Kojuen.
Kojuen normally cares for around 100 elderly residents.
Overnight that figure multiplied by ten times; it became a shelter for 1,000 people.
“We were determined to keep all the evacuees who had come to Kojuen alive.”
(Yukie Sugawara: Nutritionist)
So how did the staff of the home secure food and living space for 1,000 people in order to save their lives?
Video footage and materials from the time provide invaluable ideas and insights into ways to handle disasters.
Before the disaster, around 7,600 people lived in the coastal town of Takata-cho in Rikuzentakata City, Iwate Prefecture.
15 facilities in the town had been designated as emergency shelters in the event of a disaster.
But most of them were rendered useless by the tsunami.
As a result, around 4,500 evacuees fled to the community center, hospitals and welfare facilities located on higher ground. One of them was Kojuen, a special nursing home for the elderly.
It’s located about 2 kilometers inland from the coast.
Around 100 elderly people with special needs live at the facility, but it quickly became the temporary home for 1,000 evacuees.
Jason Hancock used to work as an English teacher in Fukushima Prefecture.
He visits Kojuen to report on to how it was able to provide refuge for 1,000 evacuees.
“Hello, I'm Jason.”
(Jason Hancock: Reporter)
A magnitude 9 earthquake struck at 2:46 P.M. on March 11, 2011.
A huge crack appeared in the parking lot, but the buildings remained largely undamaged, and no one there had been injured.
“What happened after the earthquake?”
“People began coming in one by one. We didn’t know what was happening, so we asked them, and they told us a huge tsunami had struck. Everyone had walked through the cold, so we invited them in, telling them not to worry about their dirty shoes.
After that, people formed into groups of acquaintances and sat down, but they all had blank expressions on their faces. They sat silently on the floor, staring ahead… It was obvious that something terrible had happened.”
(Akira Sasaki: Deputy Director)
This is footage filmed by NHK at that time.
The facility was overflowing with the evacuees. It was the start of life at the shelter for 1,000 people.
The first thing the staff of Kojuen did was to try and find space for everyone. They had to prioritize the safety of the elderly residents.
“Of course, we have some residents here with cognitive impairment. They often wander around, and they could have become lost among the evacuees or wandered outside. They also tend to be very restless, so we couldn’t put any of the evacuees in the same room. So, in rooms where we normally have four people and four beds we put six beds, and we put four beds into rooms where we normally have only two.”
(Hisako Kumagai: Head Nurse)
On this plan, the blue parts indicate the rooms set aside for the elderly with special needs, and the red parts indicate the rooms for evacuees. The corridors were also turned into living spaces for the evacuees.
So, what was it like living here?
Matsuo Sasaki was one of the evacuees who stayed in this room.
“Thinking about it now, it was really tight!”
“There were six families in here?”
“Yes. Three on this side, and three more on the other side. There were 16 of us in all.”
Each person had less than two square meters of space. People from the same neighborhoods or friends formed groups, and were given a room together.
Grouping people who knew each other well had the effect of greatly reducing the evacuees’ stress.
“Do you still have close ties with some of the families?”
“Oh, yes. We couldn’t hide anything from each other, and we accepted one another for who we were, so we became like a family. Sometimes a couple would fight, or another couple would encourage each other with warm words. Actually, it was quite fun seeing things like that!”
The biggest problem faced by Kojuen was providing food for 1,000 people.
Yukie Sugawara, the nutritionist, knew exactly what to do. She dealt appropriately with the power blackout and the water supply being cut off.
“I had spent a lot of time training and studying about what to do in a disaster, so I knew how we could save everyone. I thought to myself ‘The time has come to put my knowledge into practice!’.”
(Yukie Sugawara: Nutritionist)
Yukie had always been interested in how to deal with emergency situations, and she had studied materials on past disasters, such as the Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake.
For example, Kojuen has a kitchen system run entirely on electricity.
But it was rendered useless by the blackout.
So they immediately switched to gas. Yukie had had this propane gas system installed 25 years ago for use in emergencies.
Based on what she had learned from past disasters, she also implemented an efficient method to distribute food to the evacuees.
“In disaster-stricken areas and emergencies, you often see people forming long lines. The roles are divided into those who hand out the food, and those who wait to receive it. But I had always considered waiting like that to be a waste of time as well as a waste of human resources.”
She divided the evacuees into groups of 30, and laid down a rule that only the leader from each group would be allowed to come and get the food for the group. This facilitated the smooth distribution of meals.
Yukie’s greatest challenge was securing enough food to feed 1,000 people.
They only had emergency rations for 150 people for three days.
And also precooked meals for the residents. So for 1,000 people, they didn’t even have enough food for one day.
Moreover, they only had a limited amount of propane gas, just two gas rings, a small amount of water left in the tank, and only five cooks. It was under these conditions that they had to prepare meals for 1,000 people.
“Whatever it took, I was determined to save everyone. That was the only thing on my mind.”
These are the menus from that time.
Breakfast on the morning after the earthquake was rice gruel with green leaves, omelette, some fruit and fried fish. The fried fish, originally frozen for the residents, was heated in hot water. The main dish was the rice gruel with green leaves. They had to dilute it 3 times more than usual.
“How did you decide the menus?”
“Until then, my goal had always been to offer fun meals, dishes that the residents would appreciate and would be good for their health. But after March 11, they turned into survival meals. I also had to make meals that everyone could eat, so that there would be no unfairness. This is a special nursing home for the elderly, and there are many residents who are weak, so dishes had to be made to suit the weakest people, like rice gruel.”
In order to provide meals for 1,000 people with limited ingredients and fuel and not enough cooks, Yukie came up with a menu that would provide the minimum required amount of nutrients.
“I could only feed people 600 to 700 kilocalories. That’s the minimum amount needed to maintain the body’s basal metabolic rate and sustain life. It’s what bedridden elderly people need, so it must’ve been hard for the younger people.”
“It’s hot. It warms you up. It feels good inside!”
“I just wanted everyone to be warm.”
“Yes. I have the image of Tohoku being quite cold in March. Everyone must’ve been happy to get this.”
“I hope so. They were people who had barely managed to make it here alive, so I wanted to make them feel at home.”
“What’s this plastic wrap for?”
“We couldn’t waste any water. We used wrap to avoid having to wash the dishes. We could just replace the wrap for the next dish.”
“It allows you to use the bowls and plates many times”
This idea of wrapping the dishes was another trick Yukie had learned from studying past disasters.
Meals for the evacuees, centered on rice gruel, were served twice a day. Just enough for everyone to survive on, it was the maximum amount they could serve.
However, there were so many evacuees that they ran out of rice the day after the earthquake, March the 12th.
There were around 4,500 evacuees staying in shelters in Takata-cho. It took time for relief supplies to be delivered to Kojuen.
“Of course, we received a lot of warm support from all over the place, but there were so many evacuees in Takata-cho that the supplies coming in were insufficient. I think it would have been better if a system had been set up as early as possible so that supplies could be received not just from the city office but a variety of other places.”
(Hideharu Sasaki: Rikuzentakata City Office)
The staff of Kojuen ran around and somehow managed to scrape together enough rice for three days from acquaintances and local farmers.
Yasuo Kumagai provided one bag of rice at that time. But that was no easy feat.
Farmers usually store rice unprocessed. To make it usable, it had to be processed to remove the husk and polished.
“There was a total blackout in this area, too, so most of my equipment couldn’t be used. However, purely by chance, there was a construction site nearby. They had a big generator that wasn’t being used, so the neighborhood association borrowed it to polish the rice and we delivered it to the home. We had a little rice stored here for ourselves, so I was happy to be able to give some to Kojuen in the hope it would help them.”
(Yasuo Kumagai: Farmer)
Local businesses also made contributions after hearing about the food shortage.
Because Kojuen had a proper kitchen, unlike other shelters such as gymnasiums, all kinds of food began arriving.
The supplies included frozen foods that had been taken out of freezers that had stopped operating due to the blackout.
1,000 frozen croquettes arrived on the morning of the 12th, but they were already starting to thaw.
“We didn’t want them to go to waste, so we used this big pot to fry all 1,000 of them. I fried them like this.”
(Tamie Takeshita: Cook)
Only four could be fried at a time. It took a total of 10 hours to fry them all.
“I was totally engrossed in doing it. We just wanted to do our best to feed all the evacuees. So we all worked hard at it.”
Other frozen foods arrived, too.
“We stacked everything in here, and used it like a refrigerator.”
With their refrigerators out of action, they decided to put all the supplies in this small storeroom. The outside temperature was around 3℃. With the door covered with cardboard for insulation, it worked well as a refrigerator.
The food was greatly appreciated, but most of it required cooking, and there was an overwhelming lack of staff to cook for 1,000 people.
The women among the evacuees came to the rescue.
“We had teams of vegetable cutters and apple peelers. Many people volunteered to help, so they were placed in charge of doing all the preparations. We told them how much we needed that day, and it became a daily routine.”
Yukiko Komatsu was in the team of vegetable cutters.
“Does this place bring back memories?”
“Yes. I walked back and forth along here so many times every day, I lost count.”
“I heard you used to cut up vegetables.”
“Yes. We put two tables here where we had a lot of light. We also peeled the apples that we’d been given.”
“How many hours a day did you do it?”
“Not that much. There were lots of people, so I think it only took about 30 minutes. Women are fast workers!”
“You’re good with your hands.”
The disposal of kitchen waste was another problem at the shelter. The elderly were served peeled apples, but unpeeled apples were given to the evacuees.
Water was also limited. They decided to wash the vegetables in a stream.
However, the stream was about one kilometer away from Kojuen.
“That is very cold! So this is the place that the residents of Kojuen would come to wash their vegetables, and…the water is very cold. So you can only imagine that in March it was even colder than it is now.”
It was hard work, but the members of the vegetable cutting team worked enthusiastically.
“Was it hard being here?”
“That never crossed my mind. It was fun working with everyone. Even though I didn’t know any of the other people, we could chat about all kinds of things just by being here together.”
“You made lots of friends?”
“Yes, I did. If someone wasn’t feeling well, we’d give them words of encouragement because we were all in it together. We all did our best. We were a team!”
Getting evacuees to help themselves gives them the power to keep going in the face of uncertainties about their future.
“A shelter is the first step toward rebuilding people’s lives, so they need to become independent and help themselves instead of waiting for others to come and help them. I think that’s the most important thing to remember when running a shelter.”
(Takuro Kimura : Administrative Director GLOCAL EMPOWERMENT, Support and AID INSTITUTE)
Power was restored at last, one week after the earthquake, and Kojuen began to settle down.
Members of the Self-Defense Forces also established a system for supplying water, and that also brought about welcome changes to the menu.
“We held a meeting and decided to prioritize cooking. It allowed us at last to wash the rice and cook lots of it.”
Rice gruel had been served for a week, but on March 19th curry was served for dinner.
“We wanted to make everyone happy. We used curry roux that we had received with the supplies. We’d also been given lots of meat, so we improvised a way of getting everyone excited by announcing that we were going to cook curry and rice on Friday night. It was really rewarding to see how the announcement brightened up all the children. They were clapping their hands and jumping up and down! As one of those doing the cooking, I was so happy that that day had finally arrived, and all the evacuees began clapping as well.”
Some of the staff members had lost their houses and had also lost contact with family members. But they put their heart and soul into saving the people who were there right in front of them. Not a single evacuee became seriously ill, and they all managed to get through the week immediately after the earthquake.
One month after the earthquake, Kojuen was faced with the need to return to its original job, which had been somewhat neglected for a while.
Evacuees began moving into temporary housing in Rikuzentakata City. The number staying at Kojuen dwindled to 200.
But the staff were still rushed off their feet preparing meals.
The cooks were overworked. Yukie Sugawara was unable to do her job as a nutritionist and give adequate care to the elderly residents.
But the evacuees came to her rescue.
“The staff looking after s here began showing signs of fatigue. We held some discussions, and people began saying that we really shouldn’t place too much of a burden on them. So instead of just eating and taking shelter here, we decided that we evacuees would cooperate by cooking our own food in the vacant kitchen.”
They cleaned up the old kitchen that was not being used. And they called on the local community to provide some cooking equipment that was in short supply.
Members of the Iwate Dietetic Association came over to manage the food and give advice on menus. That is how the evacuees came to be cooking for themselves by mid-April.
The Dietetic Association went around all the shelters in the region offering advice on making improvements.
“If a nutritionist had been present at the place where they were sorting out the relief supplies, I think they could have done a much better job, without keeping any food items beyond their expiry dates or letting things rot. For example, they could have delivered food in the right combinations for making meals, and they could have ensured adherence to a ‘first-in, first-out’ rule.”
(Reiko Fukuda: President of the Iwate Dietetic Association)
“I learned a lot from the experience, but above all I realized the importance of interpersonal relationships. Even now, we stay in touch with those who came to help us and those with a keen awareness of all the issues. They ask us how we’re getting on and continue to think about us. I’m truly grateful for their continued support.”
“During my time at Kojuen, and here in Rikuzentakata, I think I felt most a sense of community. As the staff spoke of making sure that everyone was taken care of and that everyone was fed. And the opposite, as the evacuees spoke of helping with meals and taking care of daily responsibilities. It really showed a sense of unity in this time of such disaster. They say that there’s comfort in groups and strength in numbers. And I really feel like that's what helped contribute to the triumph in this tragedy.”
Kojuen continued to serve as a shelter until August, five months after the earthquake.
It continued being supported by volunteers, who cooked food and sent relief supplies.
When Kojuen stopped serving as a shelter, many former evacuees who had stayed there gathered to clean up the facility to show their appreciation.
“The men led, and the mothers followed, and we all lived in harmony with one another.”
“Everyone was so considerate, and we joked with one another. It was far from being a cultured lifestyle, but I think we were all saved by each other’s kindness.”
One day, 1,000 people suddenly came to live together at Kojuen, a special nursing home for the elderly. It was the deep awareness of the staff members regarding post-disaster activities, combined with the spirit of cooperation among the evacuees and other local residents that enabled them to overcome all the difficulties they faced.