This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on December 14, 2015
September 2015. A sign language play is being performed in Tokyo.
The theme is the Great East Japan Earthquake. The performers are depicting the hardships the deaf had to undergo. All of the actors are deaf themselves.
“My older brother came rushing to my house. He said, ‘I can hear a tsunami! Run!’”
To create the play, the actors went to hear the testimonies of survivors.
Some deaf people died because they could not hear the warning sirens or evacuation announcements. The theater group began presenting this play in 2014 so that people would not forget what happened on the day of the disaster.
“Thanks to my brother, my family survived. But if he hadn’t let us know, we would surely have been swept away with our house and gone to Heaven.”
One member of the audience is an American woman with a special interest in the play.
Brought up by two deaf parents, her name is Ashley Ryan. She is a sign language interpreter with international experience, including interpreting for the U.S. President Barack Obama.
Today, she is visiting Miyagi Prefecture. Many disabled people became tsunami victims in this area. They included deaf residents who were left behind because although did not appear to have any disability they were unable to receive the information provided via sound.
“So many deaf people died. They were the last to find out any information. Why did that have to happen? I want to find the answers. I want to find hope in this disaster area.”
(Ashley Ryan: Reporter)
Miyagi is one of the three Tohoku prefectures that were badly affected by the disaster. The disaster took the lives of 46 of Miyagi’s deaf residents. The fatality rate was over 3 times greater than that for hearing people.
This is Ishinomaki City, where many deaf people died. The Nakazato District is located three kilometers from the sea. The tsunami hit this heavily populated area.
Ashley pays a visit to a deaf man who survived the disaster.
“Hello, nice to meet you.”
“My name is Ashley.”
This is Seiichi Kimita.
Traces of the tsunami remain inside his house.
“What is that?”
“It informs me I have a visitor.”
This blinking light serves in place of a doorbell. Because he cannot hear anything, Kimita has to depend on his sight to receive information.
A Japanese sign language interpreter has come with Ashley. In this way, the sign language interpreter can inform the whole film crew what the deaf interviewer is saying.
Before the disaster, Kimita was highly aware of possible problems and he had tried to counterbalance his disadvantage.
“Even before 3.11, did you have a shelter supply kit prepared?”
“Yes, of course.”
First, he shows Ashley a special notebook designed for the deaf.
“We use this for communicating by writing.”
It contains useful sentences to get help from others in the case of an emergency.
“By showing a page like this, we can ask for help. This is to ask someone a question. I can tear out a page and give it to them to write down information for me.”
Kimita has prepared for a disaster in other unique ways.
For example, he keeps cats.He has lived with cats for about 30 years, and now has six.
“A big noise. They become scared. If it shakes a lot, they know.”
“So these cats help you to survive?”
“Yes. That's why I keep them.”
Another survival tool is this information device specially designed for the deaf.
“If there’s a flood or some other kind of disaster, this device shows the information on TV with sign language.”
When a disaster occurs, these lights come on and the sign-language broadcast begins automatically. Kimita thought he had done everything he could…
However, on March the 11th four years ago…
“The lights go on when there’s a supply of power, but our electricity supply was cut immediately, so neither light came on. I decided I should go out and ask someone what was going on.”
The cats made a fuss, but Kimita had no idea what was happening. Shortly after the quake, he went outside.
He saw some people chatting with each other down the street, but he had no idea what they were talking about.
“People with hearing were exchanging information via their mobile phones. They knew what was happening because they had mobile phones.”
He found a neighbour he knew and tried to get information from him by gesturing.
“My neighbor was gesturing as though something was coming. I guessed it was a tsunami and decided I should run.”
Just after he arrived at the elementary school that was an evacuation site, the tsunami smashed into the Nakazato district.
“Because I knew that neighbor, in other words I was part of the community, I could get the information. It made me realize that this district is friendly towards the deaf.”
“Definitely aggressive, to be able to go out and ask even though there’s a huge communication barrier. He was still aggressive enough to go out and gather the information that he needed to.”
Two deaf couples lived in the district much closer to the sea than Kimita. The Minato district was hit by a 5-meter-high tsunami. One couple were swept away in the tsunami.
The other couple, Mr. and Mrs. Inabe, narrowly escaped. Their son, Katsuyuki, had rushed over to their house to tell them about the tsunami.
Ashley visits Katsuyuki, who was living three minutes on foot from his parents’ house at the time of the disaster.
“Hello. How do you do?”
What were his parents doing when he arrived there?
“They had no sense of crisis at all. They were just cleaning up a room and saying it was good there wasn’t much damage. They had no idea a tsunami was coming. I heard the sound of water and got very scared. I thought their house was about to be swept away.”
The tsunami hit the Minato district less than one hour after the quake. The Inabe family survived by hurrying upstairs and huddling together.
The couple now live in public restoration housing.
“A tsunami followed the earthquake. Did you have any knowledge about it?”
“We had no idea. Apparently there were public warnings to let people know a tsunami was coming, but we couldn’t hear anything. If our son hadn’t come, we would probably have died.”
“You couldn’t feel the crashing sound of the tsunami?”
“No. If we hadn’t seen our son’s face, we wouldn't have known at all. Our son looked so scared. In fact, he looked terrified. I was really shocked when I saw his face. It made me wonder what on earth was going on.”
For the next three days, they survived on the apples they had offered to the family Buddhist altar.
“If I hadn’t gone over to my parents’ place, they would almost certainly have died.”
Unfortunately, the other deaf couple in the area were not able to receive the evacuation information.
“Just like my wife and me, I assume they didn’t notice anything.”
“We used to visit them and have good times together. I will never forget them.”
“Reminded me, made me think of what would happen if my parents were in that situation. And I had never thought about that before until now. It really impacted, touched me to know that someone cared about his parents so much to go and let them know, even though it meant possibly risking his own life as well.”
When a large-scale disaster occurs, how can we the deaf be notified?
Professor Shigeo Tatsuki is a specialist on disaster prevention measures, and he often visits the 3.11 affected areas. He believes that the disaster prevention plans made by local governments need to be drastically reviewed.
“Local governments depend on sound or PA speakers to spread information. They must have thought that would spread the information to all the local residents. But the deaf cannot receive information like that. The mainstream idea has always been that communities consist only of hearing people. But we need to ask ourselves ‘Dos the information evenly reach everyone in the community?’”
(Shigeo Tatsuki: Professor, Department of Sociology Doshisha University)
Even after escaping to an evacuation center, the deaf had to face difficulties.
This temple opened its main hall to the public following the disaster, and many evacuees came here.
Chie Watanabe, who is deaf, was one of them. She came with her daughter, who was then a junior high school student and is not deaf.
When they arrived, the main hall was already filled with about 150 evacuees. There was no one there they knew.
“My daughter was very scared and got panicky. I could tell she was exhausted and very depressed.”
Her daughter was so shocked, she was unable to act as an interpreter for her mother.
“I couldn’t go to sleep. If another quake hit, I thought we might be the only ones left behind after everyone else evacuated safely. More than a worry, it was a terror.”
The thing Watanabe found most bewildering was the rules for the evacuees’ life together. The other women there decided the toilet cleaning shift and how to use the water, but she could not hear them.
“There was a water tank. I was very thirsty and went over to drink some water from it. I noticed two middle-aged women whispering to each other. They looked at me very coldly. I didn't understand why they were staring at me. Had I done something wrong? I wondered about that for a while.”
How did she appear to other people?
“At first, we didn’t realize she was deaf.”
(Issei Takahashi: Chief Priest, Jonen-ji Temple)
“One time, I said, ‘After you.’ Of course she couldn’t hear me and seemed offended. It was in front of the toilet. To be honest, I didn’t think she was very nice.”
Living with the other evacuees, Watanabe felt more and more isolated. She could have let everyone know about her deafness at one of the morning meetings, which everyone attended, but she did not. She did not want to sound like she was asking for special treatment.
“I found it odd to tell them at a meeting. I thought maybe I should write a memo and let people know personally. But somehow it seemed inappropriate to say I was deaf at the time of a disaster.”
It was hard to continue living together like that. So eventually she made a big decision.
To remove misunderstandings, she decided to write a note to let two of the other women know.
“They said, ‘Oh, I see!’ I could tell from their gestures that the two of them understood. They smiled at me and said I should have told them before. So I bowed and greeted them afresh.”
Then she gave a memo to some other women. And they started treating her kindly.
“Then some emergency supplies arrived, including clothes. One of the middle-aged ladies beckoned to me. She gestured I should choose pink or red clothes because I was young. I was so happy I forgot the sad experiences I had before.”
Because she had plucked up courage to let others know she was deaf, she was able to overcome the communication barrier.
In the meantime, one man had already started supporting the deaf evacuees. This is Shoju Koizumi, the director of the Miyagi Deaf People's Association.
And this is part of the footage of his activities taken at that time.
Koizumi formed a support group for the deaf the day after the earthquake.
The first thing he did was to check whether the deaf people he knew were safe or not. Because he did not receive replies from those who live near the coast, he decided to visit the evacuation sites in person.
Three days after the quake, he visited Iwanuma Gymnasium. At the office, he asked if there were any deaf evacuees, but they said they did not know.
“So I decided to look for them by myself.”
Searching for deaf people among the evacuees, he walked around the same places over and over.
The gym was packed with about 350 evacuees from the coastal areas. At last, Koizumi found some old friends.
They were Mr. and Mrs. Kikuchi, who had evacuated with only the clothes they happened to be wearing because their house had been swept away.
Until they met Koizumi, they had being feeling very stressed and depressed because there was no one they could communicate with through sign language. Once they got reunited, there were so many things they wanted to say.
“They burst into tears when they saw me.”
“And we hugged each other! We’d lost everything, so we were very distressed.”
“Because they were the only deaf people there and so frustrated and stressed, we started talking about many things
in sign language.”
“It was so hard because we were the only deaf people. And my husband is very quiet. After chatting for a while, we recovered our composure.”
Koizumi and his colleagues then gathered sign language interpreters from all over Japan and sent them to the disaster stricken areas.
Interpreters helped deaf evacuees to report their damage and apply for temporary housing.
They are still giving invaluable advice to affected deaf people today.
Professor Tatsuki believes that the disabled should associate with local people on a regular basis.
“The hearing community and the deaf community need to establish a new relationship in which they can understand each other better. It’s essential for disabled people to participate more aggressively in their community as important members of society.”
(Shigeo Tatsuki: Professor, Department of Sociology Doshisha University )
On the day of the disaster, Seiichi Kimita learned about the approaching tsunami from a neighbor.
One year ago(2014), he started teaching sign language at a club where both deaf and hearing people get together. Kimita believes that if more people are able to communicate through sign language, it will be of great help in overcoming the problems of the deaf at the time of a major disaster.
“What made you come here?”
“Well, my friend who’s here with me lost her hearing last year.”
“I started learning sign language at the age of 50.”
“Do you think the deaf people are different from the hearing?”
“No. I think we’re all of equal.”
“How can we get society to treat the hearing and the deaf equally?”
“I wonder how… I’ve no idea.”
“I’m quite aggressive and I step forward and speak!”
“Well... I think we can achieve that if more people learn sign language, and communicate with each other more often.”
The ultimate aim is to create a society where sign language is nothing special.
Shoju Koizumi, who started supporting the deaf right after the disaster, wants to be more active in his local community. He has decided to join an evacuation drill for the first time in the community where he has lived for 20 years.
He is determined to participate so that he can get to know more about the people in the community.
First, he introduces himself to everyone.
Under the instruction of firefighters, they start a life-saving drill.
Koizumi tries to understand by watching the instructor’s gestures. However, he cannot follow everything that is being said.
“I couldn’t understand the whole thing without help. It was a long session from morning till noon. I wanted to leave in the middle!”
“I was watching you and sympathized because you couldn't get all the information.”
While Koizumi was watching the drill, a question arose in his mind.
"What should I do if I found someone fallen on the ground?" He asked one of the firefighters this question.
(Koizumi received CPR coadhing.)
“It’s hard, isn’t it.”
“I selfishly assumed that disabled people had more chance of being saved rather than saving others. During the drill, I tried to make my explanation easy to understand, but it was very hard. So I need to consider how to make it more understandable.”
Deaf residents who were unable to hear critical sounds related to their survival on March the 11th, 2011, are now trying had to mingle with the community to improve the situation in future disasters.
“Not when the emergency happens but before, with your town’s people or with, you know, local government, there has to be a meeting on how people can communicate in these types of situations. Without that communication, deaf people lose that safety net. They lose the help that they could use during an emergency situation. And it doesn't matter if you are a deaf or hearing, people need communication. And that's one thing the whole world shares.”