Japan beyond 3.11 Stories of Recovery

Women-friendly Evacuation Sites

This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on April 13, 2015

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Four years ago (2011), the Great East Japan Earthquake devastated the Tohoku region, especially the coastal areas.

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Over 2,000 evacuation shelters were set up in the disaster-stricken areas. They were packed with people, many of whom had no option but to live communally for a long period.

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Women, in particular, had to endure many inconveniences.

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“I used to get changed in bed, wrapped in a sheet.”
(Woman A)

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“It was difficult using the toilets, because they were used by both men and women.”
(Yoko Ono)

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“We had no sanitary goods, so everyone went around asking if anyone had any….”
(Sayaka Hoshi)

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However, many of the women kept their problems to themselves. They felt they had to endure the situation because it was an emergency, and there was no room for complaining.

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In what ways could evacuation shelters be made more women-friendly? Bonnie Waycott investigates.

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“Following the March 11th disaster four years ago (2011), women in the evacuation centers had their fears and concerns, things they felt uncomfortable talking about or that were difficult for men to understand. What was done to meet their needs and requests? In our program, we’ll look at how evacuation centers in Tohoku were managed to cater to the needs of women.”
(Bonnie Waycott: Reporter)

Women-friendly Evacuation Sites (Rerun)
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Minamisanriku-cho in Miyagi Prefecture suffered tremendous damage in the Great East Japan Earthquake.

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More than 3,000 houses were completely destroyed, forcing around 10,000 people to move to shelters.

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Around 800 of the victims in Minamisanriku-cho evacuated to neighboring Tome City, which was not as badly affected by the earthquake. The evacuees were grouped together by district and sent to live in gymnasiums, community centers and other venues in 11 locations.

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This is the former Masubuchi Elementary School, which had been closed before the earthquake.

Footage after the earthquake

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Three weeks after the earthquake, it was turned into a shelter for 117 people from Nakase-machi in Minamisanriku-cho.

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“We’ve arrived.”
(Tokuro Sato)

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This is Tokuro Sato, President of the Nakase-machi Neighborhood Association.

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“I’m sure it’s not going to be easy, but let’s do our best together. Thank you.”
(Tokuro Sato)

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Most of the shelters were run by members of local neighborhood associations. Sato was placed in charge of Masubuchi Elementary School. He played a variety of roles: organizing the waste dump and the cooking roster, as well as coordinating with the Tome City Office.

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“I’ve confirmed that it’s okay for people to drive to the baths. The fee hasn’t changed.”
(Tokuro Sato)

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He was inundated with work, which included everything from laying down the rules for communal living in the shelter to accepting volunteer workers and making arrangements for the delivery of emergency supplies.

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Four years have passed since then. Bonnie visits Sato, who is still living in temporary housing. (2015)

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What was going through Sato’s mind at the time he was running the shelter?

“The biggest issue was making sure that everyone was treated equally, all 117 of the evacuees. Some people went out during the day to run errands or go to work, and supplies would sometimes arrive when there was no one around. I would accept the supplies, and distribute them at night, or ask people to take the items they wanted. People living in the shelter had lost everything, and unfairness was the biggest potential cause of problems. So I paid particular attention to making sure that everyone was treated equally.”
(Tokuro Sato)

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People had nowhere to live, and had lost touch with their relatives and friends. Sato did his best to ensure that they would not give up.

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But there was one thing he failed to notice at the time. It was the feeling of anxiety and discontent among the women. Most of them had escaped with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. So the first problem they faced was finding clothes.

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“I had to keep wearing the same clothes until the supplies arrived. That was when I could change for the first time.”
(Woman B)

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“There was a shortage of clothes, so we were only given the bare minimum….”
(Woman C)

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“We wore anything that wasn’t too small, even if it was too big!”
(Woman D)

Moreover, space was limited, and there was nowhere for the women to change in private.

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“I used to get changed in bed, wrapped in a sheet. There was no privacy.”
(Woman A)

“That was our biggest problem.”
(Woman C)

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Even after receiving new clothes, there was nowhere to dry the laundry. Everything had to be dried outside, which was embarrassing.

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“I used to cover all our laundry with a towel. My daughter’s at a sensitive age and she hated people seeing her clothes. So I used to surround the clothes with a towel to cover them up.”
(Woman B)

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At that time, around 70 people were living communally at the Toyoma Budokan shelter, and the women there had problems, too.

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Yoko Ono was one of them. She was forced to live at this shelter for three months.

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These shelves were used to hold the sanitary goods that had been sent with the supplies. They were laid out so that women could quickly find what they wanted, whenever they needed it. But there were also men staying there not far from the shelves.

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“When I thought no one was watching, I would quickly stuff the things into my pocket, and then walk off nonchalantly. That’s what it was like.”
(Yoko Ono)

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Using the toilets was another problem. The toilets at this facility were old and could not be used, so four portable toilets were set up behind the building. However…

“They were used by both men and women, but, of course, men and women have different needs. So it became very difficult to use the toilets.”
(Yoko Ono)

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The women were also concerned about the toilets being set up outside in a deserted place.

“Some dubious people also sometimes came to the shelter. They spoke very roughly, and it was like they just wanted to check out what was going on here. It was really quite scary.”
(Yoko Ono)

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As women began their life at the shelters, they were struggling with the kind of anxieties and stress that men are unfamiliar with. But they kept their problems to themselves, not wanting to make a big deal of it.

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The difficulties faced by women were not limited to the shelters in Tome City. These problems were shared by women at all the other shelters.

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Etsuko Yahata from a women’s support group inspected many of them. She points out that blind spots were created by the fact that most shelters were run by men.

“It’s taken for granted that all leaders are men. I think all the evacuees had feelings of discontent. But I think it was particularly difficult for women. For example, it was always the women who had to do the cooking. When their babies cried, they had to go outside in the cold, or sleep in the corridor. But I think they kept it to themselves for fear of being thought of as being selfish if they asked for spaces reserved for women.
(Etsuko Yahata: Women's Support Group)

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One month after the earthquake, emergency supplies began pouring into the shelters around Tome City.

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Food, clothing and other supplies were distributed among the evacuees, but there was one item the women were reluctant to ask for. It was makeup, including skin care lotions and other cosmetics.

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“In fact, no one said out loud that they wanted makeup. Given the situation they were in, I think they felt it was somehow inappropriate, or even indulgent to worry about makeup.”
(Yoko Ono)

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“We went everywhere without wearing any makeup. It couldn’t be helped.”
(Woman B)

“After about a month, my niece came up from Tokyo to visit me. When she saw my face, she was shocked! That’s how disheartened we were, and I must’ve looked completely worn out.”
(Woman C)

The women refrained from asking for makeup, thinking it was inappropriate for the situation they were in.

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Tokuro Sato was rushed off his feet running the shelter, and he did not notice this particular problem.

“We were living in a shelter in a state of emergency. Cosmetics aren’t regarded as luxury items to women, of course, but given the situation in which it was difficult to even go out, they were not absolute necessities. We had to prioritize our survival when asking for supplies, so the women had to refrain from asking for such items.”

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Four and a half months passed. One woman offered the women at shelters a helping hand. It was Akemi Suto. She established a support group of five citizens from Tome City after the earthquake, to help women at shelters.

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First they decided to go around shelters in the city gathering opinions from them.


“We gathered the women in rooms like this to listen to what they wanted to say.”
(Akemi Suto)

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Suto asked the women if they had any grievances, or anything they wanted. But she found that the women were very reluctant to speak out at first. However, as she spent more time with them and won their trust, they began voicing their grievances about the sizes of clothes and underwear, and the lack of cosmetics.

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“We had never even imagined that women would face those problems at shelters. But listening to their stories made us realize how difficult life was for them. Being women ourselves, we thought we could help. We decided to try and provide them with the items they really wanted.”
(Akemi Suto)

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“How did you provide support?”

“We made these personal request forms, and we asked every single woman to fill one out with all their information.”
(Akemi Suto)

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Included in the list were different types and sizes of underwear, which women had particular trouble with.

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With the lack of privacy, it was also difficult to obtain sanitary goods.

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Then there were the cosmetics that they normally used. Suto’s group made sure the women got what they really wanted, but were afraid of asking for.

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“So you had cosmetics? The brand is important, too.”

“Yes, you want the brand you’re used to.”
(Akemi Suto)

“Women have different needs, like thick cream or special cream for dry skin.”

“Many people have allergies, for example, so they can only use specific brands. We tried to meet their needs.”
(Akemi Suto)

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Around 300 of these request forms were gathered. Then, with the help of the Tome City Office, companies and volunteer organizations nationwide were asked to help, resulting, one month later, in the delivery of many of the supplies that the women had asked for.

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“We wanted to help women regain even a little of their former lifestyle that they’d had until the morning of March 11th, 2011.”
(Akemi Suto)

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The women at shelters were at last able to get their hands on items they had refrained from indulging in.

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“It amazed me just how much women care about little things. They tend to be quite fussy about their makeup and their underwear. So I think it was a huge help to everyone.”
(Yoko Ono)

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“We were given all kinds of things…. We accepted them without a moment’s thought, but it was really amazing. I think it was the motivation of the people who sent us the supplies that allowed us to move forward.”
(Woman C)

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“What was it like seeing the women’s response?”

“Well, maybe it’s an exaggeration to say they regained a sense of dignity, but at least I think it really brightened them up. I was so grateful for the kind of support we men would never have thought of!”

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“I’ve come to understand just how important it was for women in the evacuation centers to be heard and for their needs and requests to be answered. Seeing the effort that was made to do this, such as dividing goods according to age and size, was very impressive; it can’t have been easy to answer each and every single request that came in.”

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In the more than 2,000 shelters, there were some places where women’s needs were being met from immediately after the disaster.

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This is Watari Elementary School in Watari-cho, Miyagi Prefecture. It is located about three kilometers from the coastline, and many local residents and people who had escaped the tsunami began gathering here immediately.

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It became a shelter for around 850 people.

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The first thing they did was set up toilets for women. The gymnasium toilets could not be used at the time because the water supply had been cut off. So they focused on the sports equipment storage room next to the entrance.

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It was full of all kinds of equipment, so they moved everything outside.

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They then set up five emergency toilets that had been stored at the school. They were individually partitioned with cardboard walls to turn the storage room into a toilet exclusively for women.

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“It was really cold in the gym that day, so there was a big demand for the toilets. There was a long line to use them. I really wanted everyone’s privacy to be protected as a priority… I personally felt rather uncomfortable about being seen by men, you know what it’s like… I really don’t like sharing toilets with them. That was the point!”
(Hiromi Okamoto: Watari-cho Public Office worker)

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Yuka Kikuchi and Sayaka Hoshi were among the evacuees who had taken refuge at the gymnasium. They say they felt comfortable about using the storage room toilets.

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“The administrators quickly worked out the best ways to ensure cleanliness in the shelter. As a result, conditions here remained very hygienic.”
(Yuka Kikuchi)

“Yes, the toilets were very hygienic.”
(Sayaka Hoshi)

Municipal employees kept watch over the toilets all night. They explained how to use them, provided lighting and worked hard to maintain hygiene.

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They also discreetly distributed items that women did not want to be seen by the men. They decided to hand out sanitary goods and underwear in the women’s changing room, which the men were not allowed to enter.

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“This is the kind of place that makes women feel safe.”

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The changing room was also used for drying underwear. This is how the women’s privacy was maintained.

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Two weeks after the earthquake, further steps were taken to help mothers with young children.

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As the number of evacuees slowly began to dwindle, a small area was set aside. Toys were put there to allow the children to play.

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“Although the mothers were filled with feelings of loneliness and anxiety, we couldn’t let the children feel like that, so we decided to make a place where they could play.”
(Reiko Watanabe: Watari-cho Public Office worker)

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How did they manage to set up a system at Watari Elementary School to meet the needs of women?

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It was because seven out of the eight municipal employees placed in charge of running the shelter were women who were health and welfare experts or child care workers. Many of the male municipal employees were busy handling emergencies at the City Office and other shelters, so it was purely by chance that these women were left to run this shelter.

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“It was only later that I realized it was run mainly by women, and that’s why the staff were so easy to talk to. All decisions were reached through consensus.”
(Kaori Hohi)

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“To try and figure out what to do, we struggled desperately by pooling everyone’s knowledge.”
(Hiromi Okamoto)

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“Many people kept arriving, but we had to take care of everyone. We were up to our neck in things that had to be done immediately, so we really had no time to think deeply….”
(Reiko Watanabe)

They ran the shelter on a trial-and-error basis, but in the end they were able to pay the kind of attention to detail that is a forte of women.

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Shelters need to be places where women can feel secure even in an emergency. This prompted Sendai City to launch a new initiative after the earthquake.

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They began training disaster prevention leaders, who would run shelters in emergencies. They have been investing particular effort into training women.

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Around one hundred women have so far become disaster prevention leaders. They are currently educating residents in their local communities on how to be better prepared for emergencies.

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“Urine absorption pads are not things you can talk very openly about, but you may not be able to keep changing your underwear, so they’re very useful. If you carry a few spares in your bag, they’ll definitely come in handy during emergencies.”
(Leader, Women for the Prevention of Disasters)

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Sendai City experienced the Great East Japan Earthquake. They are now eager for the women disaster prevention leaders to take part in running the shelters in future emergencies.

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“In the evacuation centers I visited, there were many needs and requests that were specific to women. I could tell how the women I met pulled together and because they were women there were many areas they could address. Managing evacuation centers to cater to the needs of women is one example of identifying and rectifying an area that can easily be overlooked in a disaster.”

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