Mr Abe is one of the thousands of tsunami survivors who lost their homes in the Tohoku tsunami on March 11th 2011. He now lives with his wife and daughter at the Kasetsu Ohashi Danchi Temporary home in Ishinomaki. Tsunami shelters or temporary homes now dot the Ishinomaki landscape and they look very similar to the trailer parks that you would find in North America. We spoke with Mr Abe to learn what life in a shelter is like.
When did you move into the shelter?
May 11th. 2 months after the tsunami.
What kind of essentials were you provided with when you moved in?
This shelter came equipped with six essential items:
1. An air conditioner
2. A television
3. A refrigerator
4. A washing machine
5. A microwave oven
6. A rice cooker.
Because the air conditioner is installed in 1 room, only that particular room will have temperature control. The temperatures in the non air conditioned rooms fluctuate into the extremes depending on the season. (Note: not all tsunami shelters come equipped with the basic essentials. We spoke with another resident who lives at a different shelter and we were told that the shelter she lives at, did not have central heating or insulation installed until recently.)
What is the size of the residential space in the shelter?
The living room is 6 tataimi mats, the tea room is 4.5 tatami mats, and the kitchen is 4.5 tatami mats. The bathroom and the toilet are also 4.5 tatami mats. (Note: 4½ tatami mats = 2.73m × 2.73m). The closet together with the door way is also 4.5 tatami mats. Each shelter unit is around 24 tatami mats. This translates to about 40 square meters. The living room and tea room double as bedrooms at night. Essentially each shelter unit comes with 2 bedrooms, a kitchen, 1 toilet and 1 bathroom. This is a shelter unit for a family size of 5 to 6 people. The shelter for a household of 2 is slightly smaller.
What is the shelter application and selection process like? How are people deemed to qualify being allotted a shelter residence?
Applicants need to apply to city hall; city hall will then classify them into categories: Families with children, families with disabilities etc. The applicants will then be balloted for available shelter space.
Immediately after the tsunami there were some survivors who were living in temporary shelters such as the gyms at the local schools. Were they transferred to these temporary housing units once the housing units were ready?
Most of the people who were staying at the schools are still there. I stayed with some relatives for a month or so before moving into this shelter. About 468 families made up by 1107 people now call this shelter home.
When did the last family move into this shelter? Are there still families waiting to move in?
Between last May and August about 270 families moved into this temporary shelter. They shared a common Self Defense portable public bath during that period. After the Self Defense removed the common bath, the authorities expanded the number of residential spaces so more families could move in.
The second batch of families moved in on September 22nd. There are about 5 to 10 families who have managed to rebuild their homes or have found alternative permanent housing and are in the process of moving out. The vacated temporary homes will then be allocated to other families who need them.
There are unoccupied shelters in the suburbs, but these are mostly empty because they are in a remote location, which makes it difficult for people without transportation to commute for work and shopping. It seems that the overall housing situation in Ishinomaki has stabilized because we do not see many new residents moving into the vacated shelters. City hall has opened up the excess housing for volunteers who have come to help with the reconstruction in the area.
Is this shelter housing situation temporary or has the government set a definite end date for people to move out by?
By law, we are allowed to stay in these shelters for two years. But the government might extend the lease to five years because of the earlier precedent set by the Hanshin Earthquake. The victims from that incident were eventually allowed to remain in their temporary homes for five years. I do not think that two years is long enough to properly resolve our housing situation. I hope that we are given the three year extension to five years as well. Usually people living in the shelters expect the government to build a co-op apartment that they could move into, which is a better solution than living permanently in a shelter or rebuilding their original houses. I could rebuild my home in its original location but my wife and daughter have been traumatized by disaster and prefer not to move back for now. So we will remain at this shelter for now.
What were the problems you encountered when you first moved in?
The main problem right now is the lack of space. The shelters as you can see are very small, so personal space is a luxury right now. The housing arrangement I have right now, is that we have three people living in the temporary home that we have been assigned to. There is my wife, my daughter and myself. My other daughter comes back and stays with us on the weekends. So on the weekends there are four of us living here. Before we moved into our temporary home, I was living with my wife’s parents. After a while the lack of private space caused a lot of stress to build up and I could not wait to move out into my own place. We moved into this shelter as soon as it was offered to us by the government. I did not realize back when we fist moved in, that personal space was going to be an issue here as well. I have been taught a very good lesson (laughs).
Are the housing units properly insulated? We have heard that there are some temporary housing units that lack proper insulation and were very cold during the winter.
Luckily for us, the Kasetsu Ohashi Danchi Temporary Home is in a good location so we do not really feel the effects of the weather as the seasons change. Except for the space constraint, the shelter we live in is quite comfy.
Are you charged any rent for living in a shelter like this? Are there any bills you have to pay out of your own pocket?
The shelter is rent free but we pay for our own utility bills. Two years rent is waivered for any tsunami victims who have lost their homes. This includes people living in a shelter or co-op apartment lodging. If the government extends the temporary housing lease to five years, co-op apartment dwellers will also get to stay where they are rent free for five years as well.
What happens to households who have members who are unable to work and have no means of income?
That is a big problem that is facing the country right now. Older people get by with a pension from the government, while people with no income are getting by with either public donations or government subsidies. Grants of up to US$10,000 have been dispersed to each household that reports financial hardship. Everyone is able to feed themselves and buy food so they are ok for now. There was a survey that reported that unemployment within the disaster zone is now at 50% but I do not really believe it. Everyone is doing their best to reorganize and restart their respective area’s economies. Currently, there are more than 7000 people who left their hometowns in the northern Miyagi region. These people simply resettled in Sendai or the Furuwaka region, so the population of Miyagi prefecture itself has not seen an adverse decline since the tsunami.
How has the process to apply for government aid been? Was there a lot of bureaucracy involved?
It is easy. There is no means testing involved. But getting allocated temporary housing is mostly the luck of the draw because you are balloted for a place. If your name fails to be drawn you remain on the waiting list. The entire government aid process is transparent and information is easily obtainable if you need to read up on the application process. City hall is doing a great job of disseminating the information out to the community and we are encouraged to tell needy people we encounter about the aid process.
What do you think of the government’s response to the disaster? What is your outlook for the future of Ishinomaki?
I believe the government is doing a good job with how it is handling the housing and reconstruction situation. Although progress is slow, I feel optimistic that things are getting better and will improve.
Everyone wants to find a way to get our lives back on track, but there are a few who feel despondent. They have no means of income and see no opportunities ahead of them. They have become very depressed, withdraw from life and may even become suicidal. Our government still does not have an effective way to deal with this problem and I worry for these people. Hopefully the community will step up and help those who need some form of human contact to overcome their loneliness. We have made it a point at this shelter to have frequent community activities and we check in with our neighbors on their mental state on a regular basis. Especially the ones who we think might be emotionally vulnerable.
To you, the visitor, everything looks good but it is not. I have no real complaints now unless I want to nitpick (laughs).
I understand that many people have been affected and probably traumatized by the disaster but I am optimistic for the future. I believe that all of us should focus on the future. Even though the future might remain uncertain, we have survived this disaster and we will continue to rebuild our home. I want to thank everyone from around the world who has lent us their support in one way or another. From the bottom of my heart, thank you all for helping the Japanese people.