As someone who scours the media in Japan for mentions of issues surrounding disability, I have been impressed by the reporting of the Kumamoto earthquakes. In the Japanese media, the issue of disability often gets overlooked, so it was heartening to see that a number of newspapers had focused on the difficulties disabled people face when disaster strikes.
However, far less heartening was the story that subsequently unfolded about Kumamoto Prefecture’s pre-quake planning — or lack thereof — and post-quake measures for disabled evacuees. The Mainichi Shimbun, reporting the day after the biggest quake on the night on April 16, highlighted the situation of two people with disabilities who had to evacuate their homes and take refuge in a shelter: Kiyofumi Sakamoto, aged 66, paralyzed down the left side of his body since a brain hemorrhage, and Tomiko Baba, aged 84, who has Parkinson’s.
Sakamoto, a resident of Mashiki, had to evacuate to a local elementary school. Since his adapted nursing-care bed could not be moved inside the emergency shelter, he had been sleeping on cardboard. His wife, 63-year-old Kikuko, had been changing his diapers and helping him bathe, a task made all the more difficult by the loss of electricity.
Baba had difficulty using the toilet at the shelter, since she uses a wheelchair. Baba’s daughter said of her mother, “She’s unstable emotionally, and seems to be unable to relax and get to sleep.” The pair had to spend at least one night in a car, risking economy-class syndrome.
Sakamoto’s and Baba’s ordeals, it is easy to imagine, must be similar to those suffered by many of the elderly and disabled affected by the earthquake, and I applaud the Mainichi for raising awareness of this. However, even in those early stages, there were signs that things could have been planned better.
“The Kumamoto municipal government opened 10 shelters on April 16 that would be easier for individuals with disabilities to navigate, but as of April 17, only 13 people were utilizing them,” the Mainichi reported. “The reason appears to be a lack of knowledge about their existence, so municipal officials are going around regular emergency shelters to inform disabled evacuees.”
In an article published by The Japan Times on April 20, Tatsue Yamazaki, an associate professor of disaster nursing at Tokyo Medical University, expressed her concern about the lack of awareness on the ground in Kumamoto about the specific needs of certain groups of evacuees.
“Governments should create shelters for people with special needs, including the sick, the disabled and pregnant women,” Yamasaki said, referring to so-called welfare evacuation centers — centers that local governments are required by law to designate for use by the more vulnerable members of society in the event of a disaster.
“The need for such shelters was intensively discussed after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, but local government officials I talked with in Kumamoto had no idea that such shelters were needed,” she said.
Almost a week later, on April 26, The Japan News reported: “In Kumamoto, where the number of evacuees is highest, only 37, or 20 percent, of the 176 facilities designated as welfare evacuation centers by the city government have actually admitted these types of evacuees.”
So what happened? It appears that these specially designated centers were unable to adequately serve the people they were supposed to partly, of course, due to damage caused by the quakes, but more worryingly, also because they were, prior to the quakes, already working at full capacity or lacked the staff required to offer a basic level of care.
Asked why none of its five welfare evacuation centers had taken in any elderly or disabled evacuees, a Mashiki town government worker said: “Every evacuation center is filled with general evacuees. We can’t even dispatch caretakers, and no facility is serving as a welfare evacuation center. ”
As a disabled person living in Japan (who, coincidentally, is also married to a woman with a disability), I find the situation facing people with disabilities in the Kumamoto quake zone disturbing. I understand that before earthquakes occur, there is only so much you can do to prepare for them, and that it will always be a difficult task to attend to the needs of disabled people in a disaster zone. However, the scale of the apparent lack of resources to accommodate disabled people after the quakes is shocking.
Being a resident with a particular severity of disability here, I am in possession of a “physical disability certificate” — a certificate obtained by registering my disability status at my local ward welfare office. By registering, I have the right to receive certain benefits, and the first time I applied for this, I had to submit a report from a physician that confirmed my status as a disabled person — a perfectly reasonable request.
I had assumed that such a rigorous process meant that the local city ward would at least have some knowledge of my needs as a disabled person, as the local welfare office has my address and information about my disability. Is it not then reasonable to expect that in the event of a major disaster, local government would at least know of the whereabouts and the specific needs of disabled people to whom local disaster relief services may have to attend — and would have prepared accordingly?
Josh Grisdale of Accessible Japan (www.accessible-japan.com) contributed to this article. Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic living in Kobe. His e-book “Gaijin Story: Tales of a British Disabled Man in Japan” is available on Amazon. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org