Mending broken lives in tsunami-hit Japanese city by turning debris into jewellery

Pieces of broken pottery that were picked up by a team of volunteers. The pieces are washed and then cut down to size to be used to make jewellery. After the shards are polished, they are separated based on their shape, size and colour (above).
Pieces of broken pottery that were picked up by a team of volunteers. The pieces are washed and then cut down to size to be used to make jewellery. After the shards are polished, they are separated based on their shape, size and colour (above). These are then selected by the jewellery designers based on the style of the ornaments they are making. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL WONG

ISHINOMAKI, Japan - Piles of shattered plates and smashed teacups are stacked up behind a house in Ishinomaki city, in Japan's Miyagi prefecture, the shattered remnants left behind by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

These pieces are unwanted, seen as trash by everyone... except the Nozomi Project, which turns the shards into jewellery.

Women from Ishinomaki have turned the broken bits into earrings, necklaces and rings that sell for between 1,990 yen (S$24) and 4,000 yen each. Some of these women lost their houses in the disaster, others lost their loved ones. But with the Nozomi project (, they are finding a future to look forward to.

Ishinomaki city, on the coast of Japan's Miyagi prefecture, was one of the nearest urban centres to the devastating 2011 earthquake, and as a result, was one of the worst-hit. Waves of up to 10m washed ashore in the city, killing over 3,000 residents and damaging over 50,000 homes.

Even now, more than three years after the disaster, there are empty plots of land where houses once stood and buildings damaged by the waves can still be found, a sign of how slow recovery has been.

Nozomi means "hope" in Japanese and the project started out as an idea that struck Christian missionary Sue Takamoto in July 2011. She had been helping clear debris in Ishinomaki, picking up broken pottery and thinking it a waste that she could not find a use for the brightly coloured pieces.

When her sister showed her a jewellery catalogue, however, she saw a piece that reminded her of the broken shards. "I thought, 'What if we could make jewellery out of the broken pottery and give women jobs?'" recalled the 50-year-old, who was living in Kobe at that time.

When she moved up to Ishinomaki in March 2012 with her family, she got to know some of the mothers from the area. Among them was Ms Yuko Sasaki, who had worked with jewellery before. An American jewellery maker, Ms Lisa Nakkim, also gave advice to the fledgling team.

They then set up a workshop in a guesthouse belonging to the Huddlestons, another missionary family, before moving to their present location last June. Here, the workers wash the shards and smooth the edges, before turning them into pieces of jewellery.

Work is from Tuesday to Friday, from 9.30am to 3.45pm, though the hours are flexible, so the women can take care of their children or grandchildren.

Mrs Hitomi Oikawa, 40, a soft-spoken mother-of-two, is one of those who benefits from the flexible work arrangement. "I wouldn't have been able to work anywhere else as I also have to take care of my mother-in-law, who's 71," says the necklace designer, who comes in only twice a week, for half a day each time.

The flexible hours also made it possible for fellow designer Tomoko Honma, to work there. "I'm also grateful for the kindness of the people here and the chance to meet new friends," said the 40-year-old, whose sister-in-law was swept away during the disaster.

There are two objectives to the social enterprise, explains Mrs Takamoto. One is to create a sustainable business, and the other is to create a religious community that provides emotional support.

It is hard to argue with the financial success they have had. In their first 13 months, they sold about 8,000 pieces, says Ms Lora Christenberry, 31, a missionary from Tennessee who handles administrative matters for the group. And in its second year, the project pulled in US$90,000 (S$113,000) in profits, though Mrs Takamoto points out that they have not had to bear many of the costs, such as the rent for their work space.

The missionaries take greater joy, however, in the recovery in the lives of the 17 women who currently work there. Many still bear the emotional scars of the trauma they faced.

"My hands tremble whenever I feel a tremor," confides Mrs Honma. "Quakes are so common in Japan that I barely noticed them in the past, but now when the ground shakes, I feel terrified."

Mrs Mika Togashi, a lively 41-year-old who handles finances, was one of the lucky ones, as all her family members survived the disaster, and even her house was relatively unscathed. Still, whenever she was alone, despairing thoughts would start flooding her mind.

It was the same for Mrs Oikawa, who lost her father in the disaster. "When I went to identify my father's body, I saw these small bundles wrapped up in blankets, and I knew they were the bodies of children, and it was awful," she says quietly, admitting that she would often suffer from depression.

But working at the project has changed them and given them a new perspective on life. "It has helped me be more forward-looking," comments Mrs Oikawa.

"Working here, surrounded by laughter, always brightens my day."

There are challenges remaining for the Nozomi Project. One of them is trying to become more well-known in the community and to give support to anyone who may need it.

And as can be expected, remarks Ms Christenberry, personal conflicts do crop up.

But work is a source of comfort. "A number of women have mentioned how much they loved seeing something broken in their hands become useful and beautiful again," reveals Mrs Takamoto.

Mrs Togashi is one of those touched by her experience there. "Sometimes, when I pick up a necklace, the result of different people's work, and I'm part of the process, working with friends, I feel happy," she says softly, two teardrops rolling down her face.

"Working at Nozomi has given me a goal as well as a hope for the future."

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