While Fashion Revolution Week has come to an official end, I’m hoping that its messages last beyond one week each year. This year one of the prompts was around the idea of a clothing love story, with the hashtag loved clothes last. This usually refers to the longevity of an item: if it’s made with love and care it can last a lifetime, if its loved by you it lasts in your wardrobe, and if you’re a committed second hander items can be passed from owner to owner to be loved all over again.
While all of this is true, my time in Japan with the amazing Megumi Project showed me that loved clothes lasting doesn’t mean they have to always last in the same form, as they give new life to countless kimonos across Japan.
Many of you will remember the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. The town of Onagawa, located in Miyagi prefecture in North East Japan, was hit particularly hard. 10% of the population lost their lives and 80% of the town’s was washed away, with 60% of residents moved into temporary housing. While volunteers were plentiful in the neighbouring town of Ishinomaki, which was also hit badly, there were very few volunteers in Onagawa because there was almost nothing left.
The destruction left by the tsunami was what led Lorna Gilbert, Megumi Project founder, and her husband to Onagawa. They’d been living in Fukuoka prefecture for several years but, after initially coming to hand out supplies, they felt compelled to move and see how they could help meet the needs in Onagawa, and by June they had relocated. With many people leaving in search of work in bigger cities (countless numbers lost their jobs after the disasters) they decided to try and set up some sort of business that could provide jobs to locals, giving them the means to stay in the place they called home.
But it was important to figure out what that could look like. The last thing Lorna wanted was to create something that forced itself on people instead of really listening and responding to the need. As Lorna told me ‘It’s about doing it with people, not for people’. After finding a place to live, a whole miracle story in itself, Lorna found herself living 2 doors away from Youko Kato, lovingly known as Kato San, who came to her with an idea. Kato had been upcycling kimonos as a hobby for over 30 years, and after the disasters began making things as products to sell. There’s a long tradition in Japan of upcycling kimonos which stretches back as far as the Edo period (1603-1868), and which Kato continued in her own repurposing of kimonos and yukatas. Like many others who now donate theirs to Megumi project, Kato had unused kimonos lying around at home and figured that if she didn’t find a use for them they’d be eaten by moths. After meeting Lorna she reached out to her for help in expanding into a bigger business.
And so Megumi Project was born, producing a range of upcycled items including journals, bags, scarves, ties, hair accessories and jewellery in endless unique variations. In Japanese the word megumi means grace or blessing, and this has always been a core value of the project. In all of its operations, both creatively and as an employer, Megumi Project aims to foster community and personal development for its workers, whilst also providing a sense of grace and hope in the wake of what Onagawa has been through.
Megumi Project started with just two workers, Miyuki Watanabe and Yuko Karino, who didn’t even know how to sew (Kato San taught them), and now the project has expanded to employ eight local women; all of them were directly affected by the tsunami and seven of them are mothers. Megumi Project staff have been found through word of mouth, meaning that everyone who works together are good friends too, something which is immediately obvious when you step into their workshop. Laughter and jokes flow constantly between the women, which is infectious even if you have minimal knowledge of the language like me. As Miyuki told me ”Before this job I never looked forward to work but now I do… I won’t say it’s funner than my house, but it’s close’.
When looking for staff Megumi Project looked not just for workers but for women who needed hope and community in the wake of a tragedy that affected everyone in Onagawa. Megumi Project believe that doing something with others can bring a hope for the future. Each employee first learns to unpick kimonos to build their confidence. If they mess up their sewing there’s no need to worry, they already know how to pull it apart again. In this way Megumi Project instils the idea of extending grace to oneself from the beginning, removing the fear of harsh discipline and replacing it with a love for the work instead.
As Megumi Project started without a strict business plan in place, each woman’s role in the company has evolved organically to fit their personalities and talents. Miyuki liked taking pictures, so became a product photographer. Workers Keiko and Yumi were making resin for jewellery and upcycled headbands at home, so they started making these for Megumi Project too. Everyone has a role that fits and helps them develop, and Megumi call their style of working ‘slow living meets the Japanese way’. The workplace culture in Japan can be notoriously tough, with people working extremely hard for long hours, but Megumi Project aim to have a different culture that people can also enjoy, and this difference is evident.
I interviewed every Megumi worker individually. Before coming to work at Megumi many of them had been in very different places; working in fish processing factories, food processing plants, for Onagawa council, at a nuclear power plant and some were housewives. They all speak highly of the jobs they do now:
‘This is a place where I feel calm and reassured. A place of warmth, on the days I don’t work I start missing it’ – Satoko Murakami
With so much of the town destroyed, at the beginning Megumi Project also couldn’t settle in any permanent premises. But no matter how many impossibilities they faced, answers have always been found. As the typography of Onagawa continues to be built today, filling in valleys and raising the town as high as an extra 9m above sea level, Megumi occupy a custom built trailer that can be moved. It was this trailer that I visited; where I worked unpicking kimonos, ate veggie ramen and joked with the women of Megumi. A chance meeting with Suzuki, a local entrepreneur and head of the tourist association who is heavily involved in the redevelopment of Onagawa, saw not only Megumi’s trailer finding an excellent location for minimal rent (so money can be reinvested back into the business instead), but also saw a shop open in the newly built town centre of Onagawa. The store not only serves as a milestone that allows them to expand further, but also gives them a wider presence in the town as they work to share and be actively involved in local Onagawa community.
As the story of the tsunami fades into the past, Onagawa is a stark reminder that disasters don’t get fixed overnight just because we stop reading about them in the news. With the full clean up taking several years, most of the town is still being built today. Just metres from the shop is the seafront, where a large building still lies on its side after toppling in 2011. But through all this Megumi Project has persisted and participated. Onagawa, at heart a quaint seaside town, is turning its eye to tourism and Megumi is a part of that. In a town that many chose the leave, the Megumi Project workers all chose to stay, and they told me what they love about Onagawa. They tell me about the warmth of the people and the laid back atmosphere, about how those in the town support each other and have a vitality about them, and how they hope that Megumi project continues to be a core part of Onagawa in the future.
When it comes to their hopes for the future every one of them told me variations of the same thing:
‘I want us all to work together for a long time, until we’re old’ – Miyuki Watanabe
‘Every day is a party…I want to work here for a long time, even when I’m old’ – Keiko Okamoto
‘That people would come to know Megumi, and value and love our products’ – Satoko Murakami
‘I want people to rediscover the value of the kimono through Megumi project, to feel comfortable incorporating the kimono into their daily wear in different ways’ – Miyuki Naoe
I also had a long talk with Megumi Project around the implications of non-Japanese people and the kimono, but the Japanese see the spreading usage of kimonos in different ways as a good thing (I asked every person on this trip their feelings on it). The kimono is a valuable part of Japan’s history but it has mostly disappeared from everyday use, now mainly reserved for events such as weddings and funerals, due to both a rise in popularity of western style clothing and a declining knowledge of how to properly dress oneself in a kimono (a process that’s complex and requires other people to help put it on). Nowadays 30 billion dollars worth of kimonos sit unused all over Japan, but repurposing and upcycling into other items is also a key part of the kimono’s history. The Japanese term mottanai refers to a refusal to be wasteful and a respect of your resources; Megumi Project considers themselves part of this tradition as they find responsible uses for the huge numbers of kimonos donated to them from across the country, whilst also honouring the kimono’s history and spreading knowledge of the kimono across the world.
When it comes to the future, Megumi Project don’t exactly know what’s next, but they’re happy to say that their last worker moved out of temporary housing in April 2017. In a world where we so often have to ask who made our clothes, it was such a joy to spend time with an organisation doing things right. Every woman is so happy to be there, in each others company, and they spent the two days I was with them laughing constantly. I truly hope that the story, and notoriety of Megumi Project will be one that continues and grows for a very very long time. I hope one day I can return to Onagawa to find the same bunch of women now-old ladies, laughing, designing and sewing together still.
‘We could never have imagined to be where we are today. But we hope to always be the core of who we are regardless of circumstance. To always be megumi, always be grace, to others’
Until next time, stay magic y’all
Post created in collaboration with Megumi Project (huge thank you to Megumi for helping me get to them from Tokyo and giving me a change to ride my first Shinkansen. Such an adventure!)