Last week I brought you the story of Megumi Project and their wonderful work in Onagawa, upcycling kimonos in the wake of the 2011 tsunami. Today I’m so excited to tell you about their sister and friend Nozomi Project in the neighbouring town of Ishinomaki.
Have you ever heard the classic starfish story? Someone walks down onto the beach to find a child picking up starfish that have washed onto shore and putting them back in the ocean. The person says “there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference” and the child replies “it made a difference to that one!” as he throws another starfish back in. This is the story that comes to mind when I think of Nozomi Project, and how they skilfully combine repurposing pottery and rebuilding careers in Ishinomaki.
When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011 Sue and Eric Takamoto were living much further south, in Kobe. They had lived in Sendai previously for 2 years and had friends in the area, so that weekend rented a truck, filled it with supplies and drove north. Although being initially worried that they would get in the way, they found there was many places the government hadn’t been able to get to, and many people with basic needs that they could help with. Over the next year Eric made the 12-hour drive sixteen more times, and they started feeling as though they should relocate.
It was that July that the idea for Nozomi Project first came to Sue. It took several years to complete the clean up in Northern Japan, and one day she was cleaning a park that was full of rubbish washed in by the sea. Everywhere she looked there were shards of broken pottery, and she felt there must be something that could be done with it. A few months later they decided it was time to move. Years of recovery would be needed and there were plenty of obstacles, such as no international schools for their children and the still looming fear of radiation, but they knew they had to do it. By March 2012 the Takamotos had moved.
Sue and Eric put their four children into the local Japanese school in Ishinomaki. At the time, however, the school building was still flooded up to the second floor, with lots of people living temporarily in the upper floors, and instead a bus would take children to a temporary school in the mountains. When taking her children to the bus Sue started talking to different mums, who helped her understand the new school systems and how things worked. At the same time, she saw the desperation of the women. Nearly everyone had worked at least part time before, but now many jobs had been washed away. While most men were able to return to their work, it was mainly women who now had no opportunities. Sue invited one of these mums, Yuko, over for tea and told her her about her idea of a business making jewellery from pottery, only to learn that Yuko had been making pottery as a hobby since she was a little girl and, with no job to speak of, had time to help.
Nozomi Project’s first gathering came soon after. The kids went out to collect pottery that could still be found in the streets and wash it. Sue gathered twenty women together, alongside some tools, and they started learning and experimenting with different ideas, with the aim of just having a go. The second time they gathered a team from California (who knew the organisation Sue worked with) came to see what they were doing, and connected them with an American woman called Lisa who made jewellery. She helped them from afar with design and supplies, and came to Japan with a friend to teach jewellery techniques in person for ten days. After Sue’s family invested their own money and received a grant from Samaritan’s purse, Nozomi Project started paying staff in October 2012, and made their first sales in November/December 2012.
Before I visited Nozomi Project I actually had no idea how you make pottery into jewellery. Luckily I got a tour of their building when I arrived to learn the process:
- Shards were originally collected from the area, but now are often donated from across the country, or sourced from recycling shops. Additionally, because Japan is prone to natural disasters organisations doing relief work in other parts of the country will send pottery they find there too
- Shards are washed, then each piece is examined. Yuko and a small group who have an eye for design will decide what product to make and what piece of the pottery to use, passing the piece on to someone who outlines the chosen part to be cut out
- The shard is then cut to the right shape with a hand cutter, a process which requires strength and precision
- The pieces go to the grinding room, where they are ground in two stages to make them much thinner and smooth to the touch
- The pieces are then attached, either to a hook or inside a frame, depending on which line the item will be part of
- Each line has a name that Nozomi Project staff get to choose. It’s usually the name of a loved one (not necessarily someone who passed away)
- The item is then packaged, and is ready to be sent out
- Additionally, sometimes customers will come with a broken piece of pottery and ask for a custom piece. Once a man came with shards and asked Nozomi Project to make a ring that he could propose with! (not that surprising really, look how gorgeous these rings are)
Nozomi Project has now been going for 4 1/2 years, and they moved into their current building, Nozomi House, in June 2013. Over the years the number of staff have ranged between 14 and 19 women, all of whom were originally found through word of mouth and meeting through the school. For the first few years Nozomi Project didn’t do interviews, instead inviting people in and finding a place for them that fit. Now they have introduced an interview process, and they try to bring new local people in every year, introducing more people to the idea and keeping the project growing and developing. Whilst the women all work in good conditions, with good pay and flexibility, over the years Nozomi Project have also been able to increase salary, health insurance and give regular bonuses as they have grown, as they try to model generosity whenever they can. As Tomoko, a woman who’s been part of Nozomi Project since its beginning, told me ‘I feel like Nozomi is a miracle when I think of how far we’ve come. We started in a small space and found a bigger one. We needed staff and we’d find them. It’s amazing to think about how we’ve gotten here…. It’s more than just a business of talented people working together.’
I loved visiting Nozomi Project myself and, while their set up is a little different from Megumi Project due to using specialised equipment, there is a similar atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship wherever you go. The women were so open, kind and lovely to be around, and when I sat down with Sue she was keen to emphasise that Nozomi Project has been a group endeavour from the beginning, from the first volunteers who collected pottery in the town. ‘We couldn’t have done it without being a large team and having everyone on board. There are a lot of unsung heroes, it’s definitely a team effort’.
We also talked about the milestones that Nozomi Project has seen over the years, and it’s here that one can see how Nozomi Project has provided more than financial stability for its workers. Over the years quality and precision has continued to increase dramatically, as the women have grown in their skills and moved towards perfection and symmetry, which is a great practical achievement. At the same time, however, many people liked the idea of organic, unframed shapes that keep more of the story of the original pottery too, but the women found they couldn’t make these pieces. When the pottery was too close to its original broken form it was too close to home, too much of a reminder of what happened. Workers felt that by making the broken pieces into something perfect they could repurpose and reappropriate the tragedy, and so while the demand for organic jewellery didn’t go away, Nozomi didn’t produce these products. Then in 2016 the workers started suggesting to Sue that they make more organic designs. They had reached a place where they were finally comfortable and ready to make these designs; a much more powerful emotional achievement as Nozomi Project always aims to be a place that provides hope and empowerment to its workers.
The Japanese word nozomi translates to the word hope, and as the disasters move further into the past, with the stories fading from the news and the trauma starting to heal in northern Japan, the concept of hope is changing for Nozomi Project. Chicheko, who works in the grinding room, told me ‘we started because of the disasters, but as time passes and the disasters pass I wants this to continue for as long as possible’
Nozomi Project’s original story was that of a social enterprise providing hope and opportunity to women in Ishinomaki, but now they stand on their own feet as a business, with people buying their products for the craft, quality and design. As they have developed they now hope that their women can provide hope to the rest of the world, as they take something broken and make it into something beautiful. As Sue summarised ‘It’s bigger than ourselves, there’s something universal about the need for hope. Although our women have been through suffering they have something to offer to others in the midst of it’.
I also sat down with some of the Nozomi Project workers to hear more about their stories. There’s a clear sense of identity, comfort and pride when they talk about Ishinomaki, Nozomi Project and the friends they’ve found.
‘I’ve been moved by how we work as a community… I love seeing the people here. I really feel like the people make Nozomi and are such an important part of it. We all are really kind and loving to each other. And accepting of each person’ – Tomoko
‘It’s not normal to have people of the same age and background all working together in Japan. It’s wonderful to work with people who you have things in common with and can be friends with. Everyone is so supportive of each other’ – Yuka
‘In a normal Japanese company there’s a hierarchy but that doesn’t exist at Nozomi Project. There’s no sense of tiers, we all work together’ – Chicheko
And, just like Megumi Project, the main hope that is repeated to me countless times during my stay is for Nozomi Project to become more known worldwide, and that their products would bring joy to people and spread that to others. As much as their designs are sustainable, ethical and gorgeous, it’s their idea of finding beauty from brokenness that resonates with me most. My time with Nozomi Project, and spending time with the workers, was a real privilege and joy, and the feeling of nozomi, of hope, truly resonates throughout the building.
And so I’ll leave you with Chicheko’s words:
‘I really love looking at a piece at pottery and thinking “how could this become jewellery?” It’s amazing that something dirty and ugly can actually become something really beautiful’
Until next time, stay magic y’all
Post created in collaboration with Nozomi Project
(Again, thanks to both Nozomi and Megumi for helping me get to Northern Japan and just being the most wonderful organisations!)