Nine years after the tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan, a team of women in Ishinomaki are upcycling shards of broken pottery into pieces of jewelry that are sold around the world. Makery went to visit.
Ishinomaki, special report (words and photos)
Tucked away inside a little house situated in a residential neighborhood of Ishinomaki in northeastern Japan, local women are busy at work—cutting, cleaning, grinding, crafting, packaging, photographing, documenting, accounting. Upstairs in the dusty grinding room, inside crates stacked on tables, lie piles of broken dishes, bowls, vases and tea cups, awaiting a new life. Yumi holds a plate of ceramic pieces that have just been cut and cleaned, ready for grinding. Chiemi is grinding a bigger piece into a complex shape. In the next room, Tomomi pulls open drawers of colorfully polished pieces sorted and fitted with metal parts to be crafted into necklace pendants and earrings.
She points out a trapezoid pendant filled with shards of silver-glazed porcelain, surrounding a red chop kanji that signifies becoming fattened, fertile, enriched, successful. This piece is perhaps most symbolic of Nozomi’s journey: scattered lives and broken community reunited in a harmonious jigsaw of interlocked relations centered around shared values and recycled debris, evolving symbiotically as a team.
The Nozomi project began in 2012—as the Tohoku region of Japan was struggling to rebuild from the annihiliating tsunami of March 11, 2011—as an idea to remake the ubiquitous shards of pottery into something beautiful, to restore hope and unity from the surrounding brokenness. Today, Nozomi (which siginifies “hope” in Japanese) unites a dozen women in the coastal town of Ishinomaki who had lost homes, jobs and local community, working together to produce uniquely designed jewelry from raw ceramic debris, destined for buyers around the world. In March 2019, Japan’s First Lady Akie Abe even paid a visit to the little house, wearing a Nozomi necklace.
But the project’s 7-year journey wasn’t without its share of bumps along the road, especially at the beginning. Yuko Sasaki, Nozomi’s manager, recalls how she first met Sue Plumb Takamoto, the woman who started it all.
About a year after the 2011 tsunami, Sue and her family of six moved from Hyogo prefecture to Ishinomaki, as part of a team of Japanese and American Christians called Be One. Sue’s oldest son Owen and Yuko’s son Shuya became 3rd grade classmates, and Shuya would excitedly tell his mother about his new American friend. “At first, I didn’t believe it,” says Yuko. “At the time there was still a lot of rubble and water around our house. In my mind, there was no way anyone could possibly move to Ishinomaki when it was in that state.”
As their school was being used as an evacuation center, every morning the students would gather at the bus stop to transfer to another school. Yuko recalls: “One day when I was walking my son to the bus stop, there was this blond woman there holding a dog, who said to me: ‘Oh, are you Shuya’s mom?’” From then on, Sue would regularly invite Yuko over for tea, and Yuko would help Sue read the local school notices that were all in Japanese.
One day, out of the blue, Sue asked Yuko if she needed work. A single mother, Yuko had already established her own tutoring work from home, so she did not need any more work outside. Meanwhile, Sue had gradually befriended other moms at the bus stop, listening to their stories, how they had no work and how their community was broken. Sue wanted to help, and she had an idea. Suddenly, she pulled out of her bag two pieces of broken pottery she had picked up from the many shards scattered around the neighborhood. Maybe she could create work for these women by making jewelry out of these broken pieces.
As a native of Ishinomaki, Yuko was moved almost to tears by this outsider’s selfless gesture to help local women. But she quickly sobered to her next immediate revelation: Sue had no experience making jewelry, or in running a business. “What do you think I should do?” she asked Yuko.
It just so happened that Yuko had been making little accessories for herself since she was a child, but it was never more than a hobby. Nonetheless, she agreed to put her amateur skills to work to help Sue make some jewelry samples. Sue ordered basic tools and parts, and over the next two months, the two women worked late into the night watching online tutorials and figuring it out as they went along. Sue took the samples to the U.S., and when she returned to Ishinomaki three months later, she had attracted enough donations to start up the business. At the bus stop, she asked the local moms if any of them were interested in work. About 10 women responded, including Chiemi, Tomoko and Chieko, who are still part of the core team today.
They used the donations to buy more parts and better machines. It wasn’t long before they were introduced to two professional jewelry makers who came from the U.S. to Ishinomaki to train the women, who had absolutely no prior experience in jewelry making, for two short weeks. Thanks to her hobby, Yuko was able to pick up the techniques easily, and Sue asked her if she could help train the women too. Yuko refused three times before she finally accepted to help on a volunteer basis.
“Honestly, I was emotionally exhausted,” she confesses. “It was painful for me to look at the broken pieces, to recall all the sad memories associated with the ceramics. I understood why Sue wanted to do it and was willing to support her, but I didn’t want to be involved in it as work. I felt conflicted about the idea of using those things to make money, to make a business out of something that represents so much pain and loss… Even when the professional jewelry designers were picking out the pieces, saying this would make a great design, I would think, that used to belong to so-and-so’s household. Naturally, there is a gap between the perspective of people who experienced the disaster and that of outsiders who see the pottery differently. It was difficult for my heart to catch up.”
If some of the other women felt the same way as Yuko, they were also grateful to have work. Being at home alone could be overwhelming, worrying about what to do, about their children and their family. By coming to the Nozomi house, they could focus their energy and attention on learning new skills and making jewelry, chat with the other women over lunch, and enjoy a temporary escape from their daily pressures and hardships.
Over the past seven years, Yuko’s own perspective has also been transformed by working at Nozomi: “Those were my true feelings when we first started. I originally intended to do just one year. But seven years later, here I am. I also see broken pottery differently now. Like broken pieces leftover from the typhoon, before they were valuable to someone. Just because they’re broken, it doesn’t mean they’re garbage. Precisely because sad memories are tied to them, they can be remade into something beautiful and meaningful. The painful memories may not disappear, but at least we can use them to bring back hope and beauty. I have experienced healing over the past seven years too. I realize that the reason I stayed is that now I understand how beauty can indeed come out of brokenness.”
“Beauty in Brokenness”
In the storeroom, Yuka photographs newly crafted pieces in a lightbox to display on the website. Downstairs in the living room, Tomoko and Naomi package and prepare orders to be shipped across the globe. In the dedicated shop space of the house, neatly displayed on hooks and in drawers against clean white walls, artfully handcrafted earrings, necklaces and ornaments await new owners.
Some of the pieces are immediately recognizable as shards of chinaware with traditional patterns or glazed ceramics from tea sets or decorative dishes. Other pieces have evolved into abstract objects reframed into classic accessories. Some are left intentionally raw and rough around the edges, while others are finely cut and polished into trendy designs.
“We don’t know anymore exactly where the pottery is from,” says Yuko. “You can’t even tell now which pieces are from the tsunami or not. The crates are not labeled by origin but rather sorted by color. Right now we’re working on both asymmetrical and symmetrical designs.”
Given Sue’s connections in the United States, military bases, churches and Christian groups around the world, almost all of Nozomi’s customers are non-Japanese foreigners, whether based in Japan or overseas. Some come to Nozomi with their own stories: a woman whose husband had died requested a custom-made accessory from a broken piece of pottery that they had made together on their honeymoon in Okinawa; a volunteer from the Kumamoto earthquake relief brought shards of pottery that he wanted to be remade into an engagement ring.
Most importantly, the women of Nozomi now collaborate on all the designs, and every piece of jewelry takes into account the particular contribution of each team member, so that both skills and sensibilities are fairly distributed. Meanwhile, the reborn jewelry artisans often find themselves turning a trained eye on dishware in restaurants, the latest styles in stores or on television.
“Working as a team is complex,” says Yuko. “But because we have developed trust from working closely together over time, we are able to truly respect each other’s perspectives. We all have different backgrounds, different ages, different skills and abilities.”
Not quite business as usual
Another unique aspect of Nozomi as a business model is that it’s not all about monetary profit. Staff can only work a maximum of four days a week, and the cross-trained team members compensate for each other’s absences as needed. Crucially, as is especially the case for many women in Japan, family and safety always come first.
Yuko recalls an incident a few years ago, during the particularly busy holiday season, when a possible evacuation warning was raised in Ishinomaki. So no one came in to work, but Sue asked Yuko if a few women might be willing to come in just for a few hours to help fulfill the dozens of orders waiting. As the manager, Yuko was reluctant to relay Sue’s request, as she herself had no desire to work during that tense period. Finally, Yuko, Sue and two other staff came in for two hours and quickly did what needed to be done. Later that day, Sue went over to Yuko’s house to thank her for her hard work. Then she saw inside the doorway Yuko and her son’s evacuation kits all prepared and ready to go. “That’s when Sue realized how much trauma still remained in Ishinomaki,” says Yuko. “Since then, she has never asked us again to come in just for the sake of business in that kind of emergency situation.”
At the same time, the manager points out that the 2011 disaster itself rarely comes up in conversation among the women: “The tsunami may be the reason why we started, but now Nozomi is much more than that. Women have found healing through working here in all aspects of their lives since then. We are not just victims. We’re part of a bigger picture.”
Yuko tells another story, much more recent, of one day a few months ago when she and Chiemi went to lunch together at a nearby restaurant. There they noticed a tea cup that would make a perfect piece of jewelry. After their meal, Yuko thanked the staff, explaining along the way what they do at Nozomi, so if the cup ever breaks… Suddenly the staff said: “Oh, I know Nozomi. I’m wearing Nozomi earrings!” Yuko was astonished, caught completely off guard. It so happened that Nozomi also stocked a few items at the tourist market in Ishinomaki, and the woman’s husband had bought the earrings for her as a present. Just by chance, she had chosen to wear those earrings that day because they matched her outfit.
If Yuko was pleasantly surprised, Chiemi was especially pleased: “Chiemi had been looking for someone who wore Nozomi jewelry—not a foreigner, not a Christian, not knowing Nozomi, not knowing any background, but just because they liked the design. She wanted anyone, without knowing the whole sob story, to find the jewelry simply beautiful at face value. We never expected to meet someone like that right here in Ishinomaki.”
More on the Nozomi Project