Japan 2013

"Devastation and Hope" :

Somehow, everything is symbolic: we can hardly go to sleep tonight, even though we are really tired after the first week of our workshop tour with Bernina Japan. But maybe we can already feel some tension because tomorrow, we will be visiting the Tôhoku region which was devastated after the Tsunami in 2011. Just when we manage to go to sleep, we wake up because the bed is shaking: an earthquake! A very strange feeling, but we try not be scared and go back to sleep eventually.

In the morning, we realize that the earthquake had been relatively strong and long even by Japanese standards. But it is nothing compared to what moves our hearts and souls during our trip to the Tôhoku region the next day!

This trip has a long history: More than two years ago, after the Tsunami in Japan, the two of us – Verena Matter and Marianne Haeni – had made a call to Swiss Quilters and friends to send quilts for the victims of the devastated area. We were overwhelmed by the generous reaction from people all over Switzerland and were able to send more than 200 quilts to Japan. We had also made a call to send some cash to finance the transport of the quilts. Thanks to generous sponsors – Bernina International sent a first load of quilts free of charge – we were left with an amount of more than CHF 12‘000.- to be used for other purposes. It was our wish to use the money for sustainable projects. That is why we were very happy when Mr. Atoji, CEO of Bernina Japan spontaneously followed our proposal to buy used sewing machines. Together with Bernina Japan we were finally able to donate 14 revised sewing machines. We had found the perfect person to help us coordinate the project: Keiko Goke, the famous Japanese quilt artist lives in Sendai, close to the devastated area and had promised to support our idea two years ago already.

Keiko Goke had intensively searched for suitable projects and had finally found some groups who had ideas for promising projects but had no sewing machines to realize them. Last year, she was able to bring the sewing machines to the groups herself and to teach the people how to use them. A long story, and we were very curious about what we would encounter today!

Early on Saturday morning, we (Mr. Atoji , Verena Matter, Marianne Haeni) are picked up by Keiko Goke, her husband and our friend and translator, Mariko Akizuki. It is raining cats and dogs – a taiphoon is passing by the coast of Japan. We are driving from Sendai to the North and stopping in Higashi Matsushima where we visit the first group. These people have started to sew little monkeys called “Onokun” from knee-high socks. Soft, colorful, happy little stuffed animals. The order lists are already very long! We are greeted warmly in the temporary housing complex where they live and work. Everybody is working, some are stuffing legs, some are sewing eyes on the monkeys, and one woman is sewing with a Bernina machine. We are served coffee, try to have a chat in Japanese, and of course we all buy monkeys for our grand-children!

On the way to the next group in Minamisanriku-cho, we stop at some places where the force of the Tsunami had been especially devastating. We can see the skeletons of houses, tipped over office buildings, remnants that were left there as memorials. In front of some of them, we find small altars so that family members can visit and remember their loved ones. It is windy, rainy and cold, but the weather somehow suits the gloomy occasion. It is hard to imagine how this area had looked right after the earthquake and the tsunami, and where the tons of debris had been brought to!

The next group lives and works in a house that had been damaged but was then renovated. These women make various objects from old kimono fabrics, such as coasters, jewellery, bags, etc. Here too, we see Bernina machines in use. Mr. Atoji looks them over, fixes them when necessary and gives the women some useful hints on how to use them. This group had received from Keiko Goke some of her beautiful fabrics and has made bags which they can hardly part from because they like them so much!

We continue our trip to the North and are driving through more devastated regions. Train tracks, roads that lead to nowhere. Large properties of apartment buildings where only the foundations are visible now. What must these people have gone through who lost their houses, their belongings and, worst of all, their families and friends within minutes.

Our last stop is in Karakuwa where a group of women has also started a very special project. Before the tsunami their main source of income had been fishing. Since this is no longer possible, they were left with the colorful flags that were put up on the boats to wish the fishermen a good catch – Tairyô. So they started to use them to sew practical objects such as handbags, shopping bags, zipper cases, etc. Here too, we find Bernina machines in permanent use. This group, like the others, has long order lists, and their project has even been filmed by the national TV channel NHK. What a coincidence that we see the documentary on TV the next morning!

In the meantime, it has stopped raining, and we can see a piece of blue sky and some pink clouds on the horizon. After all what we have seen today, this seems like a sign of hope for the people that have suffered so much. We are happy to realize that they have obviously found possibilities to build a new existence and that they can see some blue sky and bright clouds on the horizon. A big thank goes to all the generous people who have contributed in some way to make these projects come true. Nihon, ganbatte kudasai!