Sophia Slater, 17, felt she couldn’t just sit back and do nothing when the monster earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. So she tried to find a way a teenager like her could help, apart from giving money or donating supplies for Tohoku.
About six months later, Slater decided to start CharmWorks, a project to support the activities of women in the fishing community of Funakoshi in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.
After the community was devastated by the tsunami, some wives of fishermen began making charms out of slate roofing tiles from destroyed houses.
Funakoshi is part of the former town of Ogatsu, the nation’s largest producer of slate widely used for suzuri ink stones for calligraphy as well as roofing tiles.
The people of Funakoshi wanted to recover their sense of community and get back on their feet. One way was by working together to collect the slate tiles used on rooftops of the destroyed houses and turning the pieces into charms. Money from the sales would be used to help rebuild the town.
However, when the charms started selling well, the women were unable to keep up with the ever-growing orders and needed more manpower.
Slater offered to help out by gathering students and parents, mainly from her school, the American School in Japan, as well as Nishimachi International School, and having them paint the charms.
Born and raised in Japan to American parents, Slater is a third-year student at the school in Chofu, western Tokyo.
Her father, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Sophia University who has been involved in relief work for Tohoku, knew about his daughter’s willingness to volunteer and introduced her to Jamie El-Banna, who heads the nonprofit organization It’s Not Just Mud, based in Ishinomaki. The group engages in various volunteer activities to help the disaster-hit towns rebuild. El-Banna introduced Slater to the charm-making effort.
Before the tsunami, about 130 families lived in the community. Most now live in temporary housing outside the area and go to Funakoshi almost every day to help with the rebuilding.
To make the charms, the men began by clearing the houses and removing the roofing tiles. They cut the slate into small round pieces, and their wives painted different motifs on them.
“Instead of (volunteers) going all the way up to Funakoshi, I decided to start an extension program down here in Tokyo. Moms, teens and a few dads gather about twice a month on a Saturday to paint the charms in the art room of Nishimachi International School in Motoazabu,” said Slater, who is an alumna of the school and whose younger brother goes there now.
Slater keeps each session small — about 10 people — so she can keep track of what the participants are painting.
She publicizes the project through her school’s National Honor Society chapter, of which she is a member. The society is made up of students with outstanding achievements in academics, leadership and community service. Many of the students involved in CharmWorks are from the society.
“Up there in Funakoshi, it’s just the women. They’re sitting together all day painting and drinking tea, and there’s really a feeling of togetherness. I wanted to extend that with my project, even if I wasn’t doing it with the women,” she said.
Since last year, the group has raised more than ¥200,000 and has sent all the money to Funakoshi. They sold the painted charms at flea markets at both the ASIJ and Nishimachi International School, as well as in some overseas events.
Slater admits that the charms her group paint aren’t quite as good as those produced by the women in Funakoshi. “The charms that these really talented women paint are intricate. We can’t live up to that,” she said, adding that people who buy the charms at school flea markets are not expecting Picasso-level work. “They know it’s mainly the students (who are painting the charms), and they just want to support Tohoku,” she said.
The teen added that she wants to make the project sustainable, and has asked one of her sophomore friends to continue the project when she graduates.
She visited the women in Funakoshi for the first time last fall and was convinced of the need for continued support.
“What Funakoshi needs is not people who come for one day to help and then are gone. That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” she said.
“(The project) is something that I truly enjoy. That’s what enables me to be a leader of this. When a leader cares about the project, (the people involved) start to care about it, too,” she said. “Maybe it doesn’t seem to be much to be painting one or two stones, but with the money that comes from that, that’s where we can actually make a difference. You don’t have to start the next big charity. Everyone should help how they can.”
For more information, visit www.charmworks.org.