U.N. Japanese crafts exhibit is dream come true for disability advocate

by Seana K. Magee

Kyodo

The founder of a Tokyo organization created to give work to the disabled has seen her goal of exhibiting crafts at the United Nations come to fruition and hopes global leaders will see it as an example of what such artists are capable of accomplishing.

“It has always been my dream to be involved with disabled people internationally and it has always been my dream to be here at the United Nations presenting what we do,” Mutsuko Takenouchi, founder of Aikobo Group, said at a recent reception.

Aikobo was established in 1983 under Takenouchi’s guidance to provide the physically and mentally challenged a chance to learn traditional Japanese crafts such as indigo dyeing, quilting, weaving, silk braiding and pottery. Beyond selling their wares, the idea was to provide them opportunities to live more independently.

“I want disabled people to become leaders, whether it is through art or work, so I would like the disabled to take on leadership and become leaders,” she said of her mission.

The 71-year-old traveled from Japan to attend the opening in the United Nations headquarters visitors lobby where the works were on display through Saturday.

She also participated in a daylong series of events to coincide with the annual observance of International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Tuesday.

According to the U.N., about 15 percent of the world’s population — more than 1 billion people — live with some form of disability and must overcome an array of barriers from the physical and social to the economic and attitudinal.

Takenouchi has come a long way since first hitting on the idea of forming the independent workshop in Tokyo. She joined forces with another physically challenged woman who was frustrated by the lack of employment opportunities.

At the time, the founder took a gamble as a mother of three who was fighting stomach cancer. But the women’s efforts paid off as their workshop grew from one small room. The idea even expanded overseas in 1988 when Aikobo America opened in Washington state, offering Japanese and Americans on the West Coast the chance to study and work side by side.

“Being independent and part of society has made them stand on their own feet and (enabled them) to be creative,” Takenouchi explained of the program.

Takenouchi has taken exhibits around the world, including to France, England, Australia, Turkey, Russia and China. The U.N. event, she said, was a “natural” progression of past overseas projects.

Over the years her message has not faltered. “Being active to lower the barrier of discrimination is what I would like to do,” she said.

Her life’s purpose is not lost on diplomats either. Ambassador Motohide Yoshikawa sees her work as an example of how the sometimes “abstract” discussions held at the United Nations can be made tangible.

“They are participating in cultural and economic activities, they sell things, the organization runs without a subsidy and it shows that the organization is viable, it is sustainable,” he noted, adding that it provides a successful model to emulate.

Since she was 20, Mika Hirako, now 37, has worked diligently to master multiple skills. Her delicately embroidered pieces, called “Sea Breeze,” were on display. She also demonstrated the intricacies of “kumihimo,” a Japanese form of braiding, to an audience of diplomats, U.N. staff and other visitors.

“I have expressed a peaceful ocean using Sweden embroidery,” she said of her handmade pieces, which she also dyed.

For Ann Marie Morelli, who works for Theater Breaking Through Barriers — the only off-Broadway theater company using disabled actors and writers — viewing Hirako’s pieces as well as seeing her craftsmanship proved to be inspirational.

“I just love the character of it and I love the artistry and you see their heart,” the 45-year-old, who is fighting multiple sclerosis, said as she pointed to her favorite wall hanging featuring whimsical sea creatures made by five artists.

“It is showing that disabled people have talent and can produce something beautiful.”