FUKUSHIMA – A young community activist is endeavoring to achieve the double feat of giving a new lease on life to people displaced by the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and rejuvenating a withering traditional local industry.
Three years ago, Takuro Yazu, 29, founded the company IIE, building on his volunteer initiative to support people who had been forced to leave hometowns contaminated by radiation.
The company, located in the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture, employs around 20 women ranging in age from their 20s to 70s, who make stoles by hand from Aizu cotton cloth. The region is not within the zones regarded as dangerous.
The women and their families were forced to live in makeshift housing facilities for years after being displaced by the nuclear catastrophe. Most of them are now starting a new life in regular housing.
The company name, IIE, is intended to represent the mirror image of 3/11, the date when the Great East Japan Earthquake triggered the massive tsunami that dealt a fatal blow to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
The name is a “quiet statement of the will to achieve a turnaround and rebuild from the earthquake disaster,” Yazu explained.
Even before the disaster, Yazu, a native of Aizu, was engaged in community building. He took this path after feeling “unspeakable sadness” when looking at the shopping street of his hometown lined with closed shops. After studying community development at Waseda University’s graduate school in Tokyo, he returned to Aizu and joined a nonprofit organization.
After the nuclear disaster started, Yazu took part in relief activities for the victims. As he assisted displaced people, Yazu said he was shocked at the frustration they expressed over having nothing to do.
This led to the idea of harnessing that pent-up urge for action to revive the tradition of Aizu cotton, a cloth used mainly to make outdoor work clothes.
Dating back to the 18th century, at its peak there were nearly 30 cotton factories across Aizu, producing cloth of various designs. “In the past, the design differed from area to area, and there was competition for identity,” Yazu said.
After World War II, however, the growing usage of synthetic resin led to a drop in demand for cotton cloth and only two factories now remain in the Aizu area.
At first, Yazu employed around 10 women to manufacture handkerchiefs and cushion covers from Aizu cotton using sewing machines. However, because some of the women were not accustomed to using sewing machines, he came up with the idea of making stoles by hand. They are sold nationwide and have now become the company’s main product.
Despite the underlying objective of supporting disaster victims, Yazu said he has placed emphasis on making products of good quality, rather than highlighting the charity aspect of the business.
Megumi Hiroshima, a former resident of Okuma, a town just a few kilometers from the doomed Fukushima nuclear plant, is among the women now making Aizu cotton stoles.
Hiroshima and her co-workers earn a modest sum of ¥10,000 to ¥30,000 per month, but say they value their jobs beyond the income received.
“I may be able to return the favor to Aizu if I make products originating in Aizu and Mr. Yazu spreads them to other regions,” she said, adding she was grateful for a new life and job in Aizu.
Hiroshima, a 41-year-old mother of two sons, moved out of Fukushima Prefecture and spent some time in neighboring Niigata Prefecture due to the nuclear crisis. Her husband, a member of the local firefighting crew, remained in their hometown and continued search-and-rescue operations for tsunami victims.
The family later moved back to Fukushima and lived in a makeshift house in Aizu for more than three years. Separated from friends scattered by the nuclear disaster, Hiroshima was living a lonely life, but doing cotton handiwork propped her up.
“When concentrating on the job, I didn’t . . . brood over (things). That helped me a lot,” Hiroshima said.
Yazu is now trying to move on from merely using Aizu cotton as a material to manufacturing cloth. Last autumn, he obtained 10 ancient looms left unused at a closed factory and installed them at his improvised premises in a former kindergarten building in the Aoki area of Aizu.
After repairing the looms, Yazu plans to start producing cotton cloth, with an eye to building a brand as a way to attract more attention to his home region.
“I want more and more people to know about Aizu cotton,” Yazu said. “I’m hoping to use this as an opportunity to make Aizu and Fukushima more popular.”
While he is committed to reviving Aizu cotton, what also drives his initiative is his sympathy for people enduring a depressing life away from home. Speaking of what he described as an unforgettable expression of thanks he received, Yazu recalled a woman he employed saying she was “feeling the sunshine at long last.”