As peals of laughter echo from the busy workshops above, Nozomi Project founder Sue Takamoto pauses, smiling as she hands me one of the latest pieces in their new jewelry line.

“They’re always laughing about something,” she explains, referring to her small, all-female team of artisans. “They have so much fun together.” In their modest headquarters in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Takamoto and the Nozomi team turn fragments of tsunami-broken pottery into beautiful jewelry. Creating work for those left without in the wake of the disaster, the Nozomi Project is a place filled with memories, but has its eyes set firmly on the future.

“We have the wonderful job of being able to give new life to broken pottery, and this rebirth feels like really important work,” says Emi Katsumata, who’s been with Nozomi — which means hope — since it began in 2012. Passing through the hands of nine women during their transformation, each rescued shard is carefully cut, shaped with grinding tools and mounted before being photographed and delicately wrapped. All unique, the fragments were gathered from beaches, parks and streets in the aftermath of the 2011 triple disaster. Today, stocks are topped up with local donations, including items damaged in the recent aftershocks.

Drawing on the Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi, which recognizes the beauty of imperfection, as well as the age-old term mottainai, which admonishes waste, the preservation and transformation of these shards is testament to the mindful, yet practical, approach found in Japanese daily life. With a motto of “finding beauty in brokenness,” the project remembers the tragic events, but seeks change and opportunity alongside this show of respect.

Each line and style of Nozomi Project jewelry is named after a loved one by one of the team. | LILY CROSSLEY-BAXTER
Each line and style of Nozomi Project jewelry is named after a loved one by one of the team. | LILY CROSSLEY-BAXTER

Low-lying, coastal and only 80 kilometers from the epicenter, Ishinomaki was one of the hardest-hit areas during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Ten-meter-high waves traveled as far as 5 kilometers inland, destroying over 50,000 homes and buildings and claiming over 3,500 lives, with over 400 more missing. Ten years on, memorial gardens and bridges are being completed, and empty plots are slowly being reclaimed, but recovery is an ongoing journey for the residents.

“It is strange to say, we lost so much in the disaster, but because of that very disaster, I have received so much. Because of the disaster, I could meet Sue and everyone here; and the customers and friends who have come here because of it — my heart is so thankful for these things,” says staff member Tomomi Hatakeyama.

Living in Kobe when the disaster struck, the Takamoto family spent months traveling to Miyagi Prefecture with aid teams and donations. Having previously lived in Sendai, they felt a close connection to Tohoku and returned permanently in 2012 — rare newcomers in an area many were deciding to leave. Chiemi Hizuma, one of the team’s lead grinders, recalls the surprise of seeing an unfamiliar face at her daughter’s temporary school bus stop one morning, and the pair quickly struck up a friendship. “The mothers I met were so wonderful, a lot of things were new to me so they were always reminding me if bus times changed or checked I’d got the latest letters,” Takamoto says.

Welcomed into the fold, Takamoto quickly became aware of the difficulties facing the women of Ishinomaki. One of the lasting effects of the disaster was severe unemployment, which rose by over 300% in the city in the following year. With many businesses washed away, and major industries suffering serious damage, new jobs were limited. Women were significantly more likely to be without work, accounting for almost 60% of all unemployment applications.

“They lost their homes, family members and they didn’t have jobs — a lot of men got their jobs back quite quickly, but it wasn’t as easy for women,” Takamoto explains.

It was during a local park cleanup that Takamoto stumbled across an idea that would form the beginnings of Nozomi.

“There were these huge pieces of trucks and piles of dead fish, but underneath it all there was broken pottery. It seemed like such a waste, so I started collecting it,” she says. With fellow mothers Yuko Sasaki, Hizuma, Tomoko Honma and Chieko Nakai, they set about learning to make jewelry from their broken finds. “We had a team, we thought let’s just try — the worst thing that could happen is we create a community, work together and make ugly jewelry!”

Now with 12 members on staff and shipping globally, Nozomi has become the community it strove to be, with the women remaining at the heart of the projects. Each with their own losses to contend with following the disaster, Nozomi became a source of both practical and emotional support.

“I used to think that I had to endure and sacrifice something to work, but Nozomi provides a good environment for women to work without pressure, largely due to the respect and support we’ve developed over the years,” says manager Sasaki.

Dedicated to providing good wages, flexible hours and paid vacation time, Nozomi seeks to support women in a way many jobs in Japan — especially part-time ones — fail to do. Ranging from fish-factory workers to hairdressers to supermarket managers, the team has grandmothers, aunts and single-mothers alike. Looking to the future, the group was keen to extend this support to other women around the world, with research trips to Cambodia leading to a new partnership with a women’s center. Using discarded jeans from an ethically made brand nearby, the center’s women now craft gift bags for the sustainably-sourced Dara line of Nozomi jewelry.

The personal connections of the team are threaded throughout the project, including each line’s name.

Wearing personal protective gear, a Nozomi Project artisan grinds and shapes a rescued shard. | LILY CROSSLEY-BAXTER
Wearing personal protective gear, a Nozomi Project artisan grinds and shapes a rescued shard. | LILY CROSSLEY-BAXTER

“Each style has been named after a loved one by one of our team. There’s a lot of daughters, some are moms — several of them are women who died in the tsunami,” Takamoto says. From the popular Rumi necklace — named after Honma’s sister-in-law who died after driving her coworker home on March 11 — to the delicate Sara earrings, named after a staff member’s ever-happy daughter, the pieces are a sign of lasting love.

Now running for nine years, the project has gathered support from unexpected sources. After receiving the Foundation of Social Contribution award from The Nippon Foundation in 2017, Takamoto presented Japan’s former first lady, Akie Abe, with a necklace that she later wore to a state dinner with the Trump family in Florida.

“A year later she came to visit us, she went around each room, heard the women’s stories, listened to what each of them do and how they make the pieces — there are touchpoints that really remind us of the value of what we do,” Takamoto says.

Honoring those lost while moving forward is a difficult balance, however, and is something considered closely by those who work with fragments of disaster on a daily basis.

“While I thought it was a good initiative for women who were emotionally exhausted, I was also conflicted about whether it was OK to use such a sad event for business,” says Sasaki, recalling early concerns when she joined in 2012. “I realized, however, that you can’t change a sad event. I’ve experienced how we can help heal by repurposing broken ceramics into something new. I feel that this has helped with recovery on many levels.”

With recent aftershocks coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the disaster, these connections have been brought closer than ever.

“While I’m still scared of the large earthquakes that have been happening recently, the work we’ve been doing provides meaning in the midst of them — I’m delighted to do work that brings new love to someone’s precious things,” Katsumata says. Agreeing, colleague Nakai adds that “With the earthquakes increasing again, I think we’ve all been scared, but I’m happy if my work can turn into something beautiful and bring courage, hope and memories to others.”

For more information, visit nozomiproject.com.

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