For women living in makeshift homes in the Tohoku region, battered by the massive earthquake and tsunami in March last year, sewing dolls provides financial and psychological support.
In a social business project endorsed by Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate recognized for his efforts to promote development through microcredit, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization has been trying to empower female disaster victims by drawing on its experience supporting Bangladeshi women through needlework.
Under the “Giftoy” project launched in December last year, about 80 women who live in temporary shelters in Sendai, and as well as others who have evacuated to Aomori Prefecture from disaster-hit Tohoku towns and villages, have so far sewn more than 2,500 mascot dolls, each bought for ¥500 by the nonprofit organization.
Hiroko Kawahara, head of the NPO, Earth Identity Project, said the organization started the mascot-making business as many quake victims who had lost jobs “yearned for work” after financial aid for them tapered off with their transfer to temporary housing from evacuation shelters.
“I first thought the purchasing price of ¥500 per item was set too low for Japanese women, but actually many people took that job, saying the average price for other handiwork items they make at home is about ¥100,” she said.
The representative of the group said the business was launched also to provide psychological care to women in temporary housing, as some of them had said, out of despair over their plight, that they “would be better off dead.”
In a tieup with local support groups, Kawahara’s organization has hosted sewing events, sending to Tohoku instructors and mascot doll-making kits, which consist of paper patterns as well as traditional Japanese fabrics donated by textile makers in Fukuoka and Tokushima prefectures.
The main doll character produced by those women is named Pimouchi, which combines the sound of “peace” with the Japanese word “mushi,” meaning “selflessness.”
The character was jointly created by graphic designer Hiromi Inayoshi, who is a senior member of the Earth Identity Project, and Milton Glaser, an American artist who designed the famous “I Love New York” logo.
So far, the NPO has sold 300 mascot dolls at charity events and through other sales channels. It has also begun online sales of the items recently, each priced at ¥1,200.
Kawahara, who became acquainted with Yunus, the founder of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, while engaged in activities to help create jobs for poor Bangladeshi women in garment manufacturing and other areas since the 1990s, said she adopted the same method as used in Bangladesh to keep Tohoku women motivated.
“When we first purchased mascot dolls, we dared to buy items which were not perfectly sewn so as not to discourage the women,” she said. “We expect that they will maintain their enthusiasm and develop their sewing skills over the long term.”
The doll makers range from the elderly to young mothers who cannot work outside their homes to take care of their children. Among them was one woman who earned ¥115,000 for sewing 230 mascot items in a month with the help of her family members, according to the group.
The project is designed to follow principles of social business set by Yunus with the aim of tackling social problems, such as poverty reduction and empowerment of women. The principles include not aiming for profit maximization, maintaining financial and economic sustainability, giving no dividends beyond investment money and providing the workforce with market wage and better working conditions.
Kawahara said the NPO intends to expand the mascot business by selling T-shirts and other items and make it financially sustainable so that it can pay for fabrics that are now provided for free for the project.
“Social business is different from charity. To make it a success, we cannot rely on consumers’ sympathy with disaster victims,” she said. “We need to enhance the attractiveness of the products.”
“Pimouchi” mascots are available at the NPO’s website: earth-identity-project.com/web/eng/sbej/