People with disabilities living in Fukushima Prefecture are doing their best to promote the area by making craft goods that are proving popular both at home and overseas.
Before the 2011 disasters and subsequent nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, a number of disabled people would gather at community workshops that provided them with places and opportunities to work. They would produce skin toner made from luffa that they then sold. Orders dropped sharply after the nuclear disaster due to public fears about possible radioactive contamination of the luffa.
Left with nothing much to do except play games, they asked staff at the workshop in the city of Sukagawa for some gainful work. They said they “want to work, instead of playing games every day,” according to the staff.
As a result, the Sukagawa workshop and nine others in the city teamed up to create new jobs for the disabled.
Instead of skin toner, the people at the workshops started to craft handmade buttons for clothes.
After showcasing the products at a trade show in Osaka, the workshops received an order for 2,000 buttons from a local bag maker.
Tomoyuki Ikeda, president of bag maker Sunward Co., said he “felt something warm” when he saw the handmade buttons.
“I could see that disabled people (in the disaster areas) are doing their best,” he said.
Last November, Ikeda’s company launched a new brand featuring the buttons, hoping to support reconstruction efforts in Fukushima.
Under the new brand, dubbed “manga knapp” (“a lot of buttons” in Swedish), Sunward sells bags and purses with buttons made by hand at the workshops at prices ranging from ¥2,000 to almost ¥20,000.
When the company exhibited the products in a major department store in Osaka, it racked up sales of some ¥500,000 within a week. Sunward is now planning to sell them online, according to company officials.
A similar initiative underway in Koriyama, another city in Fukushima, was also prompted by voices of the disabled who wanted to stay connected to society through work.
About a dozen disabled people started to make bags with used A4-size envelopes at the Futaba Seisakusho workshop. Members of the workshop are evacuees from the town of Futaba, which is located close to the crippled Tepco nuclear power plant.
Used envelopes and wax for a water-repellent finish were donated by companies.
The bags are decorated with the number 28 to indicate the name of their hometown, Futaba, as the number two can be pronounced “futa” in Japanese and eight as “hachi,” which is considered to possess a phonetic similarity to “ba.”
The bags are mainly sold over the Internet for around ¥1,000. Futaba Seisakusho has received orders not only from domestic customers but also from Australians who work for the welfare of the disabled. Some 1,000 bags have been sold so far.
The bags come with cards that explain how and why the products are made at Futaba Seisakusho.
A customer in Hiroshima Prefecture wrote on her payment coupon that she intends to let many people know about Futaba through the use of the bag, according to workshop staff.
At Futaba Seisakusho, a 50-year-old man from the town of Futaba said he enjoys working with his colleagues.
“The work gives me a sense of fulfillment,” he said.
Kiyoharu Shiraishi, 63, head of an organization that supports the disabled in disaster-hit Fukushima, said working together can help them become more independent.
According to the Koriyama-based organization, a cumulative total of some 3,600 disabled people had been evacuated from the eight municipalities in the Futaba vicinity as of November 2012.
Many workshops in Fukushima are suffering from drops in revenue following the March 2011 disasters, officials of the organization said.
Looking to the future, Futaba Seisakusho is seeking professional advice on design and streamlining.