After the Great East Japan Earthquake ravaged the Tohoku region, Yuichi Tomohiro immediately headed to Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, as a volunteer worker.
But the young man wanted to do much more to help out, and today, is one of the founders of an online outlet selling traditional handmade gift items from the region to provide assistance to victims.
“I want to give as many consumers as possible an idea of what feelings Tohoku people put into their handmade items,” said Tomohiro, 29, one of the founders of the TOHOK online gift shop (https://tohok.com/).
“I want to become a mediator for both creators and consumers to think together about the future of manufacturing in Tohoku,” added Tomohiro, who lives in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward.
While working as a volunteer after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11, 2011, Tomohiro met women in Ishinomaki who had been engaged in oyster farming on Miyagi Prefecture’s Oshika Peninsula until the disaster.
Hearing the women complaining that they “feel sorrow for having no jobs,” Tomohiro suggested they produce good-luck ribbons worn around the wrist or other parts of the body from fishing nets.
Over two years from April 2011, the young man sold 3,000 good-luck ribbons, each priced at 1,000 yen ($9.35), at university festivals and music events throughout Japan.
Encouraged by the success, Tomohiro then released fashion accessories made of horns of deer culled to control their population on the peninsula. But the new products did not sell as well as he expected.
Tomohiro said he realized the difficulty of continuing to persuade customers to purchase Tohoku-featured items just out of sympathy for disaster victims.
The young man thought that presenting high-quality products that have traditionally been manufactured in Tohoku to people across the country under the same brand name will lead to long-continuing assistance for disaster victims.
Tomohiro and his friends spent six months each searching the entire Tohoku region for such traditional, premium articles.
Tomohiro said he was astonished by Tohoku people’s handicrafts.
“A small broom made in Kuji, Iwate Prefecture, is a good example,” he said. “The manufacturing of this item starts with growing the plant to make them. People have been creating the brooms as a second job during the winter, they told me.
“I was surprised at their year-round conscientious efforts.”
Tomohiro and his friends selected 25 gift items made by 12 creators, including stoles crafted from the traditional Aizu cotton weaving technique that dates back four centuries, and “tsutsumiyaki” ceramic pottery made at the kiln workshop in Sendai that catered to the lord of the Date feudal clan.
Then the young people opened their shopping website in March. They also sold their gift items at a special event at a department store in Tokyo in June.
Tomohiro and others decided to sell the traditional handmade products as gift items, because they believed that recipients who are given them as presents can more readily appreciate the careful handiwork of Tohoku craftsmen.
In fact, orders for their products surged around Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and other celebrations, as they expected. A couple in their 30s, for example, bought 60 small brooms as gifts for guests at their wedding reception to take home.
Starting in August, they also began to sell their items at a weekend outdoor market in Tokyo’s Aoyama district.