In what is sweet music to those in Tohoku, young entrepreneurs who came from Tokyo are collaborating with disaster victims to help revitalize this hard-hit north eastern region, according to The Asahi Shimbun.
Yosuke Kajiya, known as the best guitar salesman in Japan, opened a factory in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, in December to make guitars from locally produced wood.
“I will make guitar manufacturing a fine local industry here to create employment,” Kajiya, 32, said at a shopping arcade that opened near JR Onagawa Station on 23 Dec, reaffirming his commitment to the reconstruction of Tohoku.
Nearly five years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, industrialists such as Kajiya who were charmed by traditional craftsmanship are working to create captivating products by making full use of local resources.
Immediately after the earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku region on 11 March 2011, many consumers around Japan bought items produced in Tohoku to help promote disaster recovery there.
But Kajiya said it is time to create truly valuable products instead of urging customers to purchase Tohoku-featured products out of sympathy.
Attempting to create high-quality guitars, Kajiya picked the brains of Kesen Daiku traditional carpenters in Tohoku, who are famous for their advanced techniques for the construction of temples and shrines.
Kajiya, president of Sessionable, a company making and selling guitars, hails from Tanegashima island in southern Kagoshima Prefecture. After graduating from university, he started working at a noted music shop in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward selling guitars.
He created sales promotion videos on his own to introduce products and recorded 200,000 views a month, earning him the nickname of “the man who sells the most guitars in Japan” among music lovers.
When Kajiya watched footage on TV of the March 2011 tsunami engulfing coastal areas in Tohoku, he felt compelled to visit the region immediately following the disaster. Kajiya said he had had no link with Tohoku before that.
After hearing that a piano at a kindergarten was washed away, Kajiya scraped together ukuleles to send them to the school. He also acted as an intermediary between disaster victims and a singer who hoped to encourage them, and helped organize a music event in an affected area.
Kajiya said he started feeling a sense of mission as he interacted with people who were struggling to recover from the disaster, and that it was the first time in his life to have such a feeling.
At the time, Kajiya thought that a new industry is essential to revitalizing the local regions and decided to manufacture guitars in Tohoku as he was familiar with the instrument.
Kajiya has since quit his position at the music shop in Tokyo. In November last year, he established his own company and opened a store specializing in guitars in Sendai as a first step.
To improve the quality of his products, Kajiya sought the cooperation of Kesen Daiku, who have handed down their sophisticated skills for hundreds of years in Tohoku.
Following the advice of carpenters who are well-versed in the characteristics of wood, Kajiya changed the design of a prototype guitar by a tenth of a millimetre and succeeded in significantly improving its tonal quality. As Tohoku is noted for its production of the famed Minami-Sanriku cedar, it is easier for Kajiya to secure ingredients for guitars as well.
An Onagawa town official expressed high expectations for Kajiya’s efforts, saying the guitar industry “could be a new attraction of the town.”
Kajiya said his company currently plans to produce 100 guitars monthly a year from now and develop its guitar brand into one used by famous musicians for their performances.
“Guitars produced in Onagawa can compete on quality,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Aizubange in western Fukushima Prefecture, Takuro Yazu, 29, has teamed with women who have evacuated from the nuclear accident triggered at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Aizubange is well known for its Aizu Momen cotton fabric, which dates back 400 years, and many evacuees are now working at an office in the town to create stoles by tying threads on the edge of textiles of red, yellow and other colors into tufts.
The traditional-style stoles are sold online and in grocery stores in Tokyo, starting in 2013. The product has since proved so popular that 2,000 stoles were sold last year, and an item jointly developed with the renowned Beams select shop has also hit the shelves.
People making those stoles are primarily women who evacuated from Okuma, which co-hosts the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and surrounding areas to the Aizu region, located 100 kilometers of the crippled facility. About 30 women have been involved in the manufacturing of the product to date.
Megumi Hiroshima, a 41-year-old homemaker, is one such evacuee.
“I felt really happy when I could buy clothing for my child with money I had earned on my own,” said Hiroshima, looking back on that time.
Yazu, who originates from Aizubange, came up with the idea of creating stoles using Aizu Momen, when he was a graduate student of Waseda University in Tokyo.
At the time of the 2011 disaster, he was at his family’s home. Yazu joined volunteers to distribute food to those who had evacuated from coastal areas.
Yazu hit upon the idea of Aizu Momen stoles, when he heard people living in temporary housing whom he met in volunteer activities lament, “It is tough to have nothing to do.”
He also thought his plan could help resuscitate the traditional craftsmanship, which had been on the decline. The number of plants manufacturing Aizu Momen had decreased to two by then.
In the fall of 2011, Yazu began the processing and sales of Aizu Momen as a sole proprietorship, and set up his firm, IIE, in March 2013. The company is named IIE, because the date of the earthquake--3.11--becomes IIE if the numbers are reversed.
Yazu said he hoped to “create new value and pleasure by reversing the sorrow and pain of the day.”
Women living in temporary accommodations appeared thrilled when asked by Yazu to help process Aizu Momen to make stoles. He intends to start a tailor-made service next spring.
“It is not good to urge consumers to buy products out of sympathy for disaster victims,” Yazu said. “A business would not continue for long unless its products are truly appealing.”
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