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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Doorplates of Hope

Hirofumi Ogawara

Nov. 25, 2016

A company in Nagano Prefecture has been voluntarily sending doorplates to people displaced by the powerful earthquakes that struck Kumamoto earlier this year.

In Japan, a nameplate at the entrance of a home shows more than simply who lives there: it symbolizes family love and pride.

The earthquakes that struck Kumamoto Prefecture in April left thousands homeless, and many are still living in temporary housing. Receiving a doorplate from a faraway donor is one way evacuees are keeping their chins up. They help give evacuees a sense of home.

"Not having a nameplate is troubling. We are really and truly thankful," says one evacuee in Kumamoto.

"It helps this place feel cozier," says another.

Their nameplates arrived from the city of Chikuma in Nagano Prefecture. Yoshio Miyasaka runs a company there that makes wooden molds for auto parts. Miyasaka and his friends volunteered to make the plates.

They carve and paint each one, and have so far sent more than 300 to Kumamoto. But they're not satisfied with just sending them -- they wanted to visit the area too.

"We don't see who gets the plates, so we can't really understand their owners' situation. I think it makes sense to hand them over personally. That way, we can encourage them not to lose heart," Miyasaka says.

Miyasaka traveled to Kumamoto earlier this month. His first stop was Mashiki, a town in an area that was hit by major jolts from the quakes.

"This is unbelievable. It's terrible for the people here," Miyasaka says, witnessing damage that's still visible more than 6 months later. "I saw it on TV, but didn’t realize it was this bad."

Miyoko Sato is a farmer whose house was heavily damaged in the quake. The 7 members of her family must now share less than 30 square meters of space in a makeshift home in the town of Kashima.

"The houses are close together, so we're reluctant to speak loudly. We don't really have a choice," Sato says.

She didn't put a nameplate on their temporary house, so she asked Miyasaka to make one in hopes of attaching it to her rebuilt home.

Miyasaka pays Sato a visit to deliver the family's nameplate in person.

“Wow, this is beautiful! Thank you. You came such a long way,” Sato says. “We’ll be thrilled to hang this outside our door. We’ll do our best to rebuild the house as soon as possible so we can hang it there, not here.”

There’s one person in particular Miyasaka was looking forward to meeting on his trip: Ayako Sakaino, who got her nameplate 3 months ago. Sakaino’s house was badly damaged, and the plate has been a source of moral support.

"The gift really encouraged me. I received these beautifully carved characters during my most difficult time," Sakaino says.

It was around the time that Sakaino made a big decision -- she decided to knock her house down. After more than 40 years, it's filled with memories but she plans to rebuild it with her son and his wife.

“Seeing my surname on the plate made me realize I have to move on. I think pulling down the house will be my turning point," Sakaino says.

The nameplates have brought the people of Nagano and Kumamoto together. They will continue to be a source of support and encouragement for victims of the quake.

There are about 4,000 temporary housing units in the prefecture of Kumamoto, with many people still living under difficult circumstances. Miyasaka and his group of volunteers plan to keep making nameplates for anyone who wants one.

"When I saw people doing their best to carry on, I knew that what we'd been doing was right," Miyasaka says. "As I continue to work on this project, I’ll picture the recipients’ faces and pray for them."