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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Threading Memories Together

Mar. 8, 2017

Elderly people from communities in northeast Japan that were affected by the March 2011 disaster are trying to deal with a difficult situation by bringing out the artist inside them.

Younger evacuees are reluctant to return to their hometowns, which are still recovering. But many elderly residents are living in the area in solitude, and some are turning to artistic activities to deal with their loss.

They've been making dolls, each with a unique story. The message on one reads "Dear wife, please watch over me forever." It was stitched together by a fisherman who lost his wife in the disaster.

The works have been displayed in exhibitions in various regions across Japan. People made these dolls as they thought about loved-ones, belongings and memories lost in the disaster. Most of them were made by children and by elderly people.

"I feel strongly that these people still need a lot of support, and we should not forget that," says one exhibition visitor.

Artist Masako Takahashi from Tokyo organized the exhibition. She's been helping those affected by the disaster to create art, hoping to encourage them and help ease their emotional pain.

"Some people may have a stern expression when they do crafts, others may feel despondent. But when they talk and create things together, they gradually started to smile," Takahashi says.

Over the past 6 years, Takahashi has been helping people in various places affected by the disaster. But now Fukushima Prefecture is high on her agenda. She's organized a workshop for those in a housing complex located about 25 kilometers away from TEPCO's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Takahashi's workshop will be held in an assembly hall near the complex. Every day, elderly residents visit there to take part in events. Many feel lonely because their family members didn't return to their hometowns after they evacuated.

Masako Sato, 83, is one of them.

"We are very lonely, so we come here every day to sing, dance, and do things together," Sato says.

She has moved more than 10 times since the disaster, and finally settled in the area 2 years ago. Her house was washed away by the tsunami. Sato raised her daughters in the house, and was later blessed with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The house was always filled with people and laughter.

Family members used to live nearby and visited her almost every day, but now they live far away. Making crafts with other residents is a welcome distraction.

"As we make crafts together, I enjoy the time more. We get excited, and show off our work to each other," Sato says.

Takahashi says art is a powerful tool for rebuilding communities.

"While working on projects, people can bond and communicate, and even talk about things they otherwise couldn't. I think art has that kind of power," she says.

Takahashi often visits Fukushima to work with people affected. Her determination to provide support came right after the disaster in 2011. Within days of the quake, she collected relief supplies and headed to affected areas.

"All the striking colors of nature were lost. I felt loneliness and despair. I wished to bring back to the stricken areas those lost colors. I also hoped some color would return to people's hearts. I wondered if there was anything I could do to help make this happen," Takahashi recalls.

Only 9 days after the disaster, Takahashi formed a volunteer group called ARTS for HOPE. She kicked off a campaign to bring back some color to communities, and to people's hearts. Her organization has completed more than 800 days of work in prefectures affected by the disasters.

Through Takahashi's workshops, some people are finding they can stitch their memories into concrete shapes.

Yoshiko Kamata, 84, had been a farmer all her life, and says she had never worked with a needle and thread before the disaster. With some help, Kamata concentrates on creating something. She makes a frog because she used to see many frogs in her fields.

"How do I feel when I finish a piece of a craft? I'm delighted when someone says my work is pretty. I was a farmer so I couldn't do things like this before," Kamata says.

In the disaster, Kamata lost everything she had cherished. Her house was filled with family memories, the fields where she used to work all day, and close friends all were swallowed by the tsunami.

Then 2 months after the disaster, Kamata lost her husband too. Seeing Kamata devastated, her daughter moved back to Fukushima and now the 2 live together.

One year after the disaster, while she was living in a temporary housing unit, Kamata took up crafts for the very first time. She learned how to knit, and says she worked hard to free herself from the haunting memories of the disaster.

"I can't grow rice or vegetables anymore. So I tried doing crafts instead. When I tried it, I found I could do it. I had to concentrate on the crafting, as it's no use to continue to mourn the past -- because my house has gone. I lost everything I had -- everything was swept away," Kamata says.

After 4 years in the temporary home, Kamata moved to where she lives now. That meant separation from her friends, and Kamata was feeling lonely.

But at the new community, she found something to keep her busy -- Takahashi's workshop. She began to work with the unforgettable memories of her hometown, and made dolls of the pets she used to cherish, such as her, named Chin.

"I had a very cute dog. When I took a walk, Chin followed me around. I also had a cat named 'Mike,' which followed after me too. But then the cat would stop and take a rest. The cat always waited at home for me to return. It was so adorable," Kamata says.

Takahashi has seen developments in Fukushima over the past 6 years. She feels the continuous need to stand by the people affected by the disaster, who are trying to live day by day.

"People in Fukushima have been disheartened, but then they try desperately to be resilient, and this pattern tends to repeat. Some of them start feeling they can't take it anymore and commit suicide. I know the healing process will take an enormous amount of time, especially in the case of Fukushima. Because it takes time, I feel I want to stand by them all the while to support them," Takahashi says.

Art offers elderly people in Fukushima some support and an opportunity to bond. The work they make reveals the scars of the disaster, and their struggle to hold their communities and their families together.