Leaders April 2013

Honouring Heritage, Embracing the Future

Our initiatives are helping to build community-based firms

Supported by the BCCJ’s Back to Business Initiative for Tohoku, Megumi Hikichi—a civil servant before the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami—has built a community-based enterprise in her hometown of Watari, Miyagi Prefecture.

Some 47% of the small castle settlement was devastated in the triple disaster.

WATALIS is a small business that produces bags and other handicrafts using fabric from kimono although, initially, fabric that had been rescued from the tsunami was used. The enterprise is now booming and employs 30 women across four generations.

Through WATALIS, Hikichi has opened up a new job market for the women—many of whom are living in temporary housing complexes—while the unemployment rate in the area is still high.

After attending the BCCJ’s Road to Recovery event in March 2012, Hikichi decided to diversify her product lines by combining kimono fabric with Liberty prints, as testament to the relationship that has been forged between Japan and the UK.

WATALIS products are now available for purchase at the Marui Co., Ltd. department store in the Tokyo district of Ginza, as well as in ecute (JR East Station Retailing Co., Ltd.) shops.

The items are also proving popular at trade shows across Japan.

From a big-picture perspective, the enterprise is fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion, which can be rare in towns, cities and businesses in Japan.

Younger women are able to bring their babies to work and enjoy flexible working hours. Elderly workers have found a new sense of purpose and can pass on traditional skills and knowledge.

WATALIS employees say that, before the triple disaster, they had always been identified as a wife or mother. Now, for the first time, they are being treated like individual human beings, and are part of a new, sustainable team.

From the chaos of the tsunami, and through WATALIS’ products, the women are deconstructing and reconstructing the fabric of their culture—sharing a part of their identities and history, and telling the stories of their mothers and grandmothers.

In addition, they are honouring their heritage and traditional values while, at the same time, embracing their future. There is a story to each bag—the furthest thing you could imagine from mass-produced Japan.

It has been a real privilege to work with locals such as Hikichi across Tohoku, and provide kick-start funding for projects that are so rich in meaning.

From our work in numerous locations in Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, it has not been unusual for female survivors to fill vacant leadership roles and begin reconstructing what was lost.

Hikichi, like so many survivors, has been led to assess the value of what remains of her town and question basic human needs: What is a community? What does a business look like? What is truly important in life?

With an exceptionally proactive and open approach, Hikichi has been able to support the rejuvenation of economic and social activity in Watari.

Now, however, Hikichi is looking to expand WATALIS’ sales and distribution channels.

If you have the chance to support this business—through your connections and capacity rather than charity—you will be playing a crucial part in helping the women of Watari re-find their pasts and begin the journey to recovery.

Should you be in a position to help WATALIS establish sales and distribution channels, in Japan or globally, please email info@bccjapan.com.