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Japan-based artisans create handcrafted medals for countries that aided disaster-hit areas

A leaflet for the Tohoku Fukko Medal Project is seen in this image provided by the organization.

YONEZAWA, Yamagata -- A decade after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami devasted northeastern Japan, 70 artisans and others from the heavily hit Tohoku region are preparing to deliver handcrafted commemoration medals expressing gratitude to countries and international organizations that lent a helping hand to the area.

    With an eye on the goal of making the summer Olympics and Paralympics a symbol of Japan's recovery from the disaster, the artists aim to begin giving out the medals in order from May.

    The spark for the project came in 2018, via a remark from French potter Bruno Pifre, 63, who is based in the northeast Japan town of Oishida, Yamagata Prefecture.

    "I want to give medals made by us artisans to athletes coming to Japan," Pifre said. He approached his peers about giving the unique medals even to athletes who wouldn't be awarded with gold, silver or bronze at the events.

    When lacquer craftsman Tadahiro Eguchi, 63, resident of the Yamagata Prefecture city of Nagai, heard about the idea, he approached a member of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games about it. Because about 20,000 athletes are expected to come to Japan, it was instead decided that handcrafted medals would be delivered to supporting countries via their respective embassies in Japan.

    In 2019, the Tohoku Fukko (reconstruction) Medal Project began its activities. Those behind it shouldered the costs themselves and worked voluntarily, and Tokyo Zokei University professor Toshiro Tamada was asked to be the head coordinator.

    The medals are 9 centimeters in diameter and have a thickness of 2 cm at maximum. The finished products are placed in 10-centimeter square paulownia boxes, and two to three each will be presented to every supporting country. In all, a total of 70 artisans, artists, designers and other craftspeople from the six prefectures in the Tohoku region were recruited to the project.

    The National Stadium, which will serve as the main venue for events during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, is seen in Tokyo in this image taken from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter on Jan. 21, 2021. (Mainichi)

    The materials for the medals include a variety of ceramics, glass, wood, metal and Japanese washi paper, and pairs of 61 idiosyncratic medal designs were produced by November 2020. The second of each of the medals will be shown after the gifting of them at exhibitions in Tohoku and Tokyo, in what the artisans hope will be an opportunity to get the message out about creative activities in the region.

    The recipients will include more than 20 embassies in Japan of countries that sent rescue teams to 17 disaster-hit areas from Aomori to Fukushima prefectures. These include South Korea, Singapore, Germany, the U.S. and Turkey. Also included are international institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, which sent their specialists to Japan following the disaster. Although the dates for the project as a whole have been delayed by the coronavirus, the group wants to visit the embassies in succession, explaining the thinking behind the gifts and presenting them.

    Pifre commented, "In this age of the coronavirus, we want to communicate ideas of overcoming difficulties and going forward to the people of the world through Tohoku's creative artistic works."

    (Japanese original by Ryoichi Sato, Yonezawa Local Bureau)

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