Commemorating the 3/11 Tohoku Earthquake Disaster


“After a major disaster, physical and emotional healing co-exist,” explains Sophia Slater. “One can’t exist without the other.”  To some adults, this might seem like common sense, but Sophia Slater is a sixteen-year-old junior at the American School in Japan (ASIJ) and experience has made her wise beyond her years.  As the second anniversary of the March 11th Tohoku Earthquake approaches, she is focused more than ever on the community service initiative she founded, called Charmworks, that provides aid to people affected by the disaster.

During and after the earthquake, Sophia had her own problems.  She was at school at the time, and on a good day with no traffic, ASIJ is almost an hour outside of the city of Tokyo, where she has lived all her life.  Getting back home that day, with the snarled traffic and non-working infrastructure, took over eight hours.  She had worries about her own family and their safety, as well as that of her friends.  But within a short time, her mind turned to how she could help those who were truly suffering in the north of Japan, in the Tohoku region.

“Sometimes ways of giving are limited by who you are,” Sophia explains with a practical bent.  “I had to figure out the best way for me, a teenager, to make even a small difference.”

Funakoshi – Before and After the Tsunami

Renowned for its slate and seaweed, the small fishing village of Funakoshi in the Tohoku region of Japan is still unrecognizable two years after the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.  There had been 130 families living there but the entire town was obliterated.  An NGO called “It’s Not Just Mud” that did work in the region put Sophia in touch with the people who used to live in the town.  Those people were coming into town daily, some of them traveling upwards of sixty minutes from their temporary housing, to work together to start rebuilding.  First, they needed money.  The men of the town started clearing out homes and salvaging roof tiles made from the precious slate.  They then cut the slate into small, round pieces, and the women of the town starting painting them to sell as charms.  These men and women now work six days a week making charms, and these days, can’t fulfill all of the orders they get for the delightful slate charms.  That’s where Sophia comes in.  Twice a month she organizes people in Tokyo to paint charms.  They people of Funakoshi send her blank circles of slate and she sells the circles painted with designs made by people of all ages, of all backgrounds, just wanting to do something to help Tohoku. She then sends the money up to Funakoshi.

Prior to painting the charms together, Sophia explains, the people were working independently to earn money to rebuild the village.  Once someone came up with the idea of making the charms, the men and women who had previously had a community based on proximity, were able to re-form their community based on shared love of their town.  That’s where the emotional healing is coming into play, according to Sophia.  Each of the people is safe and warm and they are re-starting their lives in various ways. But that doesn’t make them miss the loved ones they lost any less.  And it doesn’t make them forget the bonds they once shared. Now they are able to tie together the physical work of earning money to try to buy the fishing boats, nets, and other equipment needed to re-start their industry with the emotional needs of healing their souls.  The two types of healing co-exist.

Anyone who wants to buy a charm to support Funakoshi can do so by contacting Sophia via the Charmworks website,  They run between $7 and $12, and you can request certain designs or symbols be put on your charm.

Sophia is quick to say that she doesn’t want credit for starting Charmworks or making the charms.  She wants all of the recognition to go to the men and women of Funakoshi, who are moving forward with rebuilding their lives.  She is just a conduit to getting more charms made and sold for them.  All of the money she earns from the charms goes directly back to the town of Funakoshi.  She is quite an amazing young lady to have taken on this type of bi-monthly commitment to help this town, and she does it with the grace of a young woman who is on the brink of a bright future, one charm at a time.

Aimee Ledewitz Weinstein, Tokyo, Japan

Dr. Aimee Weinstein is a writer and writing professor who has lived six out of the last eight years in Tokyo, Japan. She received her doctorate from the Department of Higher Education at George Mason University and has held positions at Temple University Japan, The George Washington University, and George Mason University. She has taught a variety of writing courses, from freshman composition to advanced expository writing. Her work has been published in Kaleidescope, Tokyo Weekender, inTouch, and Asian Jewish Life. She also maintains a regular blog at TokyoWriter, where she fondly observes Tokyo life through the eyes of an American expat and writes about writing. Aimee currently resides in Tokyo with her supportive husband and two beautiful children, where she continues to write and help others in their writing. Twitter: 

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