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Chopsticks of hope

Story and photos by Tate Samata

Masayuki Takahashi didn’t hear the rumbling over the bladed machinery severing cedar logs into thin slices. He was used to the shaking; but when his three-ton saw jolted a foot to the left, he knew there were other forces at play. As wood blocks flew off shelves of his woodshop, he darted outside. The electric line above him twirled like a jump rope; the earth tremored forcefully beneath his feet.

Masahara Hirutu, the Iwaki-Takahashi Chopsticks Co. workshop manager, cuts into a cedar log.Photo by Tate Samata 

It was April 11, 2011, one month after the Great East Japan Earthquake and just seven months after Takahashi, 43, moved to the outskirts of Iwaki City to build a chopstick business. Iwaki-Takahashi Chopsticks Company was born of Takahashi’s passion for nature, and commitment to conserving Japan’s forests. He wanted to start a business that would encourage forest regeneration and prevent devastation by repurposing thinned trees from the woods.


He felt lonely in this unfamiliar town -- with no friends or family, he had only the comfort of the aromatic cedar forests that he’s loved all of his life.


“I used to feel like a stranger, but after the disaster I could see so widely,” Takahashi said. “It is not only me, or just us in Iwaki, but also other prefectures where people were injured and died.”


The powerful earthquake aftershock one month after the initial disaster ravaged the only land he knew in Iwaki, stripping Takahashi of the little security he had. He fought the temptation of losing faith and discontinuing his newborn business. Instead, he propelled forward with a plan to use his chopsticks as a source of hope in the wake of mass destruction.

(Top left) Minoru Tori, 85, stands inside the chopstick workshop. Tori is the first employee that Takahashi hired. He is by far the oldest working at the business. He helps in nearly all steps of the chopstick-making process. (Bottom left) Masahara Hirutu and Minoru Tori work together to saw a piece of wood into slender sections. (Right) Hope Chopsticks founder and owner Masayuki Takahashi holds a slab of cedar and explains the process of smoothing each piece. Photos by Tate Samata

“Immediately after the disaster, we all lost our minds. We were afraid, worried for what would come next. I wanted to cheer everyone up,” he said.


In the months following, Hope Chopsticks were born: three pairs of chopsticks packaged together to signify each Japanese prefecture affected by the triple disaster: Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima.


The number three is symbolic in several ways. It represents the three disasters these prefectures endured: earthquake, tsunami and nuclear. It also numbers the type of impacts: death and destruction, radiation and economic loss. Takahashi constructs each pair of chopsticks by hand with wood imported from the prefectures they represent.


The packaging builds on the beauty and meaning of what lies inside. A label adorned with cherry blossoms -- the universal symbol of life’s ephemeral beauty and fragility -- and colorful birds famous to each designated prefecture, flying through a pastel pink sky.


Takahashi said the birds reiterate the sentiment of hope, and its importance. “With hope, we fly off into the sky,” he said.

(Left) Masahara Hirutu, 30, works at a machine inside of the Iwaki-Takahashi Chopsticks Company workshop. Hirutu is the workshop manager and is one of five workers that the company employs. (Top right) A pair of chopsticks emerges from a machine and snaps off of a larger piece of wood. After this step, the chopsticks are hand checked for durability, polished and branded. (Bottom right) Company owner Masayuki Takahashi stands inside his workshop holding a package of Hope Chopsticks that are finished and ready to be sold. Photos by Tate Samata

A pack of Hope Chopsticks sells for 500 yen (around five US dollars). For each sale, 150 yen is donated to the three prefectures. Takahashi personally takes the donations to the mayors of the prefectures’ major cities. The government then disperses the donations in ways that aid disaster relief and reconstruction. So far, he’s given out more than $9,000 from the sales of Hope Chopsticks.


Six years have passed since the disaster, and Takahashi still spends his days the same way. He wanders through the woods, using his knowledge from working in his grandfather’s logging business to hand-pick each cedar tree. He evaluates the trees on the basis of location, age and weight -- determinants of each tree’s strength and quality.


He now employs five workers who help him shape each pair of chopsticks. Every step of the process is done solely by hand, from peeling the bark off the logs to bending each pair to ensure durability. Each log that’s used is tested for radiation at a local checkpoint, and Takahashi’s wood has always been within safe limits. Takahashi insists every pair of chopsticks leaving his shop is of unparalleled quality.


Currently, he is producing and selling between 20,000-60,000 pairs of chopsticks per month. He burns leftover materials and collects the energy in an effort to diminish the estimated $32 billion devastation wrought on Japan’s environment by the disaster.


“I’m satisfied with helping people, and that’s all. I don’t want anything in return.”

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