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Post earthquake, Wajima lacquerware find new homes

                                Benjamin Flatt sorts through cleaned Wajima lacquerware in Noto, Ishikawa prefecture, in May.
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Benjamin Flatt sorts through cleaned Wajima lacquerware in Noto, Ishikawa prefecture, in May.

WAJIMA, Japan >> A project to find new owners for recovered Wajima lacquerware is underway in areas affected by the Noto Peninsula earthquake on Jan. 1.

A volunteer organization in Noto, Ishikawa prefecture, collects recovered lacquerware and gives them away to people who will use and treasure them. The group has received more than 600 tableware sets, including bowls and tray tables.

The project was started by Benjamin Flatt, 58, an Australian man who has run a Noto inn for 27 years with his wife, Chikako Funashita, 54, a lifelong Noto resident. The couple hopes to preserve Wajima lacquerware, which represents the traditions and culture of the area.

One nursery school teacher donated about 80 lacquerware sets, kept in a shed at her house in the Ushitsu area of Noto. “I can’t throw them away, but I don’t have plans to use them either,” she said.

Her house sustained significant damage and is set to be demolished soon.

The teacher had been staying with a relative and worried about the sets, which had been used during numerous ceremonial occasions over the years.

Flatt’s inn, also the couple’s residence, suffered roof damage, and the land beneath it had sunk. They have not been able to reopen.

But they wanted to help others affected by the disaster. In February, they established the Noto Earthquake Regional Reconstruction Support. As they helped run soup kitchens and did other volunteer work, they were shocked to learn that Wajima lacquerware recovered from collapsed houses were being discarded.

Flatt and Funashita had served meals on Wajima lacquerware at their inn and appreciated the craftsmanship that went into the pieces. They wanted to preserve the items being recovered.

Their project covers four municipalities in the Okunoto area — Suzu, Wajima, Noto and Anamizu — where more than 51,000 buildings were damaged. So far, the group has received Wajima lacquerware recovered from about 30 buildings.

The group carefully cleans the items before giving them away, and about 10 sets and other pieces have been given to three Tokyo residents.

But before any lacquerware changes hands, the group asks potential recipients to visit the area, and they interview them to decide whether a person can be trusted with something so valuable.

Said one recipient, a 39-year-old midwife: “I treasure them, as they keep me connected to Noto.”

Eventually, the group plans to offer its collection to restaurant operators.

But no matter where the pieces go, Flatt and Funashita realize the lacquerware has been handed down for generations, and they hope the pieces will be passed down to future generations.

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