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Japanese-Canadian filmmaker Linda Ohama had a dream about the children affected by the tsunami a year ago and how she could make them feel better. She solicited students from both countries to write letters on cloth, then she stitched them together and brought them to display in Japan. All of her efforts were done by word of mouth: no social media, very little news media coverage. (Handout/Handout)
Japanese-Canadian filmmaker Linda Ohama had a dream about the children affected by the tsunami a year ago and how she could make them feel better. She solicited students from both countries to write letters on cloth, then she stitched them together and brought them to display in Japan. All of her efforts were done by word of mouth: no social media, very little news media coverage. (Handout/Handout)

Film

Cloth letters bring cheer to Japan Add to ...

The night after last year’s deadly tsunamis hit Japan, Canadian-Japanese filmmaker Linda Ohama had a dream.

Haunted by the images she had seen on TV, Ms. Ohama dreamt about kids, Canadian kids sending messages of hope to Japanese kids.

The next morning, her young granddaughters painted some images on a piece of cloth to send to Japan, and Ms. Ohama’s remarkable cloth-letters project was born.

A year later, the avalanche of heartfelt messages from Canadian schoolchildren that resulted – on simple pieces of cloth sewn together into two large quilts – has struck such an emotional chord in Japan that the country does not want to let them go.

Along with a dozen quilts compiled in response by Japanese students moved to return greetings to their Canadian counterparts, the cloth letters have been on a town-by-town tour of the devastated areas of Japan for months, with no end in sight.

Some of the letters were briefly separated from the exhibition during Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit to Japan. They were on display Sunday when Mr. Harper met with staff from the Canadian embassy in Tokyo.

The messages, ranging some a simple “Do not be sad,” to cheery images of hugs and cherry blossoms, to a heart-tugging “We love you,” have cheered spirits in Japan and helped renew their commitment to rebuild.

In one wiped-out community, a note attached to one of the quilts said: “We are really grateful for these beautiful and heartfelt letters. We have been encouraged and become happy viewing them, after feeling so hopeless.”

In this age of the Internet, the success of the project is even more striking considering that it gathered momentum the old-fashioned way, without Facebook, Twitter or even the regular media. Friends passed the word to friends who told other friends, and so it went.

“There was a certain purity to it,” said April Bosshard, a long-time associate of Ms. Ohama’s who gathered more than 70 cloth-letter squares from kids on Bowen Island.

“Linda contacted me. I contacted people I knew. It was real grass-roots stuff, all done by volunteers. It was sort of like, build it and they will come. It just unfolded.”

Ms. Ohama, who has put her own work on hold for a year to do what she can to assist rebuilding efforts, is overwhelmed by the response.

“It’s beyond anything I imagine. The point of it was to make a connection. Kids could speak to each other as kids, like giving them a hug,” she said. “It wasn’t about money. It was about spirits.”

Still, Ms. Ohama had no idea what to expect last Canada Day when she unveiled the cloth letters to Japanese students for the first time.

Just three and a half months earlier, many of the junior high school students in front of her had been through the trauma of losing their homes, their parents, and all had lost classmates to the rampaging waves. Their hometown, Yuriage, was obliterated.

“How would they react to these cloth letters all sewn together by Canadians … from this woman in sandals who sweated a lot,” she wondered. “I was nervous.”

She needn’t have worried, however, the moment she began pulling the quilt out of her red suitcase.

“As it got longer and longer, the students stood up and started clapping. They were smiling. Then they started laughing, then they began giggling. They loved it.”

Within minutes, they were walking around the quilt, spread out on the gymnasium floor, examining every single panel. On the spot, the Yuriage students decided to make their own cloth letters to send to Canada.

The reaction was similar elsewhere, and there are now a dozen cloth-letter quilts made by Japanese school children.

“People were moved everywhere I went,” said Ms. Ohama. “Sometimes, kids and teachers came to tears, because they could not believe that kids their age, in other parts of the world, would even care about them.”

The images on the Japanese quilts, particularly those by younger students, were not always cheerful.

Several painted families, with members who had died scribbled over in black. And one youngster painted a rocket ship flying off into space, explaining that it was the rocket that had carried his mother to safety.

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