Photo/IllutrationMembers of Chiku Chiku-kai make toys in Chiba Prefecture in 2012 for children affected by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Every December, Hiromi Tanaka’s home is transformed into something like Santa Claus’ workshop.

The 37-year-old homemaker in Kodaira, western Tokyo, sorts and wraps piles of hand-made toys for children around the nation.

The project, called Chiku Chiku-kai, started in 2011, when she donated hand-sewn felt toys to nursery schools in the Tohoku region devastated by the tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Tanaka was swamped with offers for help after she solicited volunteers on her blog and social media. Many people who immediately signed up wanted to go to the affected areas to assist those in need but couldn’t because they had small children or elderly family members to care for at home.

There are no rules binding Chiku Chiku-kai volunteers, nor fees for joining the project. The members don't even hold meetings. Everyone makes whatever toys they want to make, whenever they please.

Over time, the presents’ recipients have expanded to include youngsters who can’t go home because of parental abuse, and those who have to remain hospitalized during the year-end and New Year holidays.

In December, Tanaka visits children’s wards and children’s institutions and hands out presents, accompanied by male volunteers dressed up as Santa Claus.

Tanaka receives tons of letters from toy-making volunteers.

“It is great to feel connected to society,” one wrote. “I felt spiritually relieved putting in stitches one by one,” another said.

A third said, “My mother, who used to spend all her time at pachinko pinball parlors to fight boredom, is now very happy, alive and motivated thanks to Chiku Chiku-kai.”

It is amazing how many people find the simple handwork of “cut, sew and fold,” all done in their spare time, soothing and fulfilling.

Looking at the mountains of toys and boxes full of thank-you letters in Tanaka’s workshop, I felt convinced that we are helped, without knowing, by the very people we are helping.

In any age, aid activity is essentially a matter of give-and-take.

For Santa Claus, too, it must be the big smiles of children that keep him busy and happy.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 24

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.DelivCheck