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Sunday, June 24, 2001

Soft toys are us


Staff writer

Lightweight soft toys made of colorful fabrics are not only fun for small children to play with, but they are safe as well. They won't break even though children throw them around and won't hurt if they hit them.

Volunteers help out at the "toy library"

The only problem with fabric toys is that they are mostly handmade and are more expensive than mass-produced plastic ones. For instance, a picture book made of cloth can cost nearly 10,000 yen at stores.

At a community center in Yokohama's Tsuzuki Ward, though, anyone can borrow these fabric toys from its "toy library" -- including picture books whose characters can be removed from one page and stuck on others, real-looking fruits that can be cut or peeled with a toy knife, and "apron theaters" to encourage storytelling using the many items in their pockets.

Those toys are all handmade by Ajisai, a local volunteer group whose 18 members are housewives aged from their 30s to 70s. The group gets together three times a month at the community center to make the toys, which are sometimes so elaborate they take months to complete.

Since the group was formed in 1985, it has made more than 100 kinds of cloth toys -- with every one of its creations donated to the community center. However, the huge popularity of their toys has one big drawback. Because they are so heavily used, they soon get damaged and become raggedy. Consequently, running repairs are another part of the group members' work.

Though they put in so much time and skill, the volunteers take no pay -- not even transportation costs. However, the center pays for the materials needed to make the toys, which can be 1,000 yen to 1,200 yen for one page of a fabric picture book.

Asked about working completely for free, though, the women all answer in chorus that they don't mind at all -- "because it's fun."

"I've been doing this because I like needlework and children. When I see mothers and children going home with our handmade toys, I feel really good," says Hisako Yokomoto, Ajisai's spokeswoman. "Also, because we are volunteers, we don't have the pressure of trying to make a profit from the toys."

Another group member added: "It is more like a club activity than volunteer work. Making something together with other members while chatting is more fun than working alone. That's why I can keep doing it."



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