Kesennuma knitters aim to build world-class brand

by Naomi Hayashi

Kyodo

An effort to knit cardigans to help revive the tsunami-hit coastal city of Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture has evolved into a company of 20 people.

The firm, Kesennuma Knitting Co., originally started as a project by Tamako Mitarai, 28, in June 2012. It now employs about 20 local women as knitters.

Among them is Yuriko Oyama, 70, whose house was washed away by the tsunami spawned by the March 2011 mega-quake.

“Knitting makes me feel relaxed and comfortable even when I have some worries,” she said. “I would like to make a great cardigan thinking of a person who will wear this.”

Kesennuma Knitting is working on 12 luxury cardigans for this winter that will be sold to customers by lottery.

Mitarai, the president, said she hopes to “create a world-class upscale brand that customers choose not because they want to help the city recover, but because they think our products are special and make them happy.”

Mitarai, however, is a Tokyoite with a unique background.

After graduating from university, she entered McKinsey & Co., a major management consultancy. She then moved to Bhutan in September 2010 to work for about a year as an official for the Bhutan government’s Gross National Happiness Commission. Her main task there was to promote tourism as a fellow to Bhutan’s prime minister.

Soon after returning to Japan, Mitarai was asked by an acquaintance, Shigesato Itoi, a renowned copywriter who often appears on TV, to lead his effort to reconstruct Kesennuma.

Recalling that fishermen in Ireland wear knit sweaters designed with cable patterns, Itoi developed the idea of launching a knitting business in Kesennuma, which is also famous for fishing, she said.

At first, Mitarai was not really certain if she was capable of leading the project, but eventually decided to move there, thinking, “Let’s give it a try.”

Once the project was set in motion, Mitarai visited the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland along with knitting designer Mariko Mikuni to research the traditional luxury sweater business. After much discussion, they decided to produce a ¥147,000 cardigan to order.

Mitarai said some who bought the made-to-order cardigans last winter have visited the office or sent photographs of them being worn, giving the knitters confidence in their work. She said she plans to produce sweaters or other products in the future.