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Rebuilding hope, one stitch at a time

Entrepreneur's knitwear firm invests in future of Kesennuma

by Atsushi Kodera

Staff Writer

Most of the 19 women from the tsunami-hit city of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, who work for Tamako Mitarai’s knitwear company had no professional experience as knitters.

It may not sound like an impressive operation, but the 28-year-old president paints a lofty vision for them: to make products that fans seek out like high-priced boutique items that can be worn for the rest of their lives.

Kesennuma Knitting Co., founded last June, has attracted attention for its approach to helping rebuild one of the areas hit worst by the Great East Japan Earthquake: Put down roots in the region and create jobs for those affected.

The project, initially led by the popular Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun, a pioneering online newspaper launched by legendary advertising copywriter Shigesato Itoi, sets itself apart from other disaster relief projects, which Mitarai says are often short-lived.

“We wanted to establish an industry that can last for the medium to long term after short-term reconstruction assistance efforts are withdrawn, and we wanted to establish a profit-making structure,” Mitarai told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

The idea for the knitting business came when Itoi and Mitarai, who was handpicked by Itoi to lead the project, and their colleagues realized that the fishing town has a knitting tradition founded on the need to mend fishing nets. This is similar to Ireland’s Aran Islands, which are famous for their hand-knitted sweaters.

Although the company mostly started out with local housewives who had to be trained to become knitters, Mitarai didn’t hesitate to price their first product at around ¥150,000 to compensate them for their long hours of work.

“It’s a price not too uncommon for popular fashion brands,” she said.

The question was, how do you persuade people to buy garments woven by women in a city not exactly known for such products, when they are being sold at a boutique price?

Her idea was twofold. First, the garment must be custom-made and provide a special feeling. For this purpose, customers are informed of who is knitting their sweater and their profiles are posted on the company website, ensuring customers know that a real human being is knitting the garment just for them.

“There is something special about clothes that are handmade for each customer,” she said. “Clothes made that way make you feel happy and protected.”

Second, it had to have a distinctive design and be made with special materials.

“I like the prominent patterns on the Aran sweaters because I think there is beauty in the patterns of shadow created,” Mitarai explains. “But when you look at sweaters sold in Japan, they are typically made with soft thread and you don’t see such prominence on them.” Thus she decided to develop an original wool yarn that can rival Aran’s in toughness.

The first product, MM01, a cardigan offered online, was designed by hand-knitting artist Mariko Mikuni, who incorporated the cable patterns of Aran sweaters but gave them a more modern look, and helped train the knitters to achieve a professional level.

The first batch of MM01s were priced at ¥147,000 each and shipped in December 2012. Three batches have been sold since then.

Mitarai is confident when she talks about business, and that’s because she is no stranger to running one. A University of Tokyo graduate, she launched her career in 2008 at the Tokyo arm of leading business consultancy McKinsey & Co. Her philosophy is “to know the world, you need to know business.” There she honed her knowledge as she helped clients work out their business strategies and reorganization plans.

But just two years later her career took an unusual turn when she learned that the Himalayan country of Bhutan was looking for someone to work for the Bhutan Prime Minister’s Fellowship, a government program that seeks to make use of talents outside the country as part of its efforts for economic self-reliance.

As the first fellow, Mitarai used the research and analytical skills she gained at McKinsey to launch a mission to boost tourism.

Working with Bhutanese officials, she checked the flights to Bhutan and proposed they be rescheduling to allow, for example, an overnight journey from Japan. Previously, travelers had to spend an extra day in transit in Bangkok to get to Bhutan.

As she learned through surveys, travelers had various needs depending on where they were from. She thus worked out promotional strategies tailored to individual areas.

During her one-year stint, Bhutan saw its tourist numbers rise by about 60 percent.

Whether it’s Kesennuma or Bhutan, Mitarai wants to go where she thinks she can be of help. She also has a strong desire to see the world, a trait she traces back to a formative experience she had when she was 11 years old.

Taking part in an international summer camp for children organized by a global nongovernmental organization CISV International in Portugal, she befriended kids from 12 countries around the world. Upon her return she realized the world no longer was the same.

“After my return I saw TV news saying there was a wildfire in the mountains of Spain,” she recalled, “and found myself worried about whether it might be affecting that new Spanish friend I met at the camp.”

When she joined another summer camp held by CISV at the age of 15, she faced a problem that deeply troubled her. This time the children were tasked with scheduling their days at the camp, and Mitarai became the leader of a group of geographically and culturally mixed teenagers.

“There were boys smoking and drinking, and some didn’t wake up when they were supposed to,” Mitarai said. “I confronted them, but became suddenly unsure of myself when some of them responded by saying something like, ‘Leave me alone, this is the way in my country.’ That left me with the question, ‘Is there an absolute criterion for deciding what is right or wrong?’ — which haunted me for a long time.”

TV news about the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which juxtaposed the grief of Americans with the cheers of poor children in the Middle East, further deepened the question. But it also brought up a new one: How can economic disparity be resolved?

Asked what she would be doing in 10 years, she mused, “I’m not the type that plans ahead. It depends on what the world may present to me at that point. I went to Bhutan because they wanted to be economically independent and were looking for someone who could help. And I don’t think I would have wanted to work in Kesennuma if the quake hadn’t happened.

“I guess the important thing for me would be what the situation may be shaping up to be, and what I may want to do to help people at the moment,” Mitarai said.


Key events in Mitarai’s life

April 1985 — Born in Ota Ward, Tokyo
July 1996 — Participates in international children’s exchange summer camp in Portugal
March 2008 — Graduates from University of Tokyo
April 2008 — Joins McKinsey & Co., Japan
Sept. 2010 — Joins Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission as first Prime Minister’s Fellow
June 2012 — Named to lead Shigesato Itoi’s “Kesennuma Knitting” project in Miyagi Prefecture
December 2012 — Kesennuma Knitting turns out its first product, the MM01 cardigan
June 2013 — Inaugurates Kesennuma Knitting Co., naming herself as president
November 2013 — Leads the launch of Kesennuma Knitting’s second product, the Etude pullover

“Generational Change” is a new series of interviews that will appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about change in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp .