About a week after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastated Tohoku and shocked the entire nation, Bernd Kestler, who teaches knitting in Yokohama, received an unexpected parcel from a friend in Germany.
“The whole country was shut down and suddenly there was my Christmas present. When I opened it, it was full of yarn, chocolate cake and Christmas stuff,” the 47-year-old German said of his surprise Christmas gift.
The parcel inspired Kestler, who began knitting when he was about 12 years old, to think of ways he could use the yarn to help the disaster survivors.
He subsequently launched his Knit for Japan initiative, which collects hand-knitted and hand-crocheted items including hats, scarves and gloves, knitting tools and materials such as yarn, and then sends the items to people in disaster-hit areas in Tohoku.
Knit for Japan, he said, also aims to empower disaster survivors living in temporary shelters and evacuation centers. Giving evacuees the tools and materials to knit with would enable them to make much-need clothing items and help alleviate their boredom, he said.
“When I watch TV, I see a lot of people in shelters, sitting there doing nothing. . . . If I can give them needles and a ball of yarn, they can knit something so they don’t have to wait for somebody to send them hats,” said Kestler, a native of the German town of Assenheim.
Kestler, who has lived in Japan since 1998 and made the country his home, said it was natural to help people here.
Kestler graduated from Heinrich Heine University in Germany with a master’s degree in modern Japan, after becoming interested in Japanese culture.
After moving to Japan, he worked at an interior design company and also at a furniture firm.
He later studied at the Yokohama branch of Nihon Vogue Knitting School, and is currently teaching basic and advanced knitting to 15 students in his “Knit Cafe in English” class at a cultural school in Yokohama.
His Knit for Japan initiative did not bear fruit immediately, but thanks to publicity in the Japanese and German media, as well as his efforts to increase its profile through social networking sites, including Twitter and Mixi, boxes of knitting materials and needles, as well as finished clothing items, began arriving at his home.
The outpouring of support both inside Japan and from around the world, including from Norway, Mexico, the Philippines and Australia, was “unbelievable,” Kestler said.
He was especially touched by certain donations, including the 140 books on the basics of knitting that Gosyo Co. sent him, a bigger number than he had asked for, and 92 hand-knitted “tawashi” (scrubbing brushes) an acquaintance gave him.
Based on the donations and the items he knitted himself, Kestler has managed to send 27 boxes to nine beneficiaries in Tohoku, including a center for tsunami reconstruction in Sendai, various knitting communities in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, and a temporary housing facility in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture.
“Especially after something like the tsunami in March, if you’re at a shelter or a temporary housing facility, you don’t need a lot of space, many tools or electricity to knit,” he said. “You can produce something extremely useful and that you need immediately.”
And as “winter can be long in Tohoku,” there is no better time to give evacuees the opportunity to make hand-knitted hats or mufflers, Kestler said.
Kestler got a chance to meet disaster victims last year through teaching knitting from May to July at a facility for evacuees at Todoroki Arena in Kawasaki. He also visited a facility in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, in July to teach knitting.
At Todoroki Arena, he met a female evacuee from Fukushima Prefecture who told him that her “biggest loss” was her friends and community.
“It’s not so much the things we own, it’s more the social connections (that matter),” Kestler said, adding that knitting provides an outlet for people to talk, relax and engage in a group activity, helping them to stop thinking about the tragedy, if only for a little while.
“You’re knitting together people, you’re kind of connecting people,” he said.
As long as there is a need, Kestler said he will continue to send knitted items, as well as knitting materials and tools to people affected in Tohoku. He also plans to keep visiting shelters and teaching evacuees how to knit.
“The damage in Tohoku will not go away in a couple of months . . . and as time passes, this may not be so new and the support may be less,” he said, stressing his long-term commitment to helping disaster victims in the northeast.
He said the response from donors and the thank-you letters he has received from beneficiaries of his initiative inspired him to make even greater efforts and devise new ways to involve more people in Knit for Japan.
“Maybe I can designate some places where people can pick up yarn and design kits, knit at home and then drop them back there, and I can send their work to Tohoku,” Kestler said.
While being a male knitter in Japan is somewhat unique, Kestler said this is not the case in Germany and encouraged both men and women, young and old alike, to embrace knitting and use it to help others.
“What I’m doing here is just a drop in the ocean, but you know (that) for some people it makes a difference,” said Kestler. “If a knitter in Mexico is willing to knit a hat for Tohoku, I think that’s quite nice.”