Knitting Together a Community in Tsunami’s Wake

by Yuriko Nagano

Editor’s note: More than a year after Japan’s Tohoku region was devastated by a tsunami, small local businesses are bouncing back, helped by low-interest loans and startup assistance provided through a $2 million grant from NVIDIA. This is one in a series of profiles of businesses benefiting from the program, dubbed Operation Kizuna, after the Japanese word for “bond of love and friendship.”

Like so many others, Martina Umemura wanted to help the victims of Japan’s tsunami in whatever way she could.

The Martina Umemura Kesennuma Friedenssocken Atelier.

So, it’s been as much a surprise to her as anyone that her donation of yarn to residents of temporary shelters has evolved into a growing knitting business employing several local women.

Petite and cheerful with long brown hair, German-born Umemura, 53, came to Japan two decades ago to do research. She ended up marrying a local and they are now raising a family in Kyoto, where she’s a university German instructor.

Her business began by chance. Immediately after the disaster, Umemura, who knitted as a hobby, donated some of her high-quality, German-made yarn to a dozen or so shelters.

Elderly evacuees in one of the shelters in Kesennuma City liked the quality of the yarn and the comfort that knitting brings so much that they asked her to donate more.

Umemura did, but she also offered an idea: use the yarn to knit little octopuses to sell as trinkets and raise money for the community. They did, and the quirky little eight-legged toys have been growing in popularity in Japan.

From this success, Umemura hatched a plan to make a bigger difference. She struck an import deal with the German yarn company for selling their yarn products and making knitted caps. Even at a pricey 4,500 yen ($56) each, the caps have proven to be popular, selling about a hundred a month through the business’s store, website, and at handicraft markets.

The workplace is staffed by a handful of part-time workers, all of them local mothers living in temporary housing since their homes were destroyed by the tsunami last year. On weekdays while their children attend school, they busily move their hands to create the brightly colored wool caps. Another hire is in the pipeline to handle phone calls and to fill online orders.

Aside from their immediate families, the women lost nearly everything in the disaster: their homes, possessions, workplaces, livelihoods — and more importantly, dear neighbors and loved ones unable to evacuate in time – swallowed by the waves in a matter of minutes.

The workers are grateful for the opportunity provided by Umemura’s business, called the Martina Umemura Kesennuma Friedenssocken Atelier.

“I feel like I’ve won the lottery, getting to do this job,” says Keiko Ito, 48, a mother of two. Her house was in the Shishiori district, which was heavily burned when the tsunami knocked over oil tanks in a harbor. The waves quickly spread the oil, which caught fire on loose debris and burned down whatever was in its path, including her home.

The tsunami also washed away the frozen food factory Ito had worked in for 17 years. The damage was so severe the company shut down operations in Kesennuma and Ito has been jobless since. With worries over raising kids and having to buy a new house, Ito has been appreciating the extra income her knitting job pulls in.

“There’s not much to do in the temporary housing units,” she said. “It gets depressing so it’s great to be able to get out and do something.” It’s a shared sentiment, as the other mothers nod to Ito’s thoughts.

Umemura is being aided in her quest to help tsunami survivors by Ryuichi Saito, and his son Tatsuhiko, who run a local apparel business. The Saitos are enthusiastic supporters, knowing that every little bit of help counts. They consult with her daily and allow her to operate her business in a corner of their main clothing store.

Working through the nonprofits Mercy Corps and PlaNet Finance Japan, NVIDIA has provided funding to facilitate the business’s startup costs and purchase computers used to operate the business.

On Umemura’s part, the smiles of the mothers mean the world to her. She remains in Kyoto while the Saitos manage the onsite business for her. She travels to the area for up to a week each month and checks in by video conference once a day with her staff, everyone greeting each other and speaking in Japanese, and saying their good-byes with a German Tschuss!