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Women in the Lead

Tamako Mitarai

Knitting Friendships

Tamako Mitarai uses her global experience and business sense to weave winning products and human connections in a small Japanese town.

In a quaint building situated on a small hill near Kesennuma Bay in Miyagi Prefecture, Tamako Mitarai of Kesennuma Knitting is immersed in the creation and marketing of hand-knit cardigans and other sweaters. Taking over as CEO and representative director of the company in June 2013, Mitarai has woven her domestic and international experiences into branding Kesennuma Knitting as a place to create not only knitted products but also bonds between people.

Born in Tokyo in 1985, Mitarai met people from different countries at a young age and realized that the world was a small place where she could easily make friends. She decided to study economics at Tokyo University. “I wanted to have the ability to help support others,” she says, “but I realized that before I could do that, I needed to have some kind of capability that could benefit others.”

After working for a few years as a consultant at McKinsey & Co. Japan, Mitarai joined Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission as the first Prime Minister’s Fellow in 2010. In Bhutan, she learned a lot about self-sufficiency as well as mutual support. For her, it was always about engaging people on the same level, and about being able to speak freely.

Returning to Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake, Mitarai was invited to Kesennuma by Shigesato Itoi—a copywriter, game designer and actor—to help lead his disaster relief project. Once there, she found the people in Kesennuma to be globally minded like the people in Bhutan, and felt it was a place where she could work with everyone to create something new.

Kesennuma is filled with fishing boats that travel as far as halfway around the world to places like Spain’s Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to catch fish. It’s a business that is high risk as well as high return, and speaks to the adventurous and enterprising spirit of the people in Kesennuma, who Mitarai says “naturally look to the ocean, to the world outside.” Mitarai has ventured to turn Kesennuma’s history of knitting fishermen’s sweaters into a high-quality sweater and cardigan knitting industry.

Kesennuma Knitting’s first product, the MM01 cardigan, with buttons made of oak, is a custom-made cardigan that debuted in 2012, and currently has a waiting list of more than a hundred customers. Mitarai sees no sense in rushing to finish orders, however, since quality is crucial in the formation of a globally respected brand. Kesennuma Knitting is a business that will take a hundred years or more to build its history, starting from training expert knitters to continue a cycle of raising future generations of knitters. Last March, for example, they held a knitting workshop for kids, many of whom had never tried the craft before.

Every Wednesday, the knitters gather to refine their knitting techniques. Everyone is carefully focused on the yarn and needles in their hands, but they are also drawn in to conversations that range anywhere from friendly advice about health and happiness to talk about the future of the business.

Mitarai sees the future of Kesennuma Knitting as something very dynamic. The company’s fourth sweater is set to be released in July, and a red cardigan and hat custom-knitted for a statue of Miffy featured as part of the popular Dutch character’s 60th Anniversary Art Parade will continue to be exhibited in various locations, including art museums around Japan.

In the meantime, Tamako Mitarai is busy using the Internet to extend the scope of Kesennuma Knitting, including creating a Facebook page. “We build connections so that people can make friends with the women who knit their sweaters,” Mitarai says. “They can ask questions and also learn about Kesennuma. We don’t just think of the people buying our products as customers, but more as friends.”

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