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On Sunday July 10, a field team of Women Help Women and Relief 2.0 paid a visit to an amazing an inspiring woman, a testimony of the resilient and unbreakable spirit of the Japanese women and the Tohoku survivors. This is the story told by Ann Sado.
Oikawa Denim Y.K. is a truly amazing company with Mrs. Hideko Oikawa as the visionary, entrepreneurial CEO, having an indomitable spirit in times of hardship and crisis as the Tsunami-Earthquake that hit this mountainous coastal region of Motoyoshi-cho, about 1 hour south of Kesennuma city itself.
Oikawa Denim Y.K. has been in operation for 31 years, since its establishment. Currently they have 20 workers with 2 new high school graduates joining. It was started with her husband for 10 years, and after his passing away, her oldest son at the age of 20 began to help her followed by the 2 younger sons after they finished high school for 21 years.
For manufacturing denims, there is a need for many types of sewing machines. For example, to sew straight forward, to sew the holes, to sew the hem and trimming, to sew for attaching the belts, to embroider, etc.
Mrs. Oikawa faced management crisis twice requiring decision whether to close or not before this major tsunami-earthquake disaster. First one occured when her husband died, and the 2nd happened when the bubble economy collapsed in Heisei 9 or 10 (about 1997-1998).
However, they managed to recover and their own ZERO brand was launched in Heisei 18 (2006) under "Studio ZERO" with trademark registration and patent registered. Their main business has always been in OEM or creating denims for major brands such as Levi's, Wrangler, Edwin, Bobson, and others. Based on the PR of Levi's, they were the first Japanese company to be contracted to create and sew the denims which were not cut out of patterns but by 3 dimensional cutting with the denim material hanging on the hip of actual person or mannequin and created 3 pairs of jeans this way due to the recommendation of a gentleman named Takuya Kimura.
One pair was given to Mr. Kimura himself. The other pair still remains in the archives of Levi's. The third pair was with them (but since it was not shown to us, unfortunately, it must have been washed away by the tsunami). Studio ZERO's reputation is solid with strong fans among their clients, such as Beguine (entertainment group) of Okinawa who only wears their brand, as well as 45 RPM. They have strong pride that "their techniques and technology are very competitive globally".
Her husband instead of leaving inheritance of money behind to the sons, believed in leaving businesses behind for each one. First one was the denim factory, and then, the restaurant business, and classroom for teaching accounting using abacus. Though the oldest had trained to cut the denim fabric with patterns, he was in charge of the restaurant business. The second son also trained to cut as his older brother. The third son trained how to work on the sewing machine under one of the companies of Edwin's. The second son was in charge of sales. The first born is the creator, able to create anything into a shape or product. The third became pro in maintaining the sewing machines in the area of technology.
Whenever there was no order consignment, they all thought of what they wanted to create and what they wanted to wear everyday. They believed that despite the downturn in the economy, if they continued to envision the future with new ideas they could create actual new products, they would ride over such times of management crisis.
When the 3.11 tsunami-earthquake disaster hit them, they had another factory built 3 years before on a higher hill. Their home, office, warehouse, and the first larger factory were all washed away due to being on the lower level of the hill. All the sewing machines for the various parts to sew and older molds were all washed away being stored in the warehouse. Their finished products were also all gone. Since Mrs. Oikawa and 11 of her employees all lost their homes, they immediately evacuated to the factory on the higher level. The first few days, 150 in this fishing village all evacuated and lived in this factory. Afterwards, some went to stay with their relatives. For the first 2 weeks, there were hardly any food and water. With negoiation to the Prefectural government, their factory could be designated as an evacuation center and finally they were able to receive food rations, water, and many other goods.
For 80 days until May 31st, Mrs. Oikawa and her family helped all the community members and really built the bonds with these fishermen/fisherwomen. She divided the members into 2 units, one to clear the debris and the other to clean the sea and sort out donated goods to pass out to each in need. One of these fishing people in the community helped to bring electrical power through a generator that they sometimes use in fishing during emergency, and they were able to restart their business, 11 of them. To show her appreciation, she made bags out of the denim fabrics and gave each one to all, who had helped each other to survive. To have people to work with and comrades among them made Mrs. Oikawa very happy.
Her plans for the future and some of the works she has done in the past were then explained to GSW Initiative Japan team members. She told us that because she submitted her denims to the Paris Collection, she was able to achieve recognition of her ZERO products and OEM products within Europe. There was an invitation to visit Russia with the Governor of Miyagi prefecture, taking a representative business of Miyagi. 5 candidates were selected, and Mrs. Oikawa was chosen to represent her Oikawa Denim as one of the 5 businesses of Miyagi, and traveled to Russia with Mr. Murai, governor of Miyagi Prefecture at that time. However, her company is the only one that has lasting business relationship with Russia. They still receive orders to produce from Russia.
This fall her second son will go to Russia to become an instructor, all expenses paid by the Miyagi Prefecture, to show the Russians how to create denims.
She also received 2 calls from the British Embassy but thought it was a mistake and declined the first time. She finally accepted to create denims for the Manchester soccer team athlete upon recommendation from the tailor in London who makes his suit. She was able to produce for him with interpreter/translator provided by the Miyagi prefecture.
She also had an opportunity to collaborate with the fashion designer, Michiko Koshino with her ZERO brand. She was invited also to attend a major function of the 3 Koshino fashion designers and to the funeral of the mother of the Koshino designers.
When asked if she had any urgent requests, she responded that she has to make sure all the different sewing machines that had been in the warehouse and washed away can be restored. She also wishes to continue creating ZERO brand products for the future to be recognized worldwide.
Lastly, as a rainbow appeared in the sky, she said that her mother who had just passed away in the morning of July 10, 2011 in Niigata was here to give us all a positive sign. Her mother at the age of 94 lived a full life and knew how to create the paper balloons she gave us as presents during our visit. Mrs. Oikawa's mother is the only one who had created the largest size and was invited on several occasions to teach this art of making paper balloons to China and became an important figure for cultural exchange between Niigata/Japan and China.
After our discussion, we were shown the factory and cutting room/storage of the denim bolts of fabric. We could imagine how 150 people huddled after 3.11 in the factory with denim laid as a carpet on the floor to keep them warm. I truly felt the indomitable spirit of the Japanese samurai in Mrs. Oikawa but also the compassion and love of Mother Theresa for all who are in need.