On Wednesday, May 6th I had the privilege of accompanying the esteemed members of Igune Club on their annual trip touring innovative firms in the Tohoku region. In Tohoku igune (居久根) refers to a forest or grove of trees planted around a residence. In the rugged Tohoku region igune were planted for wind protection, firewood and food. The Igune Club is a group of local businessmen and professionals dedicated to passing down the wisdom of their predecessors as well as promoting innovation in the Tohoku region.

This year’s tour visited two unique firms in Yamagata, a prefecture best known for its agricultural products, especially cherries.

The first visit was to Oriental Carpet, a luxury carpet maker in the small agricultural town of Yamanobe. Here, a town where the streets are so narrow our tour bus could barely squeeze through, is a luxury carpet factory whose clients include the Vatican, the Imperial Family, and the National Kabuki theater.

President Watanabe Hiroaki, the fifth president of the company, explained the history and mission of the tiny mill. In 1935 a local entrepreneur saw the growing demand for Western interior decor and brought seven rug experts from China to teach carpet-making to local women. According to President Watanabe, the founder’s goal was to provide employment opportunities to women in a region hit hard by bad harvests and an economic recession. Despite a bumpy start the company went on to produce rugs for Imperial Japanese Army vessels, GHQ, an American cardinal, and Pope Paul VI. To this day the small team of 30 artisans, all women, are hard at work producing exquisite luxury rugs.

I was struck at how creatively and resourcefully the management of Oriental Carpet has maneuvered the multiple catastrophic events befalling the company since its founding. Even before the 3/11 triple disaster Tohoku was hardly a hospitable region for doing business. During the 1930s relations with China were strained, and I am impressed at the extraordinary humility of the company’s founder in recognizing the need to learn from Chinese carpet masters. When the Pacific War broke out in 1941 factories were mobilized for war production and employees were sent home. After the war there was little demand for high-quality carpet in the devastated domestic market, so the company began exporting abroad. Japan’s textile industry was already in decline when Yamagata was struck by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. Facing a crisis, Watanabe realized the company needed to innovate to survive. He reached out to Yamagata native Okuyama Ken an industrial designer famous for his work with Ferrari and Ducati and Okuyama, along with well-known architect Kuma Kengo and graphic designer Sato Kashiwa developed sophisticated, modern designs which became immediately popular both at home and abroad.

Although management have remained dedicated to maintaining the company’s tradition of high quality and attention to detail, their willingness to experiment and take risks has enabled the company to thrive in a region struck by natural disasters, hollowed-out industry, and a declining population. Oriental Carpet provides is also an excellent model for other Japanese firms. Oriental Carpet has been able to provide stable employment to women in the countryside for over 80 years and selling its products everywhere from Italy to China to the United States. The overconcentration of firms in Tokyo is a major factor in the country’s rural exodus and population decline as urban women are far less likely to have children as women in the countryside. Additionally, many Japanese firms, especially artisans, are resistant to changing their time-honored ways to keep up with changing market demands. Oriental Carpet is an excellent example of a boutique firm that beat the odds through dedication to the local community and flexibility in a rapidly changing world.

About the Author

Hello! My name is Terasa Younker and I am a graduate student at Harvard University. This summer I will be working as an intern in the Disaster Prevention & Education Section of the Kahoku Shimpo. As a second-year student in the Regional Studies - East Asia program I study gender, material culture and consumption, social stratification and popular culture, globalization and cultural diffusion in contemporary Japanese society. I received my undergraduate education at New York University (’10), where I studied East Asian language, literature, art history, philosophy, history, and film theory. My study abroad experience includes Columbia University in Beijing, Princeton University in Ishikawa, and the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies.
After graduating from NYU, I spent a year as a translator, a year studying advanced Japanese at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Study in Yokohama, and three years as an account manager at Rakuten, a Japanese firm in Tokyo. At Rakuten, I was a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Sales group and worked with hotels in central Tokyo as well as the Tokyo Islands.
Although I lived in Japan for a total of five years I never had the opportunity to visit Tohoku. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to explore of an area of Japan not well known in the United States and hope to promote understanding of the region upon my return.