Tsuruta, part of the province of Aomori, is a small town of 11,773 people located in Northeast Japan. Tsuruta is most famous for its apples and Steuben grapes. “When I think of Tsuruta, I want to present an image of an idyllic small town where anyone’s dreams can come true,” says Utako Oka, founder of Handsome Linen KOMO, and the subject of this month’s Meet an Artisan. Ms. Oka’s deep love of her town is ingrained within her work.
In Japan, it’s common for young people from small towns to move permanently to larger cities in order to find work. In fact, after graduating from college, Ms. Oka pursued a similar path, moving from Tsuruta to Tokyo. But, she always felt that her heart wasn’t in it. When her mother became ill, she decided to move back to Tsuruta.
“When I was younger, I dreamed of starting my own business and working for myself. I wasn’t thinking of linen at the time; I just knew that I wanted to work with my hands. During college, I discovered the joys of working with linen, and it made me realize that I had always preferred to wear it, even when I was small.” Ms. Oka began to produce her own linen bags for daily use.
At first, Ms. Oka only made bags for herself. But when her friends got a chance to try them, they wanted some, too! From that experience, Ms. Oka realized that the things she was making could bring joy to others, too.
After moving back to Tsuruta, Ms. Oka wanted to build a career that allowed her to simultaneously spend plenty of time caring for her mother while also making a living. She decided to create a brand, “Handsome Linen KOMO”, focused on products that improve the quality of daily life. “I am so glad anytime I hear from a customer that my products have helped them in their daily life, and I am grateful that this business has supported me for so many years.”
Ms. Oka believes that every day is important; therefore, it’s important to live a good life every day, too. She wakes up daily at 8AM, working on her products until lunchtime. Then, she works with her partner at their restaurant where they serve homemade Japanese dumplings with green tea. Every day is busy, but good – Ms. Oka believes that if one can improve the quality of one’s daily life, then daily life becomes more colorful and interesting. “I hope my clients feel that the person that they are today is just a little bit better than the person they were yesterday, because their quality of life has improved.”
Handsome Linen KOMO is a unique name for a brand. In Japanese, many words are borrowed from foreign languages and written using Katakana. The characters that are used often reflect the generation from which the word first entered Japanese culture; this means that, with the passage of time, certain words can convey a sense of nostalgia from a time long past. “Handsome”, when written in Japanese, is precisely this sort of word; Ms. Oka chose it to convey a neutral sense and a product that was usable by both men and women, but still with a faint sense of nostalgia. No matter one’s generation, one can relate to the term handsome. “Handsome contains the word hand. I like this, because everything at Handsome Linen KOMO is handmade. Every day I get up and use my hands to make new works; but, I don’t know whose hands they’ll eventually end up in, so I work hard to make sure it’s as good as it can be.” As for KOMO, Ms. Oka borrowed the name from her small sugar glider (similar to a flying squirrel) that she previously took care of at her home.
Ms. Oka works with a specialty shop to source the material for her Brushed Linen Shawl series, using only linen that’s weaved and dyed domestically; the material is specially processed to be especially soft, to the point that it often doesn’t even feel like linen. It’s especially good at helping people stay warm.
Because linen is a natural fiber, it features variations in its thickness and coloration. Ms. Oka considers this to be very beautiful, because each piece is completely unique. “For me, it’s as beautiful as looking at a painting.” Ms. Oka also places great importance on not tarnishing the natural beauty of linen while working with it; she works carefully to stitch in a way that avoids visible marks on the material. This allows its natural beauty to shine through.
When speaking with Ms. Oka, it’s easy to see how passionate she is about her hometown. Born and raised in Tsuruta, it’s where Ms. Oka finds her inspiration. “In the morning, as the sun slowly rises and the birds start chirping, I can truly appreciate the beauty of this town. I try to honor this beauty in my work. Tsuruta is where I was born and it’s where I grew up; it’s a place that makes me feel truly calm. And I think it’s important to feel calm when making new works.”
Ms. Oka, of course, includes her favorite parts of Tsuruta in her future plans for Handsome Linen KOMO. “I love it so much here that I want to incorporate the local grasses and flowers into the dying of the linen itself, as part of a new Natural Dye Linen series. Once the snow melts, I plan to start right away.”
De-population is one of the most pressing issues facing small towns in Japan. But Ms. Oka doesn’t want this problem to prevent Tsuruta from moving forward. “I hope people can imagine Tsuruta as an idyllic place, the same way I do.” Ms. Oka spends her free time supporting the young children in town to do the things they want to do; she also hopes to help more people experience the joy of making works by hand. “I hope to help people in Tsuruta get out of their comfort zone a little bit. Tsuruta’s population slowly declines each year, similar to many other small towns in Japan. But, if you only worry about this, and don’t do anything else, then you’ll miss out on many things, too.”
Small businesses like Handsome Linen KOMO help support small towns like Tsuruta. Ms. Oka feels that making Tsuruta feel like a wonderful place is part of her mission; after all, she started her business here and grew it steadily alongside the town. She splits her time between helping out locally and working on her brand. These kinds of efforts help build the town up and make it a more beautiful place to live, helping to lay the groundwork for a long, bright future.