When Hideko Oikawa first saw the mangled aftermath of Moore, Okla., on the evening news, she cried.
Oikawa had never visited the Sooner state. She’d never even met anybody from Oklahoma. But the images of flattened communities, cars tossed aside, and schools ripped apart hit close to home, thousands of miles away.
“The debris fields I saw took me back to our disaster,” Oikawa, 66, said referring to Japan’s tsunami and nuclear disaster. “It pained me to hear about those young kids [who died].”
The emotions propelled the Japanese denim factory owner to tap into an emergency fund her company Oikawa Denim had set aside to help residents in Kesennuma rebuild. Last week, she donated $2,000 to the U.S. embassy on behalf of her three sons and 20 employees.
“We were so embarrassed the amount was so little,” she said. “But we were able to live because of all the help [from Americans]. We decided we needed to give back, in a time of need.”
Like Moore, disaster transformed Oikawa’s hometown.
Waves walloped the coastal city of nearly 75,000. They wiped out her home. They shuttered a warehouse, and washed away all the denim for a business Oikawa built up over 30 years.
In the aftermath, she turned her sewing factory – which escaped the waves – into a temporary shelter for 150 people, many of them fishermen whose livelihoods were destroyed by the disasters.
The experience inspired Oikawa to start a new denim bag line to create jobs for her hometown. She called the brand “Shiro,” or white in Japanese, to signal a clean slate, and distributed the bags to volunteers, Japanese troops, and residents at the shelter.
“Bags aren’t as difficult to make, so I could hire workers who had no real experience sewing,” Oikawa said. “People used [the bags] to carry food donations and other supplies because they had no car.”
A brand that began with a simple bag has expanded to seven different styles nearly two years later. In addition to denim, the products incorporate local material including fishing nets donated by the very fishermen Oikawa helped.
Every yen raised from their sale has gone into an emergency fund Oikawa created to help Kesennuma residents get back on their feet.
That is until last week when employees of Oikawa Denim decided to dip into the fund to help the people of Moore.
“Nobody is at fault in a natural disaster,” she said. ” But after the disaster, it’s about how you get back up, how you restore the foundation of a devastated region.”
Oikawa and her three sons still live in a temporary, prefabricated home with no permanent home to return to. But she hopes her small contribution gives residents in Oklahoma the strength to push forward and get back on their feet.
And she plans to send her denim bags to Moore to remind them of a small community in Japan that is rooting for their recovery.
“I’ve never been to Oklahoma, but I imagine it’s a warm place with a lot of sunshine and beautiful flowers,” Oikawa said. “If you keep working hard, the flowers will bloom again. Please use that as a source of hope.”