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Japan's regional companies search for innovation to boost competitiveness

Kyoko Tashiro

Sep. 25, 2017

Japan produces a wide range of unique regional products using established techniques. In most cases, the goods are a major source of income for their communities. But today, cheaper imports and lifestyle changes threaten these industries. In Osaka and its surrounding areas, many small and mid-sized companies are trying to find ways to survive.

A company called Jay Jay Japan produces what look like ordinary pairs of shoes. But look closely, and you'll find a unique, hidden feature. They're sold in 2 parts: the main part of the shoe, called the upper, and the sole. Company President Yusuke Ando explains that the 2 parts can be attached with a zipper.

The design allows users to convert the look of their footwear as they wish, choosing from around 100 patterns. They created a sensation online when they first went on sale. Many people were intrigued and wanted to try different combinations.

The Nagata district in the city of Kobe has long been known as a center of shoe production, but recently, local shoe makers have been losing ground to cheap imports from abroad. Ando launched his Nagata-based shoe company 4 years ago. "To be competitive, you need innovation. I couldn't be complacent anymore. So I had to find something that no one knew about," he says.

The design of convertible footwear idea was inspired by his experiences. While packing for trips, he found that he could take a lot of clothes but fewer shoes, since they were too bulky. Ando visited a lot of shoe factories, looking for ones that understood his concept and would agree to manufacture the shoes.

There are many steps in the process of manufacturing shoes, and often, they are carried out at different factories. One factory makes the soles, another cuts the fabric for the upper, and yet another sews the parts together. In some cases, more than 10 factories are involved.

Ando took advantage of the local network of shoemakers and finally created his mix-and-match footwear. He and his colleagues have worked tirelessly to improve the product.

There were problems with the first design. On rainy days, water would leak into the shoe through the zipper on the sole, leaving users with wet feet. Ando consulted the craftsman who had drawn the pattern for the shoes.

The zipper used to be attached along the insole, so to solve the problem, they raised and curved the sides of the insole, so that water seeping in from the seam wouldn't penetrate the shoe. Now the shoe can be worn without hesitation on rainy days.

Ando and his staff are developing new products, too, and he’s continuing to work on prototypes with local factories through trial and error. "I hope people like Ando who have interesting ideas will revitalize the industry. I think cool ideas like his will help expand it," says a pattern maker.

"I hope the industry, based in Nagata, will serve as a base for Kobe to flourish in many ways, and will help to invigorate the city," says Ando.

Another local industry involves tenugui. A tenugui is a rectangular piece of cotton cloth that's been used in Japan for centuries. They’re used for countless things, serving as hand-towels or handkerchiefs, for example.

Sakai City flourished as a cotton processing center. Impurities are removed from cotton, and it’s then bleached in preparation for dying and used to make tenugui or fabric. The dyeing process is carried out by local companies. But when towels arrived in Japan, tenugui fell out of fashion, and many businesses were forced to close. There are only 4 surviving factories dedicated to dyeing fabric in one town.

One company, Nakani, has found creative uses for traditional tenugui. Most tenugui have only one or 2 colors, because it’s labor-intensive to manufacture and dye multiple colors in large quantities. But the company decided to incorporate an extra step into its process.

It uses a paste to create shapes on the tenugui. By creating an outline with the paste and using dye inside it, they can dye areas of the tenugui independently. The more outlines they use, the more colorful and complicated their tenugui designs can be.

The option to use more colors led to new designs which have been a hit among the younger generation. The company was able to find a new client base. "I think it fits in really well with modern interior design." "The design is really cute and unique," say their customers.

Nakani President Yuji Nakao says "Those of us who create traditional products can’t afford to be complacent, we have to meet find a way to create demand. I think if I keep that aim in mind, it’ll keep me motivated."


NHK World's Kyoko Tashiro is joined by Ryukoku University Professor Tadashi Shirasu in the studio. Watch the video for the interview.