The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Over the years, Japanese manufacturers have become experts at carving out niche markets for their products overseas. Most manufacturers have achieved results through hard work, combined with attention to detail and pricing that gives them a competitive edge.

“Successful Japanese companies in the US market manage to present relatively low cost with high quality and durability,” says Tim Clark, a US-based teacher of entrepreneurship and a former business professor at the University of Tsukuba. “In terms of quality, and quality control, many Japanese companies have really knocked it out of the park,” he adds.

Denim jeans are a quintessential piece of Americana. Big John, established in Okayama Prefecture in 1940, has taken this culturally powerful working man’s garb, first developed by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss, and recrafted it into a must-have item for apparel connoisseurs.

The name of the brand’s founder, Kotaro Osaki, can be roughly translated to “little John,” but Osaki clearly did not want to be small, in any sense of the word. So, he adopted the name Big John for his company, according to Nobutaka Nakamura, area manager for Big John in Tokyo.

Osaki and his staff were responsible for a number of notable firsts in Japanese denim. Big John was first to produce jeans in Japan in 1965. They followed this up with their first original product in 1967, and began exporting denim to the United States in 1980.

The firm’s flagship model is “Big John Rare,” and Nakamura highlights how it includes an extra lining in the back pocket, to prevent bursting. The fly buttons include leather backing on the inside of the button hole to prevent wear and tear, and a leather washer is also included behind the rivets, which in turn are flush to the fabric to prevent them from snagging.

At Seattle’s Blue Owl Workshop, a lifestyle store specializing in denim, higher-end Big John jeans sell for about $285, slightly more expensive than available US brands, according to David Cannon, operations manager. Customers are prepared to pay more for the fabrics, sewing quality, and construction details, he says.

“The construction and details are consistently top of the line,” Cannon adds.

Made in Japan, high-end Big John jeans can retail for about $285 in the US.

Made in Japan, high-end Big John jeans can retail for about $285 in the US.

Innerwear for all
For intimate-apparel maker Wacoal Corporation, success in the United States came on the back of inspired leadership and significant investment.

Company founder Koichi Tsukamoto was one of a small number of Japanese survivors from the Battle of Imphal in 1944, when the Japanese army attempted—but failed—to invade India.

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Tsukamoto returned to Japan believing he was lucky to have survived, and that his life was intended for a greater purpose, according to Keiji Komatsubara, investor relations and public relations office manager at Wacoal Holdings Corp.

Tsukamoto set up Wacoal in 1949 under a 50-year plan to introduce western innerwear to Japan. His goal was to take on global markets in 10-year phases, culminating in the establishment of a “global Wacoal,” by the end of the 20th century.

Realizing that plan saw the company invest almost $70 million in Puerto Rican factories and swanky Manhattan offices, while being hit with cumulative losses of $50 million for the 10-year period from 1985 as it struggled to identify a market for its goods. But it was Tsukamoto’s vision that kept the company going.

“He said that he was prepared to see Japanese operations go under to achieve success in the US,” Komatsubara said. “That was pretty radical for a Japanese company!”

Wacoal started to turn the corner when it targeted the $20–$45 mid-level price range for brassieres, and took off in the 1990s when the company collaborated with US fashion designer Donna Karan, in a venture that has now ceased.

“Wacoal brought American fitting, European elegance, and Japanese technology to a market where innerwear did not go beyond the simple and practical, fitting had not previously existed, and quality was uncertain,” Komatsubara said.

The hard work paid off, and Wacoal was awarded the Nordstrom Partners in Excellence Award in 1992, and in 2005 claimed the top share in US department store sales for innerwear.

Wacoal shot to fame in the US in the 1990s.

Wacoal shot to fame in the US in the 1990s.

ASICS: trend setter, not follower
ASICS Corporation helped fire a running-shoe boom that most consumers mistakenly assume is American in origin.

Kihachiro Onitsuka founded Onitsuka Co., the predecessor of ASICS, in Kobe in 1949.

Phil Knight, co-founder of Blue Ribbon Sports—which later became Nike Inc.—was so inspired by Onitsuka Tiger that he turned up in the office of Kihachiro Onitsuka in the early 1960s, and negotiated a deal to distribute Tiger-brand running shoes in the western United States.

A further entry into the US market came following the 1972 Munich Olympics, when ASICS wrestling shoes won plaudits for their Goodyear stitched rubber soles that prevented slippage on the mat.

“Wrestling shoes were in the spotlight, and Bill Farrell [coach of the US Olympic wrestling team] said he wanted to handle ASICS wrestling shoes in the US,” Motoi Oyama, president and CEO of ASICS Corporation relates.

It was clearly a fruitful relationship. ASICS has gone on to control 80 percent—the top share—of the US wrestling shoe market. Its products also rank either first or second in the volleyball and tennis shoe markets, Oyama says.

Few people realize that ASICS is an acronym, taken from the Latin anima sana in corpore sano, or “a sound mind in a sound body.”

Oyama strives to produce an innovative product, but also stresses the role played by the user in that process. This means providing different shoes for different body types. He points to the difficulty of merely shipping shoes made for the Japanese market to other countries such as the United States, highlighting the need for a separate marketing team in each region.

According to NDP Analytics, ASICS had captured more than 11 percent of the US market for running shoes over the 12 months ending in September 2015, second only to Nike. The value of that share was approximately $1 billion in revenue for ASICS, but Oyama aims to double that by the end of 2020, by capitalizing on the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Long gone are the days when US consumers thought of Japanese products as copycats or mere knock-offs of US originals. In targeting the US market, the winning approach for Japanese companies appears to be a commitment to quality and pricing, combined with deep pockets.

Martin Foster is a bilingual writer who has lived in Tokyo since 1977. Martin spent much of his career in financial journalism, and now focuses on various aspects of business and the economy.