Old craft houses and workshops in crumbling side streets are certainly far removed from the shiny modern images of Tokyo that the country likes to associate with its cool Japan branding campaigns. But it is the small, (usually) old family businesses that lie within those craft houses that could potentially be behind a new wave of products that the world comes to associate with Japan.
As a national brand, Japan has been suffering from well known ills. It is a list of problems that include everything from declining consumer industries to higher-profile competition (see China and Korea) and including even ongoing political issues. The knock-on of this has been, of course, a further decline in prestige for consumer brands and the governments shift to the idea of a “cool-Japan” as something to promote economic growth.
That, though, is fast becoming a media-driven fad and it is these old craft houses, located in cities such as Kyoto, Nagoya and Nagaoka that are starting to reinvent themselves and with it, the types of products that Japan successfully exports.
Take Tanei as one example, a company that has for nearly 100 years been producing martial art robes close to Aichi, the home of Mikawa Cotton. The company has now taken the unique material they work with and turned it into a range of beautiful styled, handmade backpacks, totes and shoulder bags that look at home in even the most upmarket sidewalks of Ginza.
Or Yuugi, a brand long known in Kyoto for producing some of the city’s finest kimonos, and is now taking its celebrated pattern designs and applying them to a range of iPhone cases, laptop bags and other goods.
For those of us who grew up in Europe or the U.S. and were witness to the likes of Sony, Panasonic and Sharp with their ranges of products that took over our living rooms and, bedrooms, this new brand of Japan makers might seem quaint or overly niche. Elsewhere, however, brand Japan is seen as something quite different. Ask a young, savvy shopper out in the fast-growing markets of China or Indonesia what they think of Japan and the answer will invariably be that it is fashion, lifestyle and design that they associate with brand “Japan.”
Can Japan turn this re-branding into something that works on a global scale and become known as a fashion and lifestyle powerhouse in the same way that the Milan, Paris and New York are?
JapanHabit is one company that is working with many of these small workshops to help them distribute their collections worldwide and putting its money into that idea.
The company, which aims to offer a fast and easy way to discover these brands and purchase the products, focuses on fast distribution from Japan (via its offices in Kyoto and Tokyo) and free shipping. Its close co-operation with brands in Kyoto, as well as others scattered around Japan is also leading to new product ideas being developed and shipped.
Are these the types of products that can lead Japan into the future?