It was the summer of 2004, a blistering humid day in August when we touched down in Kansai Airport in Osaka, Japan. I was 12 and it was my first time in a foreign country, accompanied by my twin sister and father. Exhausted from the thirteen hour flight but elated that we had finally arrived, we waited excitedly in the sterile white paneled baggage claim area to collect our luggage and see this land of the rising sun for ourselves.
Bags came out of the shoot. A lopsided one, a pink one, those hard cases which Americans haven’t caught onto and only seem to be owned by East Asian travelers. One after another they came toppling out and then finally, a diminutive black suitcase dropped out with a small thud. The belt continued to move for a few more moments whirring until coming to a sudden complete and final stop. A lot of suitcases and bags. None of them appeared to be ours.
“Where are our bags?”
I turned to my father, perplexed and not quite understanding what this meant.
“I”m not sure let’s go check with the United customer service,” he replied with a hint of worry, gathering our carry-on baggage and belongings.
But the bags never came that day.
They hadn’t made the connecting flight and were still in Los Angeles. “They will be on the next flight from LA, “ the United staff said. “You should receive them sometime tomorrow.”
They handed us the yen equivalent of aboutt $300 US dollars to buy clothes in the meantime.
With only our carry-ons we clamored onto the shuttle bus which would take us from Kansai airport to Downtown Osaka.
What’s the first thing you do with apology money?
Go shopping of course! It was amazing wandering around the mall. It seemed familiar in many ways but still reverberated with that mystique which everything in Japan seems to be coated with in the eyes of a western foreigner.
We passed by one unfamiliar Japanese brand after another and there it was. A humble but sturdy bold sign that read Onitsuka Tiger. Surrounded by an array of familiar brands like Nike, Puma, and Adidas there stood out this very Japanese sounding brand with a fierce tiger as its logo. The shoes were flashy and bold but elegant at the same time.
“Pick whichever one you want!” my Dad said.
That day a pair of Onitsuka Tigers became my first and most useful souvenir from Japan.
What was it about these shoes that fascinated not only the 12-year-old bespectacled me but my 48-year-old father?
For the past 50 years Onitsuka Tiger has been a worldwide powerhouse promoting athleticism from its inception. Arguably the most popular and recognizable Japanese shoe brand, Onitsuka Tiger, and the parent company ASICS, traces its roots back to 1949. WWII had recently ended and Japan was in a state of rebirth. Former military officer Kihachiro Onitsuka took that mindset and ran with it creating a shoe he hoped would raise spirits and promote youth health through athletics.
The brand quickly grew in popularity through strategic athlete partnerships. In 1955, it partnered with 500 sports shops in Japan, with its first US sales occurring in 1963. The great ASICS stripe made its debut in 1966 at the pre-Olympic trials for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico – this was to be the start of their most famous line, Mexico 66. Today the once small Japanese athletics shoe company reports 428 billion yen (approximately 4 billion dollars) in net sales for 2015 (reports for 2016 will be released in the coming months), growing year after year into a mecca for “Intelligent Sports Technology” and “highly functional products developed with human-centric science” (ASICS).
ONITSUKA POPULARITY DECONSTRUCTED
The brand has the incredible ability of evoking reminiscence and at the same time a refreshing modernity.
What is the Onitsuka secret? How has this brand remained popular and hip in Japan while so many have fallen? Asahi Shimbun Digital back in 2015 published an article identifying four major secrets behind the Onitsuka success.
#1 Modern Retro Design Born from Performance
Onitsuka started with athleticism in mind and has kept that a core of its business. With its narrow long nose silhouette, thin sole, and striking color combinations, the Onitsuka retro design is instantly recognizable. It’s a unique and understated recognizability that remains classic.
#2 Limit Sales Channels to Maintain an Expensive Brand Image
Think about it. You’ve just put on your fresh straight out of the box Onitsukas and slipped into your freshly purchased and pressed outfit (that you paid a bit too much for). You step out of your apartment, it’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining and you look amazing. You’re strolling head held up high with a knowing smirk, people are looking and suddenly out the corner of your eye you spot it. The end of your moment. The shock of an older gentleman completely lacking in any fashion sense, wearing the exact same pair of your beautiful shoes. Now that is a fashion tragedy. A tragedy that Onitsuka has strategically strived to avoid. It’s incredibly difficult to get your hands on a pair of Ontisuka Tiger shoes within Japan in today’s discount stores. They aren’t sold in outlets or warehouses. As soon as a shoe enters the discount world its brand image is immediately at risk of degradation. Onitsuka’s bold and daring strategy heralded by President Oyama in 1999 to avoid the tempting wholesale market ensured that Onitsuka Tiger would become a high-end brand. In addition to limiting sales channels, the heightened brand image would start from the construction of their products, putting high quality materials at the forefront. That’s an image to be proud of.
#3 Establish Reasonable Pricing
Onitsuka Tiger manages to deliver high quality with the NIPPON MADE label at pretty economical prices. You can attain a heightened NIPPON MADE sensibility without the crazy price tag. Mostly all of the shoe models sell for less than 13,000 yen. The Serano which uses natural leathers is priced at 8,640 yen, the all natural leather upper Mexico 66 you can get your hands on for 12,960 yen.
#4 Surprise of A Mysterious Brand Name To Remember
From the name “Onitsuka” to the roaring tiger image the brand screams Japan to even those with the faintest familiarity with the country. It’s a striking brand image and this has definitely played in Onitsuka’s favor. You look at it and think this is a Japanese brand. And that is enticing for the overseas consumer because along with it come all of the positive adjectives characteristics you would attach to a Japan-made product – quality, cutting edge, reliable, built to last, different. This is the “Cool Japan” that the Japanese government doesn’t get.
THE FUTURE OF ONITSUKA
This past year Onitsuka Tiger celebrated the 50th anniversary of the original Mexico 66, arguably the flagship and best-selling shoe from the storied Japanese brand — The company touts it as a fine footwear “discovered on the track, and later on, worn on the streets” . It has sought some of the most exclusive collaborations reaching and securing even the most obscure underground influencers and artists. Pop culture phenom homages, independent Japanese labels and exclusives marketing deals with high end shops like Barney’s New York.
The legend continues to thrive as they expand more and more, recently pushing for raising their presence in rugby. With a Vegan line, it’s riding the wave of eco-friendly animal-friendly fashion consumerism as well. (Editor’s note: The vegan line of shoes are not designed to be edible. Consume at your own risk)
They’ve reorganized the company to support globalization as well as acquiring technology company FitnessKeeper, Inc, and entering into the world of smart apparel and wearables.
Onitsuka has recently announced its introduction of shoes which are a step away from its iconic stripes but with the same motto paying homage to the past with a vintage feel and performance in mind.
The new line are Inspired by the Japanese “furoshiki” or the art of cloth packaging – The CHIYO. Available online and instore, it’s a refreshing take enabling the wearer to customize and create their own idea of beauty. The upper consists of soft cloth, like packaging cradling the top of the foot. The lucky owners can knot and style the shoe however they wish according to the look they’re rocking that day. The line comes in 3 colors- blue, black, and pink priced at 7,000 yen.
Onitsuka continues to take innovation and trends and instill them with a retro twist. It stays true to the spirit of a Japanese brand with refreshing relevance and distinction.
As you know, last year marked the 50th Anniversary of its iconic stripes logo and it’s looking like Onitsuka is here to stay.
The company that owns the line, still known as ASICS “Anima Sana in Corpore Sano” or “A Healthy Soul in a Healthy Body.”, continually pushes the envelope looking for opportunities for constant growth. Can we call it world domination with retro class? I think so. However, the best way to appreciate Onitsuka shoes isn’t looking at them—it’s wearing them. Put on a pair and go for a run, you’ll catch on to what I’m saying.
オニツカタイガーの代表作Mexico 66 の５０周年記念となった２０１６年。オニツカタイガーはなぜ支持されるのか？ほかと一線を画すブランディング、そして強力なセールス力の秘密とは?