Since the end of WWII, Japan has earned an excellent international reputation for its quality craftsmanship or monozukuri based upon the kaizen philosophy of constant improvement. However, these days companies must now also provide products with added value that meet the latest market demands. As a manufacturer of handicrafts, could you tell us what is for you the essence of monozukuri?
This question is about a truly broad topic, so it is difficult to answer entirely. From the perspective of the handmade industry in which we find ourselves, we wish that many people can enjoy making crafts (monozukuri). Our company operates under the corporate philosophy of “making people around the world happy through handmade crafts.” We want to make people around the world happy and enrich their lives not only through tools and materials for enjoying handmade crafts, but also through information on how to make and enjoy handmade crafts and workshops where people can experience handmade crafts. We believe that handmade crafts have the power to make people happy and enrich their lives.
Chinese or Korean alternatives exist for such small everyday products like stationery and handicrafts, yet Japanese makers such as Mitsubishi’s Uniball pens are some of the best-selling worldwide, the same is true for other small components favored worldwide like, for example, in your business of handicrafts. Why do you think Japan has been able to overcome this stiff regional price competition and be successful?
Regarding our company, we are manufacturers, but we strive to have as much contact with the end users as possible and listen to their voices. For example, we participate in many local events where many consumers gather to hear directly from our customers, and we use their feedback in our product development and various services. In addition, when we place advertisements in magazines, we include the telephone number and e-mail address of our Customer Service Center to ensure that our customers’ voices are heard as much as possible. These efforts take a lot of resources, but they lead to further improvements in our products and services. In my opinion, including the stationery industry, a sincere attitude towards customer feedback will result in our products and services being loved by many customers.
Japan’s population is the oldest in the world, with 28% already over the age of 65, and it is also shrinking due to the fertility rate which is currently 1.37. This creates two issues, the first being the reduction of the domestic market, and the second is that there are less talented graduates to hire. What challenges or opportunities does this issue present to your company?
One of the challenges that Japan is facing is the declining population, which may lead to a decrease in the size of the handmade market. However, the number of people who enjoy handmade crafts is not that large compared to the total population, and we believe that there is still room to convey the joy of handmade goods, so we do not consider this to be a major issue for us. In terms of recruitment, it is clear that competition for employment is becoming more and more intense every year, so we believe that we must actively communicate our business, our goals, and our corporate culture through magazine advertisements, our website, SNS, and other means.
In our research we found out that in the US over 90% of the handicraft’s users are women over the age of 65, yet it is still a large business worth over USD 4 billion. What steps are you taking to appeal to a more diverse audience and increase your market value?
There are three important strategies here, one of them is to appeal to young people. We are trying to make our designs and products more attractive for them and utilize more social media such as Instagram to improve the appearance of our products in a way that will appeal to a younger generation. We also hope to promote the development of channels different from conventional handicraft stores, such as general merchandise stores, bookstores, drugstores, and home centers, to increase opportunities for direct contact with our products.
Second, we would like to expand the scope of handmade crafts we work on, and develop and sell DIY-related products as well as existing categories, so that as many people as possible can enjoy handmade products.
Third, in order to increase opportunities for people to come into contact with the handmade crafts, as I mentioned earlier, we exhibit at many events where many consumers gather, not only in Japan, but also in the US, Europe, and Asia. We exhibit at many events in our industry because we are able to share the joy of handmade through the opportunity for people to come into direct contact with handmade crafts. We also virtually introduce many How To videos and recipes on our website and SNS.
Traditional handicrafts are a very old technology that have been around for centuries and revolve around simple handmade processes that have remained unchanged for many years. However, in today’s modern world, younger generations seek digitization and a means to interact with even old technologies such as sewing with digital tools like an iPhone, for example. What is the relationship between digitization and handicraft tools? Is it possible to integrate it into your products?
A little out of the question, but when fast fashion first became popular, many people predicted that the handmade industry would face a difficult environment as more and more people would buy low-priced fast fashion clothing rather than making their own clothes, accessories, and other fashion items. However, as a result, there was not so much of an impact, and after environmental and labor issues were discussed, more people became aware of the importance of embroidering and decorating fast fashion items, repairing worn-out or holey garments and using them carefully for a long time, and many people started to make new handmade items. Many people have also started to take up new handmade crafts.
It is true that digitalization is required in various fields, and we are actively promoting digitalization in our internal business processes, but there are also many people who are engaged in digital detoxification, where they distance themselves from digital tools for a while. We believe that digital and handmade crafts will coexist and co-prosper even if further digitization efforts are made.
For many B2C businesses, e-commerce was significantly developed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Could you tell us more about that and which of your products became most popular during these times?
Due to the initial shortage of masks caused by the spread of the new coronavirus infection, many people started making their own masks, which led to many people continuing to make handmade masks today. Later, as lockdowns and states of emergency were declared around the world, people spent more time at home, and the number of users of video streaming services increased, but similarly, the number of people making handmade crafts that they can enjoy at home also increased .
As for buying venues, the issuance of lockdowns and emergency declarations forced retailers to close or shorten their hours, which in turn increased the number of people using e-commerce sites, and the handmade industry as a whole saw its market expand.
One product in demand in the Corona Disaster was sewing-related products needed to make masks.
You are constantly releasing new products, such as the Desk Needle Threader, the “QUICK” Yo-Yo Makers, Wonder Pins, Wonder Clips and so on. Could you tell us about the uniqueness of some products you released recently and would like to highlight?
Although not a new product, But we can cite as an example the “Amure” series of knitting crochet hooks, which are popular on the global market., moreover, the Desk Needle Threader is also one of our best-selling products. This is a very convenient product in which you can just put the needle inside, press the button, and you will have the thread go through the needle’s eye. This is useful especially for older people, the dominant consumers in this industry, because manually putting the thread through the needle is particularly difficult for them.
Desk Needle Threader
As for the Wonder Clips, we developed their hardness based on our research, catering to the female grip. The pressure needed to put the fabric together is in accordance with the grip of the average woman. It’s been less than ten years since we launched this product, but it is also one of the best sellers.
Also new products, such as the Wonder Pins, a curved pin that makes it easy to scoop and hold fabric for sewing, have also become popular as unique products.
You have been present in Los Angeles, USA since 1983 and you now have thousands of products available on the American market. Could you tell us your plans to increase your sales in that market and what other countries are you focusing on to grow your business?
We will continue to improve the quality of our products and services by exhibiting at many events where many consumers gather, and by communicating with as many customers as possible, including local specialty stores.
As for the countries we are focusing on, we already sell our products in the United States, Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world, but there are still some countries we have not entered yet, so we are looking for reliable partners through online communication to determine the best timing for our entry.
Imagine we come back on the last day of your presidency and interview you again. What goals and achievements would you like to have reached by then?
At the beginning of this interview, I spoke about our corporate philosophy, which was formulated by myself and other volunteer members of our company based on our company credo, “Good Products, Good People, Good Company,” which expresses the wishes and ideas of our founder, Toshio Okada. Our raison d’etre is to make people around the world happy and enrich their lives through the handmade products and services we provide. We do not have a specific numerical target, but we will make as many people around the world as possible happy through handmade crafts. That is the future I would like to pursue.