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Get your kicks in Japan

by Eriko Arita

Staff Writer

Walk the streets of Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku and Shibuya shopping districts and the sheer variety of fashion worn by people passing by can be, to the uninitiated, simply mind boggling. But, look at their feet and more often than not they are wearing shoes that are more familiar — sneakers. Even if at times they may be like no sneakers you have ever seen before.

Over the past few decades, sneakers or trainers — once made only for athletes — have become must-have accessories for style-conscious people both in Japan and overseas. Because they are versatile enough to mix with casual, sporty or even formal clothing, sneakers have captured the hearts, and feet, of street-fashion trend-setters, musicians, hip-hop dancers, graffiti artists, designers and fashionistas across Japan, and as such have become synonymous with youth culture.

The book “Kicks Japan,” written in English by freelance journalist Manami Okazaki (who writes for The Japan Times and other publications) with photos by Tokyo-based Australian photographer Geoff Johnson, explores the colorful sneaker culture that has flourished in Japan.

Okazaki, until recently based in Tokyo but now living in New York, has been covering urban culture, such as street fashion and graffiti art, since around 2004 and has a self-confessed sneaker fetish.

“It was obvious for me to do a book on (Japanese) street culture — because I like sneakers!” Okazaki said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “There are also a lot of (sneaker) designers based in Japan.”

As a whole, the sneaker industry in Japan is not so different to that overseas. But individual designers here have a higher level of craftsmanship and are very meticulous, explained Okazaki. “Most people I meet say (the uniqueness of Japanese sneakers) is the craftsmanship; how well they are made.”

One company mentioned prominently by Okazaki was Onitsuka Tiger, who make classic low-cut athletics shoes with the company’s trademarked intersecting stripes stitched on the side.

While sneaker brands such as Nike became famous in Japan beginning in the 1980s — due to their association with the NBA (National Basketball Association) and American hip-hop culture — according to Okazaki’s book, the history of sneakers in Japan actually dates back to the establishment of Onitsuka Co. Ltd. decades earlier, and that Nike itself has the Japanese sneakers to thank for its existence.

In 1949, Onitsuka Tiger was founded in Kobe by businessman Kihachiro Onitsuka, who wanted to create shoes so Japanese kids could play sports — up until then they had been playing barefoot. By incorporating new technologies into his shoes Onitsuka developed various kinds of sport-shoes over the following years and Onitsuka Tiger was ultimately chosen to outfit the Japanese team for the 1960 Rome Olympics.

“(Onitsuka) really are sneakers for athletes. They are so comfortable and stylish.” Okazaki said, adding that the brand is her favorite. Johnson, the photographer, also pointed out that the shoes were used in Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 film “Kill Bill.” In the film, Uma Thurman, who plays the main character, wore Onitsuka’s Tai Chi model shoes in yellow with black stripes — her outfit in the film was in a tribute to martial-arts film star Bruce Lee, who also wore Onitsuka sneakers in the film “Death Game.”

Okazaki had another interesting anecdote about her favorite brand, one that involves a competitor: “Nike indirectly came from Onitsuka,” she said, “it’s like a hidden legend.”

While Nike is a household name in Japan — largely due to the popularity here of its iconic Air Max 95 shoe- few people may know of its link with Onituska. Nike was cofounded by Phil Knight who visited Japan in 1962, fell in love with Onitsuka Tiger shoes and began importing them to the United States. Knight, together with business partner Bill Bowerman founded Blue Ribbon Sports, which acted as the U.S. distributor for Onitsuka until 1971 when the pair decided they would create their own sports-shoe company, eventually called Nike. Legend has it that the Nike Cortez released in 1972 was based on the Onituska Corsair, which was design by Bowman in 1968. The Cortez was Nike’s first shoe — the rest is history.

While Onitsuka shoes have had a major impact on the history of sneakers they are not the only Japanese company designing innovative and popular sneakers. Okazaki spoke to many other local designers for “Kicks Japan,” including Takashi Imai, head designer and CEO of Madfoot!, a sneaker company founded in 2001.

Imai started his career in a rap group called Gas Boys but also worked in the sneaker wholesale and retail industry in Japan. Through Madfoot!, Imai has collaborated with anime creators, photographers, designers, artists and musicians to produce some kick-ass kicks.

“Madfoot! is totally pop and crazy,” Okazaki said. “They do a lot of collaborations,” including that with the creators of the anime “Doraemon.”

According to Okazaki, there is a new wave of designers incorporating traditional Japanese culture into sneakers. One such brand is Ryuz, which uses ancient motifs. Okazaki interviewed Tomoyuki Nishibe, the representative director of Ryuz.

“A lot of (sneaker) designers in this book like to use Japanese themes, but Nishibe is super conscious of pushing Japanese themes. He uses traditional motifs such as fujin (wind god) or raijin (thunder god).”

Okazaki said another brand seeking to continue Japanese tradition is Sou Sou based in Kyoto. The company, established in 2002 by textile designer Katsuji Akisaka, makes shoes that combine traditional jikatabi (split-toe shoe) designs in many of their models. Okazaki said Sou Sou shoes are popular in other countries and in particular, France.

Oversea’s sneaker companies are keen to attract Japanese consumers too, said Johnson, referring to U.S. brand Undefeated, which has a store in Harajuku.

“It’s an American company but it’s very conscious of the Japanese market. The shop is carefully marketed to Japanese consumers,” Johnson said.

Concerning the future of sneaker culture, Johnson said; “Tokyo changes faster than any other city. It is hard to tell (what is happening in sneaker culture here) because Japanese taste changes very fast. But it is interesting.”

And “Kicks Japan” has captured it beautifully.

“Kicks Japan” was released by Mark Batty Publisher in July.