Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten sells the story of Japanese crafts

by and

Staff Writers

“I can’t ask a craftsperson to make something cheaply, or to produce 1,000 items. I have to find 10 artisans to each create 100 quality items,” says Jun Nakagawa, president of the crafts-revitalization business Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten. “That’s what makes it tricky.”

Nakagawa, seated in the office of his company’s new Omotesando store, is explaining some of the issues that he has had to face in his mission to help craftspeople in Japan become self-sufficient.

He is definitely not the first to attempt to revitalize the country’s traditional craft industry, but none of the initiatives before him have been as successful as Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten. Since Nakagawa joined the company 14 years ago, it has opened 48 outlets, established 17 partnered brands and developed six of its own. Many brands on the list — which include To & Fro travel goods, the minimalist THE concept store and 2&9 socks — have been championed by Japanese tastemakers such as Casa Brutus, Figaro and Discover Japan.

How has he managed to sprint where so many have stumbled? A recent showcase of his company’s spring line revealed some clues.

At one of the tables of Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten’s store in Omotesando, a representative of Kungyokudo, Japan’s oldest traditional incense producer, explained that her company’s logo was recently reworked by Manabu Mizuno — the designer behind Kumamon, Kumamoto Prefecture’s cute, and hugely popular, bear mascot. Likewise, the display of colorful incense and their boxes — each letterpressed with a bold modern design — was a far cry from the sedate affair you would expect from the revered vendor of a traditional craft. Nevertheless, this wasn’t what kept the visitors lingering; it was the fascinating story behind the incense itself: the ingredients, the production methods, the 422-year-old history. Despite the modern makeover, it seems little has changed.

“I don’t think it’s important to re-create the actual (craft) products with a modern design,” Nakagawa says. “The most important thing is to make items that retain the history of the craft but also suit modern life. It’s pointless to simply change products to emphasize appearances. That won’t sell.”

He speaks from experience. Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten is itself a 300-year-old company that once produced Narazarashi (Nara-style sarashi bleached hemp textiles) for kamishimo, the ceremonial clothing for the warrior class. As the only existing sarashi producers from the Edo Period (1603-1868), it survived by producing the same textile, but adapting to make other hemp products, such as bags and tapestries. Its foray into craft revitalization projects began when Nakagawa, now the company’s 13th president, decided to quit his job in communications and sales at Fujitsu to join the family business.

“I grew up with almost no idea of what the family craft was, so I had to learn,” he confesses with a smile. “But I decided to learn about the business, not the craft.”

This led Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten to become the first company to apply the SPA (Speciality Retailer of Private Label Apparel) business model — used by fast fashion brands such as Gap and Uniqlo — to traditional Japanese crafts. This entails Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten not only investing time and money into the design, packaging and production of a craft item, but also taking full responsibility for the end result: It purchases the entire batch of products and sells them exclusively in its prime locations.

“Originally, I just focused on how our family business could survive, and I thought that the best way to get customers to recognize and understand our brand was to open a store and talk to them directly, rather than pass our products to several retailers,” Nakagawa explains. “I realized later that this is a version of the SPA model, but, of course, it’s very different to something like Uniqlo.”

While Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten now boasts an impressive roster of craft-based companies, it never advertises its services. Its collaborators have either heard about it through word of mouth or read Nakagawa’s best-selling 2008 book about his family business’ experience: “Nara no Chiisana Kaisha ga Omotesando Hills ni Mise o Dasu Made no Michinori” (“The Path of a Small Company in Nara to Opening a Shop in Omotesando Hills.”)

“This way, they already know what to expect,” Nakagawa says. “We are not a consulting service that simply offers advice. Collaborators have to make some changes. We also can’t charge much for consulting, because these are often small, failing companies. But if we can help them become great, we can sell their products for the long term. It’s ‘shusse-barai‘ (we get paid back when it’s profitable).”

One company that is happily “paying back” is Maruhiro Inc., Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten’s first collaboration, which came about after Maruhiro Inc.’s president, Mikiya Baba, was so impressed by Nakagawa’s book that he called him. The ensuing collaboration resulted in the Hasami tableware brand, perhaps best known for its popular series of cups, plates and bowls sporting designs by the U.S. type foundry House Industries.

Since that first collaboration, Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten has amassed enough partners to hold Dai Nippon Ichi, a large annual traveling exhibition of its clients’ goods. This month, it took its success to a new level when it opened a renovated machiya (traditional Japanese house) as a boutique hotel that will showcase the company’s collaborations.

Ultimately, perhaps Nakagawa knows the value of craftspeople and their products better than anyone.

“Government (and other) initiatives don’t understand the artisans, and neither do retailers. I could probably talk an hour about why their plans are not working. But I will give you the short version,” he says, going back to why his business strategy has been more fruitful.

“They purely focus on monozukuri (the process of making things), which can only improve the quality of a product, but that won’t help if there’s poor management in a company.

“We cover and do everything. That is where the huge difference lies.”

For more details on Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten, visit www.yu-nakagawa.co.jp.