Shoe shiner buffs his trade into fine art

by Alex Martin

The chic, antique-filled interior of his store, the soft jazz playing in the background and Yuya Hasegawa’s fancy suit are all there to serve a single purpose: to boost the esteem of his job.

Hasegawa, 24, shines shoes. With his easy-going charm and relentless pursuit for perfection, he aspires to raise his calling to an art.

As CEO of Boot Black Japan, the company he founded in 2007, Hasegawa opened his store Brift H in the ritzy Aoyama district of Tokyo last July — a feat he describes as a rarity in a trade mostly comprised of free-lancers working the streets.

“I wanted to elevate shoe shining to a respected occupation,” Hasegawa said as he applied cleansing cream to a pair of leather boots behind the counter.

He designed the interior of his shop specifically to “even out” the level of eye contact between customer and shoe shiner.

“Shoe shiners are always looking up at their customers while shining their shoes,” he explained. By working at a counter, Hasegawa said he and his two coworkers can deal with their customers on an equal basis.

“In 10 or 20 years, I’m hoping at least one elementary school kid in the classroom will say he wants to grow up to be a shoe shiner,” he said with a grin.

Despite the hard economic times, business is thriving, Hasegawa said. “In fact, it’s going so well it’s a bit scary.”

Spending more than half the week on trips for both private and corporate customers — Hasegawa makes private visits for customers with more than eight pairs that need shining — he said he often needs to turn down clients to prevent overwork and a decline in quality.

And quality is what the young bootblack is most proud of.

“We aren’t merely shining shoes,” Hasegawa said. “We’re washing the leather, dyeing the leather, removing stains and adding new colors. We want our customers’ shoes to be reborn.”

He speculated that he may be the only one in the business who can repair the cracks in leather shoes — a longtime industry challenge.

“It’s a very, very sensitive process,” he said.

A polish by Hasegawa and his crew ranges from ¥1,500 for the standard “silver” course on up, depending on the condition of the shoes and the care required.

Hasegawa’s accomplished skills, fresh image and frequent media exposure — he has been featured in various magazines and newspapers — have helped him land contracts with several big-name corporations, including Prudential Health Insurance and UBS. “It’s all word of mouth,” he said.

One of the most recent of these exchanges, with financial services giant Lehman Brothers, opened his eyes to the impact of the economic crisis.

“We were supposed to be polishing for Lehman Brothers employees starting in October, but the whole plan fell through with the ‘Lehman Shock’ in September” he said.

“It took us six months to negotiate the deal, so it was a bit of a shock for us, too,” he said of the investment bank’s sudden failure.

As it turns out, it was a personal financial crisis that started Hasegawa on his path to celebrity bootblack.

Born in Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture, and raised by a single mother, Hasegawa worked after high school in a local Nippon Steel manufacturing plant and then as a salesman of English-language teaching materials.

Although Hasegawa enjoyed the work, he said he quit when he was 20 to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming his own boss by a self-imposed deadline of age 23, and also to find a job in the apparel industry so he could “learn the appropriate attire befitting a ‘shacho’ (company president).”

During times between jobs, however, Hasegawa’s savings hit rock bottom and he was in desperate need of work that required no capital. “It was either being a masseur or a shoe shiner,” he said. “So I said, ‘shoe shiner it will be.’ “

Hasegawa began by assembling a shoe shining kit made up of items bought at a ¥100 store. He set up shop at an exit on the Marunouchi side of JR Tokyo Station. At ¥500 per polish, he was off to a shaky start, raking in anything from ¥500 to ¥7,500 depending on the day.

But after he began receiving complaints from customers dissatisfied with his skills, Hasegawa said he began visiting other shoe shiners around the station to see what they were doing. “I was appalled by their technique,” he said.

Thus began Hasegawa’s pursuit of bootblack perfection. While working at a men’s clothing store during the week — he’d found the job soon after starting to shine shoes — Hasegawa continued polishing at the station on weekends, occasionally visiting skilled shoe shiners to absorb their knowledge by sight while having his own shoes polished.

“The best shoe shiners often work in hotels, the Hotel Okura, the Imperial Hotel,” Hasegawa said. “But Chiba-san, a shoe shiner who works in Yurakucho, is also superb. I’ve learned so much from watching them.”

He also began stocking up on his own collection of shoes to be sacrificed for the sake of progress. “I applied cream on one shoe while leaving the other unprotected. I microwaved a pair, burned a pair with a lighter to observe and record the damage. That’s how I got to know my leather,” he said.

After a year at Tokyo Station, Hasegawa moved his business to Shinagawa Station, where he continued to hone his skills three days a week. And by fall 2006, convinced he was on to something, Hasegawa quit his day job at the apparel company and began dedicating himself full time to shining shoes.

However, he recalled how it was around this time last year that police and the ward evicted him from Shinagawa Station, prompting him to open his own shop.

Hasegawa said that at this point, shining an average of 40 to 50 pairs of shoes daily, he may have become the busiest shoe shiner in Japan. But he feels room for improvement.

“I experience a breakthrough in my technique — especially speed — after every 2,000 to 3,000 pairs of shoes I polish,” he said.

Although diligent at his craft, Hasegawa is also an entrepreneur, looking for ways to expand his enterprise.

“I’d like to open four more shops in Japan, but most of all, my dream is to expand my business overseas. New York, Paris, Milan. Wouldn’t it be cool if aspiring shoe shiners could train in these cities?”