Style & Design

Daughter on board to succeed family-owned geta footwear business

by Mai Yoshikawa

Kyodo

A mix and match of modern and classic is not rare these days, in music Beyonce and Schubert, in cuisine cocktail and sushi, in fashion jeans and geta.

No need to wait for a special occasion to glam up your feet with geta as retro revival is the fashion trend, with the Japanese classic making a quiet comeback.

Memories of painful toe blisters from a local matsuri night are normally grounds for abandoning the Japanese wooden clogs, but Shizuoka-based footwear company Mizutori, which specializes in geta, has mastered the best of both worlds: look and feel.

Geta have long been worn by Japanese to go with kimono, and the extra height protected the feet from rain and mud. But because of their hard-to-ignore discomfort the wooden platform clogs, perhaps unjustly, have gotten a bad rap over the years.

Mizutori, however, has broken the mould, with its hand-sculptured arch supports that provide proven health benefits.

In 1937, Taichi Mizutori, who produced sandal materials and shoe insoles, established the foundation for what eventually became Mizutori Industrial Co. His son Masashi was named president in 1985, at which time the company shifted primarily to making geta.

As a successful entrepreneur, Masashi silenced competitors by making unique geta that fit the modern Japanese lifestyle — pain-free straps, curved soles, asymmetrical left-right designs, and stylish models that suit casual fashion.

When 72-year-old Masashi had a stroke last October, Yukiko, the second of his three daughters, took the wheel to save the family business started by her grandfather and expanded with help from her father, aunt, two uncles and other relatives.

After a seven-year career as a hair stylist, Yukiko entered uncharted waters when in a strange twist of fate she took over as the company’s managing director in 2014.

Her first big challenge came when factory workers started noticing that Masashi was no longer in top form as the master craftsman and needed to step aside to create more opportunities for the younger talents.

“It was really difficult for me to tell my father that his skills had deteriorated and it was time for him to pass the baton,” Yukiko says.

Since then Masashi has stopped showing up at the factory and chooses only to take part in exhibitions, but to Yukiko he appears more relieved than bothered.

“He said he had given up on the idea of a family successor because he has no son, but I think he was waiting for me to say I’ll do it. It was a big decision because when I said yes, I knew there isn’t ever going to be the option of quitting,” Yukiko says.

Yukiko now looks after a small team of 15, including a 20-year veteran and a Brazilian, most of whom commute on their rusty granny bikes to the backstreet factory.

The company supports local workers by using made-in-Shizuoka products whenever possible and hiring residents in the neighborhood.

“We’re surrounded by trees and mountains. I don’t see why we have to rely on imported resources,” she says.

Yukiko, who is now 37 and pregnant with her first child, is counting on her former engineer Canadian husband as an extra hand in business once he picks up the language. It helps that he is not an expert in the industry as he always has unique ideas, she says.

Yukiko herself had to dig through many books to study the art of geta making and learn how to manage an existing business, but she did get a head start by overhearing her parents’ dinner conversations.

What makes Mizutori’s geta special?

Stylish features separate them from a typical geta made of a dai (unfinished wooden board), hanao (V-shaped strap between the big toe and second toe) and the ha (two supporting stilts). But just as surprising is the fit and breathability that one would only expect from a rubber beach sandal.

Prices for Mizutori’s geta range from ¥6,800 to ¥18,000, but those painted with urushi lacquer cost as much as ¥200,000, and the award-winning made-to-order product requires two months until delivery.

But the prices are reflected in the fact that it takes a combined effort of all 12 manufacturers plus outsourced support to make a single geta, as Mizutori implements labor specialization. It will take an amateur an entire day just to fix a hanao onto the base board, says Yukiko, who speaks from experience.

Once the final step of checking for scratches and surface imperfections is completed, products are protected in humidity and climate-controlled storage units until shipment.

In addition to the basic kids and unisex adult models, Mizutori offers narrow width geta with high heels and colorful hanao (the customer’s choice of fabric or leather) for women, nonslip sweat absorbing models, indoor slippers and even sheepskin mouton sandals.

For the men’s lineup, Mizutori uses Shizuoka hinoki (Japanese cypress) to represent the company’s local roots and love of its home prefecture.

Yukiko thinks the reason her staff choose to wear Mizutori’s geta is more about human instinct than about the brand name.

“Humans are animals after all and crave nature. Wood has healing powers, and it simply feels good against the skin. Wear geta and you’ll understand what I mean,” she says.

Sales naturally go up in the summertime, with the operation busiest from March through September. In the wintertime, staff keep busy with repair orders, an after-sales service for loyal customers.

Yukiko lived with her parents until she got married last year, at which time she moved to an apartment within walking distance from the house where she spent most of her life.

She speaks to her father every day, but Yukiko says that she has never felt awkward sharing her business ideas with the company president as he has always been supportive.

“My position is very different from my father’s, and we’re not competing against each other. Our relationship as family will never change. I have to be a leader at work but when I’m home I’m daddy’s girl,” she says.

Although geta are what got the Mizutori family this far, neither Yukiko nor her father are overly wedded to their trademark product.

“Of course I have the responsibility to carry on the Mizutori business, but if the demand for geta falls and we need to find an alternative business model, I’m totally open to new ideas,” she says. “My father isn’t the type of man who thinks change is bad. If change in form is necessary in order to make things better, he’s totally okay with it.”

But for now, Yukiko’s journey on a new career path has just begun, and she is focused on introducing Shizuoka-made geta to the world and giving the handicraft a chance to shine once more in the Heisei era.

“Geta is about Japanese culture, history and tradition. The fact that we are able to earn a living through geta in this age says something. Geta still attract people. We want to see more people wearing them,” she says. “My father always said geta is a symbol of peace. The world needs to be a peaceful place for people to want to wear geta.”