Manufacturing in Japan has had a lot to contend with since its latter Showa Era (1926-1989) golden years. With so many cheaper imports available, locally made everyday items are becoming increasingly harder to find. But there are some manufacturing stalwarts out there who are surviving and surprisingly producing the same ubiquitous items they always have. This month On: Design looks at a few that are selling themselves on historical worth, creative collaborations and, of course, the national pride of being made in Japan.
Toilet sandal style
Toilet sandals, known as benjo sandaru, or bensan, don’t sound like a candidate for a style trend. Found in the restrooms of most ryokan (inns) and local hospitals and schools, they’re usually plastic, chunky and come in a range of murky tones or ’80s disco colors. Yet despite looking like footwear a podiatrist would recommend, there’s something appealing about their retro forms, faux stitching, wide textured soles and proven durability.
Design brand Bench, which aims to help promote goods made in Nara Prefecture, certainly thinks so. It has collaborated with Nishibe Chemical, a company with over 40 years history of making antibacterial toilet sandals, to create a range of fashion bensan accessorized with attachments styled on loafers.
Nishibe Chemical is one of just a few toilet sandal manufacturers in Japan, all of which are based in Nara, and most of Bench’s re-interpretation of its bensan leaves the original design intact. To update them, it has introduced modern colors, including navy blue and natural tans, and added matching leather fringes and tassels. There’s also a couple of new bensan shapes and one with buckle embellishments.
Made in limited numbers, which adds extra premium to the value, Bench’s bensan are priced significantly higher than a pair of imported sandals you may find at the local store. In fact, from ¥3,564, they are at least four times the cost of a pair of Nishibe Chemical’s originals. But that hasn’t affected their popularity. Since they are already sold out on Bench’s own online store, the company recommends trying nowear-studio.com to snag one of the last remaining pairs.
Scrubbing up a little
Despite scrubbing brushes coming in all shapes and modern materials, the looped palm tawashi (scrubber), is still a household staple in Japan. What’s a little surprising, however, is that it is also becoming more popular overseas as a natural and sometimes even “designer” alternative to cheap synthetic cleaning tools.
Kamenoko Tawashi may have something to do with this. In 2013, it won a Good Design Award for the looped tawashi, which — it turns out — the company’s founder Shozaemon Nishio actually invented way back in 1907. Kamenoko Tawashi next opened a new store in Tokyo’s Yanaka district in 2014, with a contemporary all-white minimalist interior worthy of any design outlet. Then, in 2017, it updated its website with a matching modern aesthetic.
What it didn’t change is the design or handcrafting process of its original tawashi. “Kamenoko” of the company name means “young turtle,” a reference to the shape of its tawashi — something akin to a looped giant pipe cleaner — but also a symbol of longevity. Now the company makes its iconic scrubber in different sizes, as well as stripy ones and softer ones for the body. It even has a range of original logo Kamenoko Tawashi T-shirts and other brand items.
An incredibly versatile brush, the tawashi can be used for cleaning floors, dishes, even vegetables, but there are cheap imports that look the same — so to support the original makers, look for the cute turtle symbol.
Let it rain
You know the humble plastic umbrella, right? Available at every convenience store, most are made in China and cost around ¥500. But did you know it was invented in Japan?
White Rose, an umbrella manufacturer founded around 300 years ago, made the first all-plastic umbrella in 1958, but it was frowned upon by the industry as a threat to traditional umbrella craftspeople in Japan. Nevertheless, it had gained popularity by the 1970s, when White Rose began releasing brightly colored fashion umbrellas, which was followed by custom orders for the elite, such as politicians and royalty who wanted transparent umbrellas for optimum exposure. Other manufacturers followed suit in Japan, until cheaper imports from China, made it impossible to compete.
White Rose is now not only the first, but also the only company in Japan still making plastic umbrellas. But it does so with the same pride it did when it started. It only produces around 13,000 umbrellas a year, with prices starting at around ¥5,000. Yes, that’s a huge bump up from convenience store fare. But these brollies are made to last. They have soft, durable plastic, one-way slits that allow air out if caught in a gust of wind, extra flexible spokes and, usually, real wood handles. They are so well made, they’ve caught the attention of trendy outlets, including fashion company Melrose, which recently released two brand collaborations, one of which — its White Rose x Third Magazine — has already sold out. There’s still a chance to get hold of Melrose’s White Rose x Tiara versions (pictured) at bit.ly/whiterosetiara, but best be quick.