Lifestyle

The white rose that blossoms in the rain

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Visitors to Japan may be surprised by the ubiquity of clear plastic umbrellas found in kiosks, drugstores and supermarkets across the country. In fact, they account for more than half of the roughly 120-130 million umbrellas sold in the nation annually.

“I do understand how tourists may find it odd to see people in Japan using umbrellas so often,” says Tsukasa Sudo, the 10th president of umbrella company White Rose Co. “All I can say is that it’s a cultural thing. A drop of rain is enough for us to open an umbrella.”

While most of the clear brollies seen in Japan today are imported, the plastic umbrella was originally invented over half a century ago by White Rose, now one of the few remaining domestic makers in a market dominated by cheap disposable ones from China.

Key to the survival of White Rose, perhaps unsurprisingly, is quality and innovation, according to Sudo of the family-owned company that traces its origins to the Edo Period (1603-1868). White Rose umbrellas may still be plastic, but they are nothing like those you’ll find in a convenience store.

The detail and craftsmanship that goes into a White Rose plastic umbrella, Sudo says, are the result of firsthand insight gathered from decades of trial and error, ever since the company produced its first plastic umbrella in the 1950s.

“Our main objective now is to create products with a complex manufacturing process that overseas makers can’t imitate,” says Sudo, 64, reflecting how his company was on the verge of going out of business in the 1980s when Chinese factories began mass-producing plastic umbrellas.

“We’re no longer targeting the masses and instead producing goods for our core customers.”

Take the ¥15,400 plastic collapsible umbrella, one of White Rose’s most recent inventions that has constantly sold out since being introduced last year. Three years in the making, it features soft, durable plastic, patented one-way slits that release air if caught in a gust of wind, fiberglass spokes and a cherry wood handle.

While Sudo says he had received numerous requests to create a plastic foldable umbrella, he was reluctant to move ahead until he could guarantee that the quality would be on par with White Rose’s other umbrellas.

“We make wind- and rain-resistant umbrellas that are made to last and can be repaired — conditions that must be met by all of our products,” he says.

Then there is the ¥19,800 two-in-one separable walking-stick umbrella, inspired by a woman who wanted to give her aging father a cane without undermining his confidence in his mobility.

“The idea was that if it looked like an umbrella, he wouldn’t have to explain to his friends that he’s using a walking stick,” Sudo explains.

The history of White Rose dates back to 1721, when Takeda Chogoro opened a retail outlet selling cut tobacco. The business eventually branched out to rainwear, making raincoats from oiled, water-repellent paper, similar to that used to preserve tobacco.

During the Meiji Era (1868-1912) it began selling Japanese-style paper umbrellas as well as Western-style fabric umbrellas. It was in the early 1950s that Sudo’s father, Mitsuo, invented the predecessor to what would later become the world’s first plastic umbrella — the umbrella cover.

“My father returned from internment camps in Siberia in 1949 and married my mother, who was the daughter of the president of the company,” Sudo says. Back then, most umbrellas were made from cotton, which was prone to absorbing rainwater. Inspired by the vinyl tablecloths occupation troops brought to Japan after the war, Sudo’s father devised a plastic cover that could be attached over umbrellas to make them completely waterproof.

While the plastic cover was a hit, it soon fell out of favor when nylon umbrellas became mainstream, prompting Mitsuo to devise ways to glue plastic canopies directly on to umbrella spokes. The project, which was developed from 1952 to 1958, led to the invention of the plastic umbrella, a product that was initially shunned by a market that considered cloth umbrellas the industry standard.

The invention, however, caught the eye of buyers from the biggest umbrella retailers in the United States who were visiting Japan during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and soon White Rose found itself exporting plastic umbrellas to New York.

For a while, outlook for White Rose was sunny, but when the cheaper mass-produced Chinese plastic umbrellas began saturating the market in the 1980s, it was a near-fatal blow to makers in Japan.

“In a matter of three years, all producers of plastic umbrellas, except us, went bankrupt,” Sudo says. “When I joined the company back then, our revenue was being sliced in half every six months or so.”

Struggling to remain afloat, White Rose began taking made-to-order requests, a strategy that proved to be a lifesaver.

One of the first requests came from the Saitama Prefectural Police, which asked for a sturdy umbrella that could be used during auto accident investigations. Riffing off that design, White Rose then made a transparent plastic umbrella for a Tokyo Metropolitan assemblyman running for re-election.

“He thought a typical black umbrella would appear authoritative and wanted a plastic umbrella with mass appeal,” Sudo says. “It would also let pedestrians see his face when delivering speeches in the rain.” Through word of mouth, other politicians also began ordering White Rose umbrellas during election season.

There were other specific requests, including one from a Buddhist monk who wanted a large, transparent umbrella his escort could hold while he recited sutras in front of graves.

“He would wear his best silk robes during these events and wanted parishioners to be able to admire his outfit,” Sudo explains.

Celebrities, such as now retired baseball star Ichiro Suzuki has also been seen carrying one of these umbrellas during camp training.

What cemented White Rose’s image as the go-to manufacturer for high-end plastic umbrellas, however, was when it received a request from the Imperial Household Agency in the 2010s to design an umbrella for Empress Emerita Michiko’s outdoor appointments.

Sudo attributes White Rose’s survival to the popularity of the upscale image its products. A signboard with the words “Purveyor to the Imperial Household Agency” now accompanies pop-up shops White Rose opens in department stores, and it continues to collaborate with other companies to create special-edition umbrellas.

As a family-run business, its production numbers may be limited, but, he says, every year it sells out of all its 12,000 to 13,000 umbrellas made.