SAITAMA – A local maker of traditional tabi split-toed footwear is looking to widen overseas sales channels after its fashionable products gained traction in France.
Musashino Uniform, which runs a shop specializing in work clothes in Gyoda, Saitama Prefecture, exhibited a lineup of tabi footwear tinged with pop-art colors and modern designs at the Japan Expo in Paris in 2015.
The items were well-received and the company has since paid more attention to foreign markets in the hope of helping revitalize its hometown, which was once a major tabi manufacturing center.
Ankle-high and with metal clasps usually used as a fastening device at the back, tabi are an essential accessory of traditional kimono.
They are also worn by both men and women for tea ceremonies, martial arts, theater events and traditional art events. A special kind of tabi boots are used widely by construction workers and farmers.
Samurai and warlords used tabi in the past, while they were also popular among the general public until softer and thinner Western-style socks became common.
In Gyoda, tabi production developed in the Edo Period (1603-1868), and the city accounted for 80 percent of overall domestic output during a peak in the late 1930s. In an effort to reinvigorate the local industry, Musashino Uniform began selling a series called Samurai Tabi in April 2012.
Handmade by craftsmen, the series is both for indoor and outdoor use and has 15 designs featuring geometric and leopard patterns, black dots on a bright yellow background, and illustrations of flowers, giraffes, dragons and Mount Fuji. They are mainly sold online with many priced at ¥4,320 a pair.
“It all started with a friend’s request for tabi that go well with loud-colored kimono,” Musashino Uniform President Kazuhiro Komatsu said, explaining his efforts to stand out from traditional tabi, which mostly have conservative colors. He added that some customers asked for tabi to match Western clothing.
Komatsu, 45, had no experience manufacturing tabi before venturing with colleagues into making them fashionable and modern with elaborate designs. The Japan Expo in Paris, held three years after his company began tabi sales, proved a stepping stone.
Sales tripled after the exposition. Currently, an average of about 100 pairs sell each month, with roughly 10 percent of orders coming from overseas, Komatsu said.
Earlier this year, the company was picked for a state-sponsored cultural promotion project, allowing it to take part in experimental marketing campaigns for its Samurai Tabi items at a Paris showroom for about one year from April. It now plans to promote the products in Southeast Asia and the United States.
“With the new style we have, I want to show overseas customers that tabi were vital for the economy of Gyoda for a long time in the past,” Komatsu said. “Hopefully, it will help give a boost to our community.”
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