July 19, 2011

Vol.1 Hidden Treasure 

Guillermo Bastias

I came to Japan on a working holiday visa from Australia two years ago, and I shall admit I did not come because of Japanese leather. I came to out of a passionate interest in Japanese culture both ancient and modern, and teaching English enabled me to experience it first hand. But to be honest, I did not realise Japan had a leather industry. It was only after I had a chat with my friend that I became aware of Japanese leather, and that topic came about indirectly. She is Japanese and her partner is American. She was telling me how she saw a pair of shoes online that she "had to have". Being available online meant that she was spending a mere fraction of what the shoe would have cost in Japan. She loved the shoe, they were leather and were very cheap, what ells did she need to know? She bought them without hesitation. Unfortunately the problems began when she got a message from the post office stating that her shoes had arrived, however there was a tax that needed to be paid. The shoes cost her $30, and the tax was $45!!!!

This illustrated how fragile the Japanese Leather industry must be. In Australia we place high import duties on products that would compete directly with the Australian products in order to protect local industries. I assume it is the same with Japan. So I wondered how big the leather industry was in Japan. In South American, Argentina became a huge financial power in the late1800s partly because of their cattle industry. Argentina had vast areas for cattle grassing, and as a result they were able to develop and export vast amounts of beef and leather. So wealthy was the country thanks to cattle, that even their national airline, Argentine Airline would upholster all their passengers seats in leather, even the economy class had leather seats.

Obviously Japan's cattle industry isn't as large when compared with Argentina, the US or even compared with Australia. They do not have the appetite nor the space to justify a cattle industry that would enable it to develop a competitive leather industry. This is evident when you look at the Japanese menu. If you do decide to eat beef you could have gyudon; a bowl of rice with slices of thinly cut meat, sukiyaki, which is thinly cut meet cooked in a soysouce broth with other veggies, or nikujaga; a Japanese style stew with potatoes and thinly sliced beef. I hope you can see what they all have in common; Japanese beef is sliced thin. A thick steak is very expensive when compared with a steak bought in Australia. Japan's primary meat is fish, and unless the Japanese are able to popularise fish leather, it is difficult to envission Japan as a leather industry.

Japan has become famous for their high quality products, attention to detail, and clever advancements. Today, Japan turns its attention to electronics, making them a world leader in technology. Their silks and cotton fabrics are sought after the world over. So what of their leather goods?

It is apparent that the technology market has taken hold、 with giant multinational companies such as Toray Industries, who developed a number of synthetic materials. In the early 70's they developed Alcantara, a synthetic suede like material that is more durable than actual suede. Alcantara is now an extra option for the interior of Ferrari. They also developed a material named ecsaine, that is also considered as a suede substitute. In kyudo (Japanese archery), the archer's glove, known as the yugake, is now often made from escaine, replacing the traditional leather yugake made from deer.

It seems that Japan's leather industry has a tough challenge ahead. Not only does it have to compete with countries that can produce leather cheaper, it is also in competition with synthetic substitutes developed by their own country. However, this does create a niche opportunity. Japanese companies such as Porter who make leather bags, are well positioned to promote quality products, which is what Japan is famous for. If the leather industry can utilise the reputation of Japanese design and quality, there is no reason why Japan can't be synonymous with leather products in the near future.

And as a side note, the shoes my friend bought online; it turns out that they did not fit her after all.

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