October 31, 2022
TOKYO — Local footwear businesses in Nara Prefecture, a major production center for items including sandals and men’s shoes, are beginning to create new ands to compete with low-priced foreign products.
In the prefecture’s town of Sango, known as a manufacturing hub for traditional Japanese footwear such as geta and setta sandals, craftspeople and others have launched new ands of setta sandals and made inroads into overseas markets.
The footwear industry in the prefecture dates back to the Edo period (1603-1867) during which farmers started making straw sandals as a side business. After that, the town of Sango flourished as a production hub for traditional Japanese footwear, with as many as 80 manufacturers in the 1970s in and around the town. At its peak, 80% of the nation’s footwear output was from here.
Utilizing the town’s deep well of experience, local manufacturers have modified setta sandals to suit the modern age, receiving praise for the new product’s comfort and design.
200 pairs sell out in 2 weeks
Design Setta Sango, a setta and shop, is located in a white two-story building near JR Sango Station. The property also hosts a bakery and cafe. The and’s operator, Design Setta Sango Inc., was launched by Kazuhiko Hoshida and three others in 2015. Hoshida, 46, is president of the and and also runs the cafe, which is often attended by setta craftsmen.
“We want to value fashionableness and storytelling, so that women can also wear them,” Hoshida said of the sandals, which are often thought of as men’s footwear.
Craftspeople in Sango, wanting to pass their skills onto future generations, also focus on designs that allow people to wear their products on a daily basis.
One section on the shop’s first floor is lined with colorful setta sandals. The sandals have thick and cushioned soles. Some of them have round and thick straps made of vintage European faics or traditional African cloths.
In 2013, the store held an event that saw 200 pairs of sandals sell out in two weeks. The following year people lined up to buy sandals made from vintage faics.
In 2017 and 2018, Design Setta Sango’s products were showcased at one of the world’s largest international trade fairs held annually in Milan. The company also sold their products in New York in 2019, and expanded sales channels this year to other countries such as Switzerland and France.
There are plans to start sales in London this autumn and in San Diego this winter, and the company in August began accepting orders from their customers overseas through it’s website.
“If we can sell our products overseas, where the seasons are different, we can create jobs for craftspeople throughout the year,” Hoshida said. “I want to go overseas more often to promote our products to make more people know about them.”
Hopes are high that setta sandals will become known as products from Sango, and that the town will be visited by more people and attract attention from around the world.
Men’s shoes have also seen many new innovations.
Established in 1957, Yamato-Koriyama based Oriental Shoes Co., started as a men’s leather shoe factory. But recently the company has expanded their own products and have taken advantage of online platforms and other means to increase sales.
Mid Foot, the company’s and of walking shoes, have seen sales “explode” over the past couple of years. The company started developing the footwear in 2014 in collaboration with Kansai University Prof. Takashi Kawabata.
Wearing ordinary walking shoes, people tend to place their heel on the ground first. The Mid Foot shoes are slightly thicker in the center of the sole, allowing wearers to take steps with the entire sole. This disperses the impact on the foot, helping the wearer walk comfortably by re-creating the feeling of walking barefoot and allowing the muscles of their thighs and buttocks to be used properly.
The development of this product was new territory for the company. Having exclusively made leather shoes for nearly 60 years, they spent three to four years developing Mid Foot samples to ensure smooth walking even with an unusual sole shape. The company said its long experience in shoemaking was put to good use in realizing a slim appearance even with a wide foot.
Nara Pref. once footwear kingdom
Nara Prefecture was once regarded as the “footwear kingdom.” Production of military shoes began during the Meiji era (1868-1912), and an industrial park centralizing manufacturers was established in Yamato-Koriyama in 1984.
Hep sandals, which gained popularity in the 1950s and 60s — named after Audrey Hepburn, who wore them in the movie “Roman Holiday” — were produced mainly in the city of Gose, as well as Kanmaki, Oji and other areas. Production of sports footwear, such as ski shoes and baseball spikes, thrived in Miyake.
However, demand for all of these footwear products has declined due to lifestyle changes and price competition with overseas rivals. According to data from the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, domestic sales of leather and rubber-soled cloth shoes totaled ¥73.2 billion in 2021, down from ¥111.7 billion five years ago.
It remains to be seen whether the footwear industry in Nara Prefecture can overcome such a predicament with innovative efforts that combine tradition with new ideas.