In Japan, American names like Red Wing and Levi's are revered and beloved. Fashion editorials, collaborations and street style galleries all reinforce Japan's fascination not only with American fashion, but with its overall culture. New Balance is a particularly interesting case study, as the US company's Japanese presence has been tailored over the years to greet the particular demands of Japanese sneakerheads.
As with many American marques, the Japanese are incredibly apt at interpreting New Balance in their own way. To find out more, we spoke with two of the most influential individuals when it comes to the Boston-based brand in Japan - Mr. Shigeyuki Kunii and Mr. Tetsuya Shono.
It goes without saying, Mr. Shigeyuki Kunii from sneaker retailer mita is well tuned in to the Japanese sneaker landscape, having captained many Japanese exclusive New Balance collaborations during his tenure. Tetsuya Shono heads up product design for the lifestyle division of New Balance Japan, and has helped to push classic New Balance silhouettes amongst Japanese sneakerheads for years, solidifying the distinction between lifestyle offerings and athletic performance gear.
First, which New Balance styles are the most popular in Japan?
Mr. Shono: M1300JP, M1400, M996 and M576; they are all made in the U.S.
Mr. Kunii: In Japan, I think the most popular New Balance model is the 1400. Japan played a key role in introducing the 1400, and the 1994 version used to be available only in Japan. It has been a top-seller here, remaining popular amongst young and old, men and women. J.Crew also collaborated with New Balance on several 1400s in recent years. For us, it's a prestigious model, which became popular in Japan and now is known on a global scale.
How do New Balance and Japanese culture go together?
Mr. Shono: Most Japanese fashion-conscious consumers like American casual, vintage and heritage styles, so it's easy for them to enjoy the craftsmanship of New Balance and the history of the brand.
Mr Kunii: Japanese style has been highly influenced by American casual clothing, and Japanese people tend to respect heritage as well as the history of the brand and its culture. So automatically New Balance and its authenticity attract Japanese people in many ways, and the aesthetic matches Japanese sensibility.
Japanese people tend to enjoy the real-life stories behind the shoes more than product development stories or marketing. For example, anecdotes like Mr. Ralph Lauren wearing "the Rolls-Royce of sneakers," the 1300, or Mr. Steve Jobs always wearing the 993. I believe the present cannot exist if there is no past, and if there is no present then there can be no future, and these stories allow us to empathize with the New Balance brand heritage, and this is what makes New Balance attractive.
New Balance Japan has been telling stories about the products for a long time and the consumer becomes educated on the importance of heritage.Tthis is partly why I feel Japanese New Balance fans have a firm understanding of brand knowledge compared to other countries.
Is there a big running community in Japan?
Mr. Shono: Yes. Running is a popular sport in Japan, it's becoming especially popular among young people and they try to integrate running into their lifestyle.
Mr Kunii: The urban running style used to be more of an individual sport, for example training at the gym. However it has changed recently, like people meeting after work and going for a run, or starting a running team with friends. There have been changes in relation to urban lifestyle and sports, and it seems to be becoming a big movement that influences people’s lifestyles.
What does the Japanese New Balance consumer want?
Mr. Shono: They want something special and I guess this applies to exclusive products from any country. There are many ways to create special products, but it's more important for Japanese consumers to have a story that is uniquely positioned, I think Japanese consumers care more than other countries when it comes to how stories are integrated into the products.
Mr Kunii: When describing the New Balance image, I would say “neutral.” New Balance relates to many subcultures, but it doesn’t lean to one in particular, it possesses universal value, and the distinct brand positioning makes the brand very attractive. That’s why consumers want something different from the high road of New Balance, such as something with local essence that identifies with a Japanese shop or brand. When I actually produce exclusive models, I think that is a very important factor.
What are some of your favorite Japan-exclusive New Balances?
Mr. Shono: The New Balance M1300JP2 released this year, it's one of the products that we deliver from Japan every time, and is positioned as an iconic New Balance model. The New Balance MFL574 with mita sneakers was another recent project, it's a real hybrid model that combines our performance-oriented “Fresh Foam” sole unit with a 574 upper.
Mr Kunii: Talking about mita collaborations, it’s very hard to select one because I'm personally attached to all these exclusive products. However, if I had to select one, I would say our first New Balance 580, which is the model that became a turning point for me. Back in time, collaborating with shops to make limited products was kind of groundbreaking. Our 580 collaboration with HECTIC has been continuing for almost 10 years, and today we still collaborate with new partners like WHIZ LIMITED and SBTG using the 580. Next year is the 20th anniversary year of the MT580, so there are a lot of things going on, I can’t wait for next year.
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