These days, “traditional manufacturing” and “t-shirts” don’t seem to be related at all. But Kume is a little company in Tokyo that has built its business on the simple yet versatile staple of modern fashion that is the t-shirt. The company continues to boldly take on new challenges while maintaining a tight focus on their product: domestically-produced t-shirts of the highest quality.
Interview by Takafumi Suzuki
Translation by Claire Tanaka
First of all, could you tell me a little about how this company came to be?
The Tokyo neighborhood where we’re located is called Honjo-ishiwara, and it used to be a real craftsman’s town. Cross the Sumida River and you’ll be in Nihonbashi-Yokoyama, and that was where over half the textiles in Japan were handled back in the day. Back then my grandfather, who worked in knit fabrics, founded the precursor to Kume (Kume Textile Industries), which was called Kume Meriyasu Seizosho (Kume Knitting Mill). That was in 1935, so over seventy years ago. My grandfather had originally come from a small town in Tochigi prefecture called Ashikaga, and he learned his trade through an apprenticeship. He founded the company when he started out on his own. He was a stubborn old man, a true craftsman of the old order.
But, how did a textile company become a domestic t-shirt manufacturer?
That was the second generation owner, my father’s brilliant idea. It was the 1950s, and at that time you never saw anyone wearing a t-shirt out on the streets in Japan. But my father was a real movie watcher and he was strongly influenced by the American culture he saw projected up on the silver screen, and I guess he wanted to emulate it. Then, one day he saw a movie where Marlon Brando was wearing a t-shirt. My father saw it and thought, “That’s it!” It was like a revelation. He used some American army surplus goods he bought in Ameyoko (a Tokyo market street that sold a lot of American goods during the years after the war) as a pattern, and designed a t-shirt that would fit the Japanese physique. He improved the fabric, using comfortable, strong material. But when he brought his t-shirt to the apparel distributors in Yokoyama, they said, “What? Who would wear this? It looks like underwear!” and they sent him home. (laughs) After that he thought some more. Back then, if you wore a t-shirt, no one would know what it was. So he named his line “iro maru kubi” and made the t-shirt in twelve different colors, and gradually built up his product recognition. Once people tried them on, they would say, “This is so comfortable!”
Wow, he decided to make t-shirts his business in an era when t-shirts were completely unknown. That’s incredible.
Back then, he also got the licensing taken care of for images that he thought would look good on t-shirts, for things like cigarettes and sake. I think my grandfather saw my father’s business sense and retired from the business early so that he could take over. That was quite a good judgment on his part.
Did you grow up surrounded by t-shirt manufacturing?
Yes. It was a matter of work and home being one and the same. There’d be people sewing t-shirts in one room, and then my grandparents would be in the back, watching samurai dramas on TV. I’d come home from school and my father would be on the phone taking an order. That kind of stuff was everyday life for me.
So you learned the industry by osmosis.
Yes. I learned what being a tradesman is all about right at home. My grandfather had the personality of a real craftsman. He didn’t speak at all. And my father was at once a tradesman capable of making great leaps of thought while at the same time he is a first class craftsman. He had originally had a dream of working at a trading company and seeing the world, but he had to take over the family business and wasn’t able to realize his dream. So he took the American culture that he loved and adapted it to his working class Tokyo business and wound up in the t-shirt business.
Have you always been in the t-shirt business yourself, Mr. Kume?
No, I’ve gone down many paths. I worked at a company called Imagineer as a game designer, and then I was a financial planner at Nikko Securities. But actually, I hate games and stocks. (laughs)
Those are such different jobs.
But I learned so much there. For example, advertising doesn’t affect which games children buy, and grandmas and grandpas who play the stock market aren’t as uninformed as many people think. That’s why as a business, it’s not enough to just make the best product you can. You’ve got to provide legitimate information too. Sometimes things that really sell start out with no reputation at all. That’s what I learned.
I see. The unique ventures you’re undertaking now must have their origin in those roots.
Yes. Combining t-shirt manufacturing with events, collaborating with artists, starting an organic cotton t-shirt project, I think I am doing these things now because of my past experiences.
Now, you’re really doing a great job of maintaining high standards as a manufacturer and letting people know about it. How do you describe your company to people?
In short, we are a domestic t-shirt manufacturer with very high standards. We do everything, from cutting the cloth and sewing it, to printing. They are made by experienced craftspeople, by hand. Our attention to detail is great, from choice of materials, to colors, cutting, sewing, and finishing — we put great care into every step. We’re developing our business by making unique t-shirts such as collaborative projects with artists and producers, t-shirts made with low environmental impact, and original in-house designs. The result is a product that we can make because of our circumstances here in Japan, which is different from mass-produced t-shirts made overseas.
Does your father ever try to tell you how to manage the business?
Once we re-vamped the company, he pretty much left everything to me. But up until then, we were always having these embarrassing, petty little arguments. (laughs) When I put the full name of the company in Japanese on the tag, he said, “Do you really think it’s OK to put words like “seni” (textile) and “kogyo” (industry) on the tag? Shouldn’t we throw some English in there?”
Even if there’s a difference in thinking because of the generation gap, he doesn’t say anything.
Yes. In my father’s day, even if you just had a non-mainstream-sounding name for your product, it would be hard to get the banks to lend you money. So even though my father complains, he does realize that times have changed.
Where does this particularly strike home for you?
Even now, every morning, my father and I will have these silly conversations. Then, he’ll get out his “Roots of Success File” and show it to me. In the file, he’s written all his mistakes. There’s mountains of them. Signs that the client’s company is going to go under, scary times when unexpected changes happened, things like that. My father shows me the file, where he’s written how to deal with situations in each era, and it’s full of the tradesman’s spirit. It really teaches me a lot.
Lastly, when I think of t-shirt manufacturing, the first thing that comes to mind is China’s cheap labor powerhouse. What are your thoughts on that?
When I think of China, I don’t just think of factories, I think of it as a place full of my customers. There are over a hundred million people in China’s wealthy class. I want to produce the kind of high-quality products that will make those people say, “That’s Japanese quality!” There’s no reason to be overly afraid. I’m helping out with the 7,000 yen JUST JAPAN brand t-shirts that are sold at airport duty-free shops. That’s a product I’d really like the Chinese people to pick up and take a look at. I want to make products that the Chinese will fall in love with, just as my father fell in love with America.
Taihei 3-9-6, Sumida-ku, Tokyo
Born in 1963. Third generation president of Kume.