ProjectsPast and current JFS projects


January 22, 2011


Community Rebuilding through Collaboration among SMEs, NPOs, Local Governments--From Old Town!

college_kumesan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Nobuyuki Kume, President, Kume Co., Ltd.

Are Japanese T-Shirt Manufacturers on the Verge of Extinction?

Kume Co. Ltd. established in 1935 is the first T-shirt manufacturer in Japan. In Sumida Ward, Tokyo, where Kume is located, there are many small factories, along with Ota Ward. These small factories, however, are disappearing one after another due to the flood of cheap imported products. Textile production areas across Japan are also facing similar situations. The same chain stores stand along bypasses all over Japan. Many of our long-time clients including local department and clothing stores have gone bankrupt.

Japan has a great spinning technology, but the worst of all the problems is that the raw material manufacturers upstream of us are closing down. In Katsushika Ward, there used to be many dye houses, but none remains now. We are in the situation where we will have to discontinue our business when spinners disappear.

I used to work for a securities company and returned to my father's company after the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in early 1990s. Five years ago, I officially became the president. I am trying everyday to mark the second foundation.

Struggling to survive, I started sales on the Internet in 1996. But it was not as simple as listing existing products. In the online shopping, people buy at the lowest price if the product is the same. I thought we have to become the "Only One," not a subcontractor.

In the future, I think every product will have something like a wireless tag, which provides consumers with the information on its manufacturer when, for instance, a cell phone is held close to the product. People will cherish wearing even a T-shirt if they learn that it is made with effort and various thoughts of many people.

In other words, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as well as individuals will be required to create their branding in the future. What will become critical is limitation. No one will appreciate a product if anyone can get it at a convenience store. Every product needs to have a story to tell.

Yet, it is difficult for a SME to achieve branding on its own. The number of employees is small and name recognition and funds are limited. Then collaboration becomes essential.

I would like to talk about following seven challenges we are tackling now for that: (1) returning to a high quality through "Onko Chishin (words that mean discovering new things by studying the past in English)," (2) environment-friendly materials and electricity, (3) holding heartwarming art events, (4) collaboration with non-governmental/non-profit organizations (NGOs/NPOs), (5) co-creation with creators who express the Japanese spirit, (6) thorough utilization of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), and (7) sending out messages to the world through collaboration with local businesses. Let me give you some specific examples from these.

Reason for Popularity of 10,000-yen T-shirt

First example is the branding of "Onko Chishin," discovering new things by studying the past. To mark the second foundation, we decided to make an ultimate T-shirt that can be made only by the first T-shirts manufacturer in Japan.

At that time, a mail-order company suggested making a T-shirt at the price of 10,000 yen (about US$123) for senior customers who know the authentic value. Since it was when the price collapse was already underway, we wondered if we could sell a 10,000-yen T-shirt. Once we began, however, our craftsmen worked eagerly and diligently and our material manufacturer brought in special thread which they hadn't used for over a decade. Finally we developed a solid color T-shirt that costs 10,000 yen each.

Fortunately, this product has been selling constantly. We even increased the price to 11,000 yen (about US$136) later due to a rise in cost for using better materials. We found out that good quality products attract good quality customers. I think it is essential for the businesses in the future to have a stance to offer high quality products for a long time use and target only on those who know the quality.

Project to Revive Cotton Production in Japan

Next challenge is to manufacture products using environment-friendly materials and electricity when possible. Do you know that the pesticide use for cotton products is the highest in the world? I was also shocked to learn that for the first time. I just didn't know that because we no longer have any cotton fields in Japan.

The products made from environment-friendly materials without using pesticides may not sell very well if they cost more for that. Unlike foods, residual pesticides of T-shirts will be mostly gone during the manufacturing process. Therefore, it is difficult to think that organic T-shirts are beneficial for consumers.

Then I thought of publicizing organic cotton with the help of art. When I asked for assistance to the artists in the world, many people offered their designs, which encouraged our activity. For both environmental and social problems, artists respond very quickly and often become supporters.

Next is green electricity. The electricity used to run sewing machines at the Kume's factory in Chiba Prefecture is generated at the "Sunshine" photovoltaic (PV) power plant in Iida City, Nagano Prefecture. The plant is based on a system in which money is collected through citizens' investment, the power generating unit is installed at the rooftop of kindergartens and nursery schools, and the plant provides electricity to those buildings and at the same time sells electricity. This sort of system, not only for solar but also for wind power generation, can be seen across Japan. We wish we could use electricity generated in our old town, but now we use natural energy generated at elsewhere including the "Sunshine" PV power plant because we still don't have such system locally.

What changed my approach toward the environment was an encounter with a farmer. Takeshi Machida, who works on natural farming in the Watarase River basin in North Kanto region, started a project to recover Japanese cotton that scarcely exists today by planting only 40 seeds at hand. I joined his project. It is not a profitable project, therefore we started from calling for volunteers through eco tours and having everyone plant one seed in a pot.

During harvesting of cotton, leaves are usually removed by applying large volume of pesticides, but we don't like that and harvest by hand without removing leaves. Harvested cotton bolls are dried under the sun. After about one week, they become fluffy. Next, the seed cotton is separated into seeds and cotton with a machine shaped like a roller. Then after a spinner makes thread, we will have clothing fabric finally.

This is where Kume's work begins. From the 40 seeds, we made 90 T-shirts using green electricity after four or five years. The T-shirts became the official T-shirt for the Live Earth inspired by former US Vice President, Al Gore. Musicians including Ryuichi Sakamoto and Ayaka, who was a popular Japanese pop singer, signed their autographs on the T-shirts and each of them became the one and only T-shirt in the world. We wanted to raise funds for the restoration of Watarase's Satoyama landscape (managed community forests near villages) and put the T-shirts out for auction at Yahoo! Charity Auction. The T-shirts were sold at a total of 700,000 yen (about US$864). Some people pay money for products that are valuable for them even if other people don't find them so valuable. This is the business of the 21st century. No one wants ordinary things in this era flooded with goods. We realized that the key is with what thought the product was made.

Sense of On-Site Especially Needed for Internet Era

As for the utilization of ICT, the tools including the Internet have changed drastically compared with a decade ago. It is an amazing time. Posting a blog entry, tweeting on Twitter or broadcasting on Ustream are mostly free. You were born in this incredibly blessed time. How much are you using these tools?

When I was working at a securities firm, my boss had a reputation of being a legendary top sales person. He always used to say, "Sales activity is more than a half done once you know the personal preferences such as the names of favorite books, movies, foods of the person you want to market to." It was difficult back then, so sales people had to follow a procedure of inviting the clients to golf or becoming a friend with receptionists or secretaries. But now if you look at my blog, you will know my personal information in five minutes.

Now ICT is a tool anyone can use. These tools, however, only generate the same results if they are used perfunctory. The key is users' power of intellect, emotion and volition.

For instance, as for "intellect," most of the information available online can not be considered as knowledge. It is important to get out to the field just like plowing cotton fields with experts such as Mr. Machida mentioned before. Many people are absolutely lack of this.

Local Branding that Will Survive after 100 Years

Lastly, I would like to talk about my community. Sumida Ward had almost never put efforts in tourism. With the Tokyo Sky Tree currently under construction, however, I have a hunch that something is going to happen. Everyone thinks this might be the first and the last chance. So, some people including myself decided to establish an incorporated body called "VISIT SUMIDA" Tourism Office. We are trying to create the Sumida brand.

I am teaching a class at Meiji University about doing an Internet business of things you like for one year, but many students don't have any favorite things. Unfortunately, about 80 percent of them gave up on something and don't stick to anything. But about 20 percent of them are different. They have their favorites due to the influence of their grand parents who have good hobbies or their parents who are "otaku (anorakish or geek)." Otaku is a treasure of Japan. When we cater to these otaku people, we can often attract foreigners. I think SMEs should stop targeting mass audience.

After starting the tourism office, I was surprised to learn that all craftsmen at Sumida Ward are awesome. But we didn't have any photos of them. So I asked an NPO of seniors who like taking photographs to join a tour to take a photo of craftsmen. The tour was filled up as soon as registration opened. Nearly 70-year-old senior males went around the town with professional zoom lenses. The craftsmen began to pose confidently in front of cameras, who once considered themselves the last generation since after all there is no successor. The photos taken were great.

I really want to put a soul into Tokyo Sky Tree. Traditionally Japanese people put names on roof tiles when they make symbolic buildings. Tokyo Sky Tree could have plates that have messages to our descendants in 100 years from now, or drawings donated for display. This way, it will have people's souls. After completion, the tourists who visit there could participate through posting something like "Senjafuda (thousand shrine tags)" posted by visitors on the gates of shrines in Japan, at the observation tower. I think that would make people want to come back there after ten years.

This is how I am trying to make Sumida Ward a better place with people in the community and send out information on the model created at Sumida Ward as an open source movement across Japan, along with our business to make T-shirts that can only be made in Japan and send them out to the world and leave them for the children in the future.


Nobuyuki Kume (President, Kume Co., Ltd.)
After developing a stock game at Imagineer Co. and an inheritance diagnosis system at Nikko Securities (currently Nikko Cordial Securities, Inc.), he became the third president of his family business. He won the Nikkei Internet Award, the Grand Prize of the "Top 100 Companies Using IT Management" organized by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Japan and the special award of "Courageous Management Award 2009" organized by the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Currently, he vigorously pushes forward to the second founding of the company by presenting environment-friendly T-shirts humbly made by Kume using resources only available in Japan. He is also a lecturer of the School of Commerce at Meiji University, a director of CANPAN Center, an NPO, a director of "VISIT SUMIDA" Tourism Office and a member of tourism committee of the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry.