Friday, August 05, 2005

Onitsuka Tiger

My current shoe obsession would be Onitsuka Tiger, the heritage brand of sportswear label Asics. The shoes are the epitome of fashion meets functionality, with designs for fencing and taichi in wonderfully vibrant colours. Every single shoe is colour-coordinated so well that despite the simple tiger-stripe pattern repeated in all the shoes, each one has a different feel and a different style.

The shoes have a strong Asian influence, especially since it was created in Japan. It draws inspiration from Asian sport and art like its limited edition Kyoto collection which were made from traditional Kyoto material, Kinran, a gold brocade with patterns of thin strips of gold/silver foil or gold/silver covered thread into the wrap of every other row which can be found on the Obi [sash] for the Japanese traditional costume, Kimono. The brand was also featured in the Kill Bill film, which paid homage to Chinese martial art legend, Bruce Lee. Its appearance on Uma Thurman's feet also sealed its position as THE sneaker to covet.

The founder of the now well-known shoes and apparel brand ASICS had already led an adventurous life, when in 1949, at the age of 31, he entered a new phase in his life. After years in the military and having worked for a company who bought and sold beer on the black market, Onitsuka decided that sports could play an important role in rebuilding the self-esteem of the youngsters in Japan. He learned how to manufacture shoes and founded Onitsuka Co Ltd. It was the start of a company that would develop into one of the five largest brands in the world market of sports shoes.

Yukio Matsumoto, head coach of the Kobe High School basketball team, urged Onitsuka to start manufacturing basketball shoes. He strongly believed that basketball would soon become a popular sport in Japan. Onitsuka’s first shoe design resembled a straw sandal rather than a basketball shoe and was greeted with mockery by the school coach.

From that moment on Onitsuka came over to watch the basketball team practice whenever he could. He observed the movements of the feet and started wondering how he could enable the players to make sudden stops and starts.
Suction cups

In the summer of 1951, during a vacation, Onitsuka saw a plate with pickles and octopus legs. He suddenly realised that the suction cups of the octopus could be the key he had been looking for. He used the concept of the suction cups for the sole of the basketball shoes he was working on at the time and took his new shoes to the team. One of the players tried the shoes and the sole design proved so effective that he tumbled and fell when he made a sudden stop. Onitsuka adjusted the shape of the suction cups and he finally had what he wanted: basketball shoes that made it possible to stop and start without slipping.

The support of the coaches and players proved crucial to the success of Onitsuka. When he took samples of his shoes to the sports stores, their first reaction was that they could not do business with him because they only bought from wholesalers. The young entrepreneur then visited the basketball coaches of high schools and showed them his basketball shoes.
The coaches were enthusiastic and went with him to the stores to tell them that the students would be wearing Onitsuka shoes from then on. All Onitsuka had to do after that was write down the orders.

By 1953 Onitsuka had broadened his interest towards running shoes.
Working with top Marathon runner Tooru Terasawa, he decided to try and develop a way to avoid long distance runners getting blisters. The air-cooling system of motorcycles served as an inspiration. He used a loosely woven cloth for the top of the shoes and made a number of holes in the front and the sides. As a result of these measures the feet were now able to “breathe”. In addition Onitsuka designed a two-layered sole to soften the impact. Terasawa tried the shoes on and ran 42 kilometres and 195 metres without blisters for the first time.

It took a little persuasion to get the legendary Ethiopian Marathon runner Abebe Bikila to wear Tiger shoes. As a matter of fact, up until 1957, Abebe didn’t wear shoes at all. When Onitsuka saw Abebe winning the Olympic Marathon in 1956 in Melbourne, Australia, he was worried about the future of his company. Abebe ran barefoot. The next year, when Abebe Bikila ran the Mainichi Marathon in Japan, Onitsuka visited him in his hotel. “Why didn’t you bring your shoes?” Onitsuka asked. “Because I don’t have any”, was the athlete’s answer. After Onitsuka had explained to him that Japanese roads are littered with glass and therefore running bare-foot could be dangerous, Abebe was willing to give the Tiger running shoes a try. Onitsuka hurried back to the factory and gave his technicians the order to manufacture the world’s lightest pair of shoes immediately. The next day Abebe Bikila won the marathon. He wore shoes ever since.

In 1958 Onitsuka, who had bought the “Tiger” brand a year before, celebrated the 10th anniversary of his company in an astonishing way. He had decided that Onitsuka should not become a family-run business, but an employee-run business. He distributed 70 percent of the shares to his employees. Half of the total capital was handed free of charge to senior employees, in accordance with their achievements. Twenty percent of the capital was offered to younger employees for a fee.

Preparing for the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics, GTO, manufacturer of sportswear and nets, Jelenk, manufacturer of knit wear and Onitsuka built a regional sales office together on a piece of land near Hokkaido.
It turned out to be the starting point of a historic merger that made an old dream of Kihachiro Onitsuka, a complete sporting goods company, come true. After years of negotiations the deal was finalised towards the end of 1976. In 1977 GTO, Jelenk and Onitsuka merged to form a new, strong and progressive enterprise. To find an appropriate name for their new company, the founders turned to the Ancient Romans and found an old Latin phrase: Anima Sana In Corpore Sano (a sound mind in a sound body). The world of sports welcomed a new, promising name: ASICS (if you haven't already noticed, it is the combination of the first letter of each of the Latin words in bold)


The Running Fish Gutter, an advertisement by the brand, tells the story that if you dedicate your entire existence to achieving your goal, all expectations will eventually be exceeded. You too can be a winner even if you're a loser.

Get the Uma Thurman shoes from Asos.

Or if you are interested, get the True Story of Onitsuka Tiger to gain access to the massive collection of attractive info of the Japanese shoe maker.

Onitsuka Tigers are available at Zappos.