Why the Japanese Market Is Rebelling Against Formal Shoes

To walk into the footwear department of a shopping mall in Tokyo is to become aware of two things: Japanese customers like comfort. They are also really into sneakers — at least for now.

Athletic footwear — both the stylish and performance kind — dominates the sector in the country, with giants like Nike and Adidas leading the throng. Following closely behind are domestic brands such as Asics and Mizuno, which shoppers tend to prefer when it comes to actually hitting the gym or jogging, according to Kaori Kawabata, an analyst for sports footwear at The NPD Group Inc., a market research company with offices in Japan. “Local labels are seen as quality, more appropriate choices for exercising,” she said. “”Which is why they still perform well, despite the big influx of Western companies we’ve seen in recent years. People trust them.”

Coming third in the sector are walking shoes – footwear that’s casual and easy to move in. “Japanese people tend to have very long commutes and have to use busy public transportation, which requires standing and walking for a long time. Because of that, there is a high demand for shoes that are walkable and comfortable all day long, yet are still visually appealing,” said Wakana Morlan, strategist at cross‐cultural consulting, branding and marketing agency Btrax, which focuses on the Japanese market.

The shift to casual footwear is fairly recent. Over the years, Japan’s rather formal office culture paved the way for workshops and manufacturers that mostly focused on handmade, bespoke shoes for formal occasions. It also sparked a controversy just a week ago, as more than 26,000 women signed a petition protesting wardrobe restrictions by Japanese companies, particularly their rules requiring high heels in the office.

Yumi Ishikawa Japan Petition High Heels
Yumi Ishikawa, who filed a petition with the Japanese government to change corporate dress codes for women.
CREDIT: Jae C Hong/Shutterstock

While that demand for formal footwear created opportunities for highly-skilled shoemakers — even leading to the opening of a school where the craft is taught — it didn’t do much for leisurewear, until the sneaker boom of the last five years.

“As pop culture from the West has seeped through Japan and our codes of societal conduct have become slightly more relaxed, low-key shoes have started seeing a surge in popularity,” Kawabata said. “The trend isn’t as strong as South Korea, where it’s acceptable to dress casually in the office, but it’s grown.”

Between 2014 and 2016, the Japanese sneaker market rose from US$1.3 billion to US$1.65 billion a year, with Nike taking the largest chunk of the segment, according to NPD Group. Kicks made up roughly 30% of the total footwear sector.

While sneakers remain a favorite among shoppers — particularly younger generations — the hype around some styles, such as Air Maxes, Asics Gel-Kayanos and the like, has cooling off a bit. “Over the last two years, the market has been really flat,” Kawabata said. “The sneaker obsession is not as strong as it used to be. Same for performing shoes. We’ve actually seen almost negative growth since 2017.”

But comfort still leads. For Morlan, sneakers remain the stars of the show, just as in the rest of the world. “Kicks are still big in Japan,” she said. “[In the last few seasons] there are even been niche made-in-Japan sneaker brands popping up — Moonstar, Blueover, Spring Move, just to name a few.”

Street style Tokyo Fashion Week Spring 2019
Street style at Tokyo Fashion Week Spring ’19.
CREDIT: Onnie Koski/Shutterstock
Street style Tokyo Fashion Week Spring 2019
Street style at Tokyo Fashion Week Spring ’19.
CREDIT: Onnie Koski/Shutterstock

Alongside these indie kicks, other local labels with an eye for wearability and functionality have also emerged in the market — and become widely sought-after both in Asia and abroad. Suicoke, which makes practical outdoor footwear, is one of them.

“The speedy growth of the footwear industry has made Japanese buyers more interested in exploring different sides of the sector that may not have been as popular in past,” said a designer behind the notoriously anonymous brand. “That has opened up chances for a brand like ours.”

Sellenatala, a women’s brand that, among other things, crafts boots made of water-repellent leather to fight off Japan’s frequent rains, has also been riding the small-but-ascending wave of interest around made-in-Japan names. “The niche sector is, well, still niche, but we’re building it,” said designer Ikue Enomoto. “More people are trying to see meaning, value and stories in what they purchase, while seeking comfort.”

That’s seems to be the defining trait of the sector as a whole: Fot makes blocky, short heels, mules and flats. Famzon does removable heels. Shoes Like Pottery is all about soft, flexible soles that are baked inside a kiln to vulcanize them.

It might be a while before these names enter the mainstream, though. According to Kawabata, when it comes to shopping habits, Japanese consumers are still relatively ‘traditional,’ preferring in-store retail experiences over online, and classic advertising over social media — both of which might prove challenging for cash-strapped, indie ventures.

However, Kawabata sees it as a good thing: “Compared with China and South East Asia, Japanese consumers are not so influenced by KOLs [key opinion leaders] and social media figures when it comes to footwear,” she said. “They don’t care much for that. It’s about believing in the product.”

For now, Western brands still rule the game, but Morlan believes things are changing. “There is a good amount of people who specifically look for Japanese shoemakers because they understand their lifestyles and needs for comfort,” she said. “Western names can’t match that.”

Check out a video about how to keep sneakers clean all summer:

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