Inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. Take the curious case of Kihachiro Onitsuka.
One hot evening in the summer of 1951, Onitsuka was enjoying a salad of pickled cucumber and cold octopus. It is very possible he was pondering the future of a company that he had set up two years previously, but which was struggling.
Born in 1918 in Japan’s Tottori prefecture, Onitsuka had fought in the World War II and, in 1949, set up a firm that made shoes for youngsters. In later interviews he always said that he wanted to raise the spirit and morale of young Japanese people in those difficult days immediately after the war. He believed that the best way of achieving that would be by promoting healthy lifestyles through sport.
With Japan still under occupation and American sports gaining traction – particularly basketball, which was appealing to many youngsters because it required little in the way of expensive equipment – he had his heart set on getting a foot in the door of the basketball shoe market. Onitsuka’s primary motivation for developing basketball shoes, he always said, was that they are the most difficult to create.
Onitsuka’s earliest attempts to devise a new and effective shoe flopped. But they did demonstrate that basketball players needed to be able to stop in a heartbeat, be in motion again just as quickly and be able to turn on the proverbial dime. And no basketball shoes that were available at the time gave athletes those advantages.
More attempts to create shoes for basketball players came to nothing, until that fateful evening when he sat down to his octopus salad and realised that the suckers on the octopus legs gave the creature a strong grip.
Onitsuka asked a local factory to produce rubber soles that replicated the concave suckers of an octopus and had them moulded onto the upper of a shoe.
The first attempt went a little awry when the players kept falling over because their feet were too firmly planted. But, after some tweaks to the design that made the suction cups smaller, the design worked. The high school team in Kobe that initially adopted Onitsuka’s shoes won a local championship.
Initially, Onitsuka did not have a distribution system for his creation, so he became essentially a travelling salesman, taking his shoes to potential clients and sleeping on benches in train stations to keep his costs to a minimum. The arduous schedule and his refusal to splash out on extravagances led Onitsuka to contract tuberculosis.
But gradually, word of Onitsuka Tiger shoes spread and, by the end of 1952, they were selling well. Within three years, the brand had spread across Japan and was operating a network of sporting goods stores.
The year after Onitsuka Tiger was launched, the company collaborated with marathon runner Kenji Kimihara – who represented Japan in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympics – to develop a running shoe that would stop long-distance runners developing blisters.
Onitsuka himself also monitored the running of Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila and in 1957 suggested that he wore his shoes when he took part in a marathon in Japan. Abebe would go on to win the Olympic marathon gold in Rome in 1960 and again four years later in Tokyo.
Japan’s Olympic basketball team was similarly impressed with his state-of-the-art development that went some way to levelling the playing field when they took on the rest of the world. The entire Japan team wore Onitsuka’s shoes for the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia – and narrowly missed out on qualifying from a group that included eventual winners the United States.
The brand was also attracting attention overseas. In the late 1950s, Philip Knight, a middle-distance runner at the University of Oregon, teamed up with Bill Bowerman, a coach known for tinkering with athletes’ shoes to make them lighter and more shock-resistant. Knight later travelled to Japan, contacted Onitsuka Co., and convinced the management that their product would find a market in the US.
In 1963, the first shipment of Onitsuka Tiger shoes arrived in the US and Knight and Bowerman each invested US$500 to set up Blue Ribbon Sports to distribute the equipment. This company would later become Nike.
Onitsuka Tiger would also pave the way for decades of technical development of innovative footwear in Japan and the emergence of a global sporting brand. The basketball shoe that served as the foundation for the company’s subsequent success did not have a formal name, but that success encouraged it to put identifying names to its products – most famously the Fabre and Mexico 66 lines.
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Onitsuka worked on innovative designs for tennis shoes, as well as footwear for volleyball and running. He remained hands-on into the 1980s, when the company that superseded Onitsuka released shoes with integral GEL material – a revolutionary cushioning technology that remains the choice of professional runners around the world. The company even designed footwear for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
Hong Kong martial arts legend Bruce Lee was regularly pictured wearing Onitsuka Tiger shoes; claims that he wore a pair of the shoes in Game of Death, one of his most famous movies, are wide of the mark, however – though he did wear them on set.
Onitsuka Tiger made its debut on both the Kobe and Osaka stock exchanges in 1964, followed by the Tokyo exchange in 1972. In 1977, the shoe company merged with sportswear specialists GTO and Jelenk, a manufacturer of knitwear, with the new company assuming the name Asics, taken from the Latin phrase “Anima Sana In Corpore Sano”, meaning “a sound mind in a sound body”. The Onitsuka Tiger brand was retired in the late 1970s.
Asics evolved into a general sporting-goods maker, and turned its hand to baseball equipment, skiing, golf and swimming ranges, but of all the company’s products, it was its running shoes that were held in the highest regard by serious athletes. Those same shoes soon found a firm following as a fashion item.
Always looking to devise the next technology to give his professional athlete clients a competitive edge, Onitsuka was the first to recognise the potential applications for sports-shoe design of the air-cooling methods used in motorcycles. He used it to create vented shoes for marathon runners.
Asics has since expanded across the globe and has sales offices in Europe, the United States, South America, Asia and Oceania, with its shoes manufactured by partner companies primarily in Vietnam, Indonesia and China.
When Japan’s economic bubble burst in 1990 – the start of the downturn that has been described as Japan’s lost economic decade – Asics fell into the red; it took the company eight years to reverse the slide.
New lines and a solid reputation for quality helped put the company back into positive territory, and Onitsuka Tiger played a part in that recovery. Asics resumed producing sports shoes under the brand in 2002 to meet the demand for retro-look sneakers that was sweeping the European markets, in particular France and Italy.
Its shoes reached the pinnacle of fashion when, in 2003, actress Uma Thurman appeared in the hit Quentin Tarantino movie Kill Bill kitted out in a pair of yellow Onitsuka trainers with the unmistakable black stripes. From a marketing point of view, it was nothing short of a masterstroke, and the company was soon able to open 23 stand-alone Onitsuka Tiger boutiques in Japan, as well as stores in Hong Kong, Paris, Berlin, London and Seoul.
In 2008, Onitsuka Tiger launched a premium series, Nippon Made, which are made entirely in Japan; the top-line shoes have attracted much attention from fashion lovers at home and abroad. The following year, its flagship store opened on Tokyo’s Omotesando, arguably the most swish address in the city, to serve as what the company says is a “brand theatre” and to build a “genderless, ageless customer base”. In 2015, the company tied up with US-based design company Bait to create a Bruce Lee line.
In 2018, Asics restructured to focus its efforts on certain product categories. As part of the restructuring, the strongly performing Onitsuka Tiger division became an independent business section, effectively making it an in-house company. Today, the brand has 33 directly managed stores and six outlet stores in Japan, and 224 outlets in 33 countries around the world. The brand is particularly popular in China, Thailand and South Korea.
Sales in the 2018 financial year rose to 42.7 billion yen (US$395.4 million), continuing a gradual upwards trajectory, the company said.
Kihachiro Onitsuka died in 2007, at the age of 90, by which time the company he founded 58 years earlier had become the biggest athletic footwear and apparel maker in Japan and the fifth-largest in the world.
The company has continued to build on its founder’s principles and vision, with Asics still committed to providing athletes with the best sporting equipment available, while the Onitsuka Tiger brand has transitioned to a fashion and streetwear brand.
The company is proud that it remains true to Onitsuka’s desire to promote fitness and inspire younger generations through footwear.