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I Like-it: Yoshikawakuni’s quality storage brand

Interview - May 31, 2023

With numerous good design awards, Yoshikawakuni’s Like-It offers many high-quality products deserving of its award count.

TOSHIYUKI YOSHIKAWA, CEO OF YOSHIKAWAKUNI PLASTIC INDUSTRIES LTD.
TOSHIYUKI YOSHIKAWA | CEO OF YOSHIKAWAKUNI PLASTIC INDUSTRIES LTD.

Yoshikawakuni was founded in 1932 and has received numerous Good Design Awards, proving you excel at creating original designs, with the first being in 1984. Do you have any favourite awards that you have received?

I have three favourite items following the history of the Like-it design concept and products that have been established. The first one is Mesh Round Basket, the first one we received the award in our history in 1984, it was also around when I was a senior managing director. This product was selected as a front design of the official paper bag of the International Home+houseware Show in Chicago for its stylish and modern design. We were very surprised and thrilled when we found this paper bag at the trade show because we weren’t informed at all that our product is selected for the official bag design of the trade show.

The second one, Like-it 8000 (modular drawer & bin) series which was awarded in 1987, determined the size of modules for the closets and has functions of ‘sorting, storing, and taking out’. This modular-sized concept is a milestone for the later Like-it brand.


Like-it basket print on Chicago show’s official paper bag | Modular drawer and bin | Bricks


A well-known product with this concept is the ‘Bricks series’ which has a wide modular size variation and stacking function for organizing small items. It is beautiful and useful as a customizable section unit to fit any space or necessity. One of the strengths of the Like-it product range is to compatible and modular with each other, so Bricks can be used as compatible inner organizers of Like-it drawers with the perfect fit, not just as bins. These are for the products under the Like-it brand, from which our brand strategy began. Our product design is simple yet functional according to research on people’s needs. We have always focused on storage products with our three key-design concepts, “useful, rational, and long-life with ageless and durable design”. We have made many efforts to develop and design these products for a long time as an SME, and these yearly awards for Good Design over the last 40 years are evidence of our efforts.

Our latest award in 2022 was one for the Stack-up Container, a large, durable, and stackable container that can be used for outdoor or garage storage. Not only for storage items, but we are also expanding to kitchen or camping items. Colander&Bowl was awarded the Good Design in 2018 and also received six international design awards like the IF Design, Red Dot Design, German Design, and more in 2020. Since the current trend is moving away from stay-at-home to an outdoor lifestyle, we are trying to create products related to camping or cooking.

 

Since its founding, Yoshikawakuni has become a specialized manufacturer of plastic products. Can you highlight some key milestones in your history? How did your evolution take place?

Our company was established in 1932, over 90 years ago. We looked at other countries as a model for the manufacturing or production of daily necessities, especially right after WWII or in the mid-1970s during the rapid growth period. After that, the quality standard was determined in Japan and also focused on production liability. These fields were highly regulated, which led to the establishment of the union of the daily necessity industry. Based on those rules and regulations, I have always guided the employees to think of customers and deliver high-quality products to them. The important thing is that we are always sticking to those rules and high standards.

We expanded our products starting from wholesalers and to every business type of seller. However, we later experienced disruption of the prices with the rise of mass retailers. These retailers have the power to decide the price for daily necessities, which made the market competitive. This kind of mass retailing has created a market for daily necessities.

Before, the line-up from the top was makers, general wholesalers, regional wholesalers, and retailers respectively. Those have been streamlined after the small-scale or regional wholesalers are eliminated gradually. I think it is the same for the US. In this context, Like-it is manufacturing and selling our products in this kind of competitive market for plastic housewares.

We have been able to maintain a competitive edge and survive this tough competition by always looking for a new niche market, like one that is specialized in storage. When I entered this company in the 1970s ‘storage’ hadn't been established as a product category. Looking at Yoshikawakuni's portfolio, the products were exposed to stiff price competition, so it was so difficult to gain a competitive edge in the area we were in. Therefore, I decided to focus on ‘storage’.

I came up with the company's management philosophy “1. Provide comfortable and reasonable living through our innovative products”, “2. Produce products that are chosen and loved by customers”, “3. Pursue the overall well-being of all employees” because I wanted to design not just our production, but the company and its vision itself. This philosophy has been passed down to us by the prior generation.

 

“Like-it” is your mainstay storage brand, encompassing everything from storage trays to boxes and in 2014, you established Like-it Inc. in the United States. How were you able to expand overseas?

Let me explain how we expanded from Japan to overseas. In Japan in the 1980s, we first focused on our products at department stores because we wanted to start from a high-end retailer where we can share the value of our product and their customers and also make them say “I like this brand.” We set the price at the appropriate level of what we were willing to sell them for. The starting point of this strategy was when we were able to put those products in Isetan Shinjuku, a trend-leading department store. After Like-it was recognized for the Good Design Award, these products were introduced to the US and were picked up by Crate & Barrel. Without our direct sales or marketing activity, Crate & Barrel decided to sell our products in their shops. It was surprising for us. After I experienced it, I wanted to know more about the market in the US as to how and in what kind of stores they were selling. I joined a study session held by the United States embassy for US market research, where I was able to understand the immensity of the market, including how the products are accepted by people and how they understand the value of good products. We started hoping more people in the world ‘like it’.

We are still targeting high-end retailers in the domestic market, which is not huge. That is also why I wanted to expand to the global market by producing our made-in-Japan products to be sold overseas. When I was a senior managing director in the 1980s, I made a lot of attempts to enter the global market. I made numerous trials and errors, and after I was appointed as the president of this company, I was even more eager to expand our products globally to be a global brand one day. Coincidentally, I became acquainted with Showroom Finland, our Finnish partner, who enabled us to participate in Ambiente in the early 2000s, an international interior exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany. With that partner, we jointly showcased our products, particularly Scandinavian-style products. Also, thanks to them, we succeeded to start our partnership with The Container Store in the US, known as a leading storage company, where we dreamed to start our products with. While storage is necessary all over the world, even in Japan, where the developing storage category is particularly strong, no specialty store specializes in providing wonderful and wide variations of storage like The Container Store. We deeply appreciate that they are carrying hundreds of Like-it products, and now our partnership lasts more than 15 years and is getting deeper and stronger every year. Gradually, we are expanding to Europe, North and South America, Australia, Asia, and over 30 countries all over the world in total. We think each of them is very precious.

 

What role do partnerships play in the business model of Yoshikawakuni in growing the Like-it brand?

What we think is important is to listen directly to the market needs, lifestyles, and cultures of users and potential users in a market. Otherwise, we will not be able to grasp their real requests to develop and sell products. Through direct communication, we can also establish a good network and relationship with partners, as well as develop respect for our counterparts’ way of thinking. I would like to expand Like-it products to retailers that will understand and love the value of our products going forward.

We have spelled out our corporate motto, philosophy, vision, and the direction of our conduct, and we are weaving our history over 90 years. This company was handed down by a prior generation, and I am the third-generation leader. All three generations, along with the next one, have diligently worked on monozukuri craftsmanship for a long time. Through our Like-it products, we aim to deliver a comfortable and reasonable lifestyle to people globally. The brand name Like-it came from ‘I like it’ because we hope people say this when people use our products. We wanted to create something that we liked and make that ‘You like it.’ after these products are delivered to people. We hope to develop that further to ‘Everyone likes it’, and even to ‘The Earth likes it’ by developing and using more sustainable materials. We are trying to evolve our products widely to fit any subject change and elevate people’s lifestyles.

 

Japan is the oldest society in the world with a rapidly shrinking population, with the side effects of this shift including a labor crisis. What are the challenges and opportunities this demographic shift has presented your company?

The biggest challenge in addressing this population decline at our company is training and fostering human resources not only for new graduates but also for all existing employees. We introduced the system to manage and support the employees to achieve their goals what they plan by themselves and want to achieve. Our supervisors support and evaluate those employees to help them feel a sense of achievement and excitement. Moreover, we also want to look for global talents to become a global company. Having said that, we have a limitation with the number of employees because we are an SME. I think it is imperative to follow the diligent monozukuri process as well as the leaders in their 30s~40s and managerial-level employees who are highly experienced and seasoned. Our goal is to complement and support each other to create an enjoyable company.

 

Japan has been often criticised for its slow adoption of digital tools. To reverse this trend, the former Suga administration created a new digital agency while also providing incentives to the private industry to increase the adoption of IoT and cloud-based solutions. What new DX technologies are you looking to integrate?

I believe that digital transformation has changed the environment surrounding us.  Recently, cloud and network services have been considerably upgraded and have become more user-friendly. Through these, we can exchange data and services between the office and the factory internally, and also with domestic and overseas customers more efficiently. DX made it much easier to communicate and listen to the customer’s needs more quickly and widely or find a way to address price competition. Furthermore, we can come up with solutions to achieve business goals and high-quality production with more optimal environments or conditions for eco-friendly products.

To adapt to the big change of the COVID pandemic, we explored ways to properly communicate, exchange information actively and propose our products or items with our customers in the domestic and overseas markets through servers and DX. Fortunately, before the pandemic, we had already succeeded in channel expansion and were able to sell our products through e-commerce or websites. One of those clients was Amazon Japan. We wanted to learn more about how an e-commerce leading company is doing its business in terms of marketing, how they try to appeal to or approach their customers, and their way of thinking. By utilizing the experience and actively selling our products through e-commerce, even during the pandemic, we were able to maintain our revenue. The internet allowed us to expand our possibilities of the retailers who share the value of Like-it regardless of country or business style, real store or online store. We can directly propose and introduce our products to more customers all over the world.

The other key is going to be green transformation (GX). We would like to add value to our products in this regard to be able to contribute to a sustainable society and grow our company’s corporate value. Not only are we purchasing eco-friendly materials and producing products with them, but we are also developing sustainable materials, such as recycled materials, plant-based materials, and advanced materials.

 

As a manufacturer of plastic products, what efforts are you taking in order to contribute to a more sustainable society? Can you tell us more about some of the eco-friendly materials and products that you have?

I would like to first talk about the historical aspects of how we started eco-friendly and responsible production for society, which was earlier in this industry in the 1990s. We launched our first eco-friendly item using recycled plastic in 1991. I visited Germany and observed their environmental protection activities back in 1997. I visited Frankfurt, Freiburg, and Munich to learn more about the green point system, plastic recycle marks and recycle boxes in town, and also their environmental education. I could see many eco-activities are naturally a part of people’s daily lifestyles. At their Sunday schools in church, they encouraged people to use newspapers instead of plastic wraps for their bread. The hotel in Freiburg had no amenities in the rooms and it was requested to bring them by the hotel guests themselves.  I also learned that Mercedes made an effort to purchase and prepare used components like doors for meister engineers to reuse and repair Mercedes cars. I also saw them separating the engine and oil for reuse. Through this inspection visit, I was convinced that the longer the products are used, the better it is for the environment than single-use products in terms of resource’s lifecycle. This leads to our long-life product concept of ageless and durable design to be used by people for a long time.

Moreover, I was able to learn important insights into sustainable materials and the circular economy for future approaches to limited resources during this inspection visit. I heard from a worker burying separated recyclable materials in the ground saying that “We don’t have a technology or usage to recycle these materials yet, but we will definitely dig them out in the near future when we discover the technologies to reuse them”.  When I came back to Japan, I wanted to apply that concept and set our corporate vision.

 “To promote a sustainable society with material circulation and provide organized and comfortable lifestyles through our storage solutions and services.” We think that material circulation is crucial, especially in our industry. At this moment, I think it does not work well in society, but we are trying to implement a more circular economy and material circulation. We started from this particular initiative by producing products based on the 3R policy, (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) at factory production and office to be a responsible manufacturer.

Recently, sustainable materials and solutions are required to achieve the SDGs, we are committing to SDGs as well. Once again, this year, we clarified and stated “Declaration on SDGs and the Plastic Resource Circulation Roadmap 2023” as our midterm and long-term targets for Like-it green activity. By 2030, we are taking action to make eco-friendly products 50% out of our all SKUs and reduce CO2 emissions by 35%.  We are working on developing more sustainable materials and technology to reduce CO2 emissions and be more eco-friendly. To measure and clarify this effect, we are also working on Life-cycle Assessment (LCA). High quality and long-lasting functional design, which are Like-it strengths, are also important elements of sustainability to let people use products longer and prevent product disposal.

A lot of our products are made with various eco-friendly materials now. Let me introduce the detail of them.

We have 30% of recycled paper mix products, its paper powder is generated from the wasted paper in the cooking paper factory. We are trying to reduce wasted paper, plastic use, and carbon footprint. Also, this material can provide a unique texture of matt touch and marble-like pattern, and we hope people can enjoy this new texture in their interior. We also have a product made with sugarcane-derived biomass plastic. The property is polyethylene as same as the conventional petroleum-based plastic, but it is plant-based plastic. So it prevents carbon emissions and using the resources.


30% recycled paper mix | Sugarcane-derived biomass basket


We keep the same mold, but the material has been changed to make them more eco-friendly, yet not compromising to keep our high quality.  For example, Mesh Round Basket launched in 1984 was made with petroleum-derived plastic. Later, we changed its material to 100% sugar cane-derived plastic. The reason we chose this item to start is that it is the first awarded item of Good Design in our history and has been a best-seller for over 40 years. To promote material transition in the market, we believe it is important to start with the well-accepted item, then we can provide eco-friendly products and promote a circular economy more widely and quickly. If items look simple, authentic, and good in daily life, more people will try them. This series is sold very well with the name “Better Choice Basket” and we are getting more inquiries globally. Now we are expanding this material to more items.

This year, new material products were launched, which include 5% of recycled ocean-bound plastic and 95% sugarcane-derived plastic.


Recycled Ocean-bound plastic basket | CNF mix with Post-consumer recycled plastic


We are also developing the next-generation material Nacel, which mixes Cellulose Nano Fiber (CNF). It is a wood fibre made from plants and trees defibrated to nano-levels. It is lighter yet stronger and also more sustainable compared to conventional plastic. It is actively engaged in R&D and manufacturing technology development together with guidance from Kyoto University, Kyoto Industrial Technology, and others to realise new materials and material combinations. This is an extremely specialized technology in a niche field, but we would be able to create additional value in the near future. We are the first or leading company to succeed in utilizing these materials in the daily necessities industry. It has attracted significant attention from a wide range of industries, not just our current industry

Not only for these introduced materials, but we are also trying to expand more range of Like-it bioplastics by collaborating with a lot of external organizations.

With the flexibility of having our own factories and facilities next to our office in Nara, we can develop and produce products in collaboration with Japanese and overseas partners as required. We can develop and improve material testing and manufacturing processes. In other words, we can offer 'one-stop manufacturing'. In line with the SDGs commitment and the roadmap. we will continue to work "seriously" on "monozukuri craftsmanship" in the future, aiming to achieve our "Corporate Vision".

 

Is replicating the strength of plastic one of the hardest things to do? 

More than seeking only the perfect strength of the product, we are trying to develop more eco-friendly products because we consider it important to reduce CO2 and waste by mixing in more biomaterials or recycled materials. Still, we have been working on improving sustainable materials as well as newer and better materials.  Utilizing new eco-friendly materials requires advanced technology and a long year of experience. It helps us to lead new material use. Since we are already recognized as a high-quality company, we do not compromise any of our product's quality for people to use longer and prevent product disposal. We strongly believe that leads us to be responsible and sustainable after customers get our products.

 

You established your Like-it Inc. in the United States in 2014 and opened a warehouse in LA. Furthermore, you have been selling your products to the US and Europe. Are you looking to open more physical locations in these specific regions to help enhance your businesses there?

As I said, we believe direct partnership is very important to catch each market’s voice. We have direct communication with most of our customers in over 30 countries. When we go to an overseas market, we first personally visit that market to understand its needs and establish deeper and longer partnerships with our local clients. Also, we can better explain the concept and detailed function of our products or the inspiration behind the development to our clients. Through that communication, we want to deliver a more comfortable and reasonable life to the users. In the past, I was impressed with our products and boxes of them marked with Like-it labels shipped and delivered to a town in the United States. Likewise, I would like to see more of our products delivered everywhere in the world and show this to our employees. My other goal is to increase the fund for the Like-it brand and continue creating the market. I think the collaboration between manufacturing and the circular economy is important. I aim to create and establish that cycle in the domestic market first, where we recycle collected plastic waste into pellets and manufacture based on these recycled materials.

We are a storage and organizing company, and Japan is famous for organizing homes. In addition to storage and eco-friendly material solutions, we would like to introduce the spirit of organizing homes to the world as well. Following Marie Kondo’s global success, we are happy that more people are interested in home organization and professional home organizers.

Before that, there are various professional home organizers in Japan and we started collaborating with them long ago. Hisae Iida is one of the pioneer professional home organizers, and she advised us on appropriate storage sizes and usages based on her organizing methods and how to maintain the organized space when we were developing the products in 2000. Storage should be a home and it should be an appropriate size for storing the items. Based on this, we determined the best size of closet drawers that fit any kind of clothes naturally. Not only for width and depth, we carefully designed the drawer height since she advised us to store the clothes in an upright manner, making them easy to see and access.  Later, Marie Kondo got famous in Japan first and later overseas with her books and Netflix show. The Home Edit, the American professional home organizers, also got popular through their Netflix show. They also use our Like-it products in their programs, books, and social media. A lot of professional home organizers in Japan and overseas use Like-it products and post them now. Our posted products have been well-received. Also, we communicate directly with these home organizers all over the world and listen to their feedback and needs and apply this to our product improvement and development.

We feel Marie Kondo and Home Edit differ in their approach to home organization. Marie Kondo is spreading the ‘spirit’ of organizing and reminding people how organizing is important and has a big power in one's life. Also, she guides people on how to ‘sort’ things which is essential and joyful for them. On the other hand, The Home Edit shows how to ‘store’ the things and the ‘system’ to maintain the organized space. They show a lot of organizing methods with useful tips and storage usage. What we can do then is provide the best storage solutions, easy to use, customizable with wide modular variations, and sturdy and ageless design. Besides helping our customers through our products, we also would like to show the culture and spirit of home organizing which is beneficial in achieving a comfortable and reasonable lifestyle, as reflected in our philosophy.

 

If we were to return on the last day of your presidency, is there a certain goal or ambition that you would like to achieve by that date?

In the short term, I would like to join the Osaka Expo in 2025, where we can showcase our products and activity.

My goal is to make the working environment happy for everyone working with us. I would like to grow this company so that if one of our employees travels to the US or other countries, they can proudly say, "This is the product I am making in Japan." I want to grow Like-it as a global brand so that people all over the world to say, "I like it." when they look at our products. Because we want to be loved for a long time, we are trying to be sustainable.

Through its products, the company will continue to offer storage solutions to people and provide them with a comfortable and rational lifestyle. We aim to be a company that is chosen and loved by people. By doing so, we have been able to continue to provide people with products of ageless design and in-house production for decades. It is our products that will continue to be the classic (trend-independent) yet always loved 'things' of today and the future.


Interview conducted by Karune Walker & Paul Mannion

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