Thursday, Aug 11, 2022

Marugo: The split-toe shoe specialists

Interview - January 20, 2022

“Make it new” is Marugo’s message, and the Japanese firm has taken resolute steps in its mission to demonstrate to the world the value of freeing the big toe in our footwear. We spoke with chairperson Shigehiko Fujiki to learn more about the company's footwear, such as its Tabi and PPE shoes, and the quality, performance and reliability that underpins its them.


As a 100-year-old company established in 1919, you are known for your integrated production of Jikatabi. It is a combination of the Tabi, which is a traditional Japanese split-toe sock together with a modern rubber sole. What monozukuri principles allowed you to accomplish this?

Tabi was one of the main products when cotton cultivation became popular in the Edo era in the Kurashiki area. At the turn of the century, around 1900, cotton production was industrialized, and Kurashiki was known as one of the major Tabi production areas in Japan. Almost at the same time, rubber vulcanization was developed in the United States and introduced in Japan as a very new material. Jikatabi was born by combining these two technologies to make very useful footwear for Japanese workplaces.

Japan participated in the Olympic Games for the first time in 1912 and the second time in 1920. The official symbol of the Olympics, the five rings, represents the world’s five continents, and was established between these two Games. The first event of the Games was the marathon, and the athletes wore Jikatabi-shoes. I think that the image of the five rings, meaning world harmony, influenced Japanese people in that age. Seeing our company logo, determined when established in 1919, the outer ring represents harmony, and the number five inside represents the wish to develop into five continents. A circle is called maru in Japanese and five is called go. That is how the company name “Marugo” came about.

Marugo Logo

These days, we are promoting open innovation and are trying to spur interest among young people in the local community. The spirit is combining techniques and technologies to produce a new and interesting style. We would like to develop new technologies for this, whilst also combining existing technologies with those of other fields, this is something more feasible for us.


The foot is an amazingly complex part of our human anatomy. It contains more than a quarter of all human bones. Combined with tendons and muscles, it is subjected to a variety of intense forces throughout the day, particularly when you run, jump, or move. How does the split-toe design help maintain the well-being of our feet?

The Egyptian, Roman, and Greek sculptures show the independence of the big toes when they wore sandals. In Europe, when people encase their feet into shoes, they made a break with the independence of big toes. On the other hand, in Japan, most people still liked to wear sandal-type footwear such as Zori or Waraji, however, the sandals could not be worn in very cold rain or snow or in very brittle situations. Then they invented the split-toe sock tabi so that they could wear split-toe sandal type footwears in such an environment. The good point of tabi is freedom of movement, just like when you are barefooted, better gripping, and better breathability.

Jikatabi ” Mannen Nuitsuke 12clasps”

The split-toe footwear, that is Jikatabi, has unique and very good characteristics, such as big toe independence, stimulation from thin sole, biomechanical sensing, balancing feeling, and breathability. These are the reasons why Japanese workers kept wearing Jikatabi and contributing to the various fields of monozukuri industries for many years.


Japanese expenditure on R&D (research and development) goes as high as 3.5% of the annual GDP. What is your company working on in your R&D and what technologies are you integrating into your production process?

Our research aera is rather wide; high molecular, fabrics, textile, leather, or metal tooling. Basically, design and engineering shall be done within our owned property, however, materials or machinery development are sometimes beyond our capacity, we do a lot of collaboration work with outside agencies in such cases. 3D communications are very important in design, engineering and also in production processes. Human science and biomechanical data sensing are also very important for design and verification, which are also carried out by collaborating with outside academies or institutions. These days, upcycle design needs are accelerating. We hope to collaborate with any organization to challenge these themes.


Safety shoes are part of PPE (personal protection equipment), which is a growing market worldwide. In terms of growth, it is going to reach more than $63 million in the next three years. What strategies are you putting in place to take advantage of this growing market?

In the late 1990s, we developed and sold sports-type safety shoes to resolve workers' pains for safety shoes in addition to heavy, stuffy, malodorous, and less colourful designs. In 2003, Marugo with other PPE companies established Japan Protective Sneaker Association (JPSA). It is an industrial standard to comply with JIS or ISO. The sales of JPSA safety shoes started at 500,000 pairs/year and counted 7 million pairs/year in 2020. It took time for appreciation of customers, but I think this trial is said to have created a new market in the PPE industry.

We established an office in China to explore the PPE market in 2010. We tried to sell safety shoes to Japanese factories, but the competition in China is fierce. Since PPE in China and Southeast Asia is certainly a promising market for the coming years, we will continue to challenge in this market. One of the ways to go is to collaborate with trading houses who have direct connections with factories in the area. The utilization of the e-trade system is also a strong key strategy.

PPE Shoes ”Mandom Knit Soc#201”

Your company is facing fierce competition from Chinese rivals for this type of product, yet you have been awarded and recognized for your quality products. What are your unique advantages and strengths in comparison to regional manufacturers?

Even in the Chinese market, our branding quality is recognized, but being cost-competitive is a challenge for us. Chinese production uses a variety of methods and materials, in addition to having high-volume production capabilities.

Our strength in the market might be more related to consciousness of comfort (proper fitting, lightness, movability) in addition to safety quality. Logistics is also important concerning the trade with trading houses, credibility on delivery is as important as product quality.


Nowadays, there is the whole concept of fast fashion, wearing clothes for one season before being discarded. However, the quality of Japanese brands is different, lasting for years. Can you tell us about your craftsmanship and the materials that you employ to ensure this kind of quality in your products?

We have put grave importance on constructing our brand image. It started with product design and company image, and outcomes with total quality and credibility. Therefore, quality is our top priority. Actually, shoe production technologies and methods have not been changed for a long time. The quality of the products still highly depends on human skills. Individual craftsmen need to have the craftsmanship and pride, but they need to improve their skills and work process every day. As a whole factory, the operation shall be the same. Quality shall come from, for example, a good looking factory. Quality shall be accomplished by individuals and the organization works enjoyably and happily.

Tabi shoes “hitoe”

Due to COVID, people have not been going outside, yet e-commerce has grown exponentially over the last two years. What has the impact of COVID been on your business? To what extent have you shifted to e-commerce?

A major effect has been on our production. These days, the delivery containers have also encountered problems. Home Centres, one of our major customers, has not been affected much in daily sales, however, we made opportunity losses because of late deliveries. We are shifting to e-commerce year-by-year, but during COVID, events, exhibitions, or other promotion activities have completely ceased. Matsuri (festivals) all over Japan hold almost nothing. Our main tabi shoes of Matsuri tabi have been affected very much.


You are looking to promote your products in China and Southeast Asia. How are you tackling this market?

Our target is to deliver products to factories or individuals rather than the wholesalers. We are trying to collaborate with trading houses who have direct connections to factories or e-trade platform.


Which particular countries are you thinking about?

China, Vietnam, Thailand and Philippines. The idea is to manufacture and deliver locally with our design and brand names.


What is your mid-term strategy to continue corporate growth?

Health is the priority for our marketing. Japanese are famous for having long lives, but the concern is not just having longevity but also having a healthy quality of life. Our main goal is to let people wear the split-toe shoes for healthy lives. Providing comfort and safety to both the workplace and the living environment is our mission.


Imagine we come back in five years to interview you again: What goals and dreams would you have liked accomplished by then?

The idea for the coming years is to increase our sales channels and utilize the B2C concept to stay connected with customers. Our plan for the next few years is to use our factory and close large commercial areas to establish direct contact with customers. We plan to utilize and refurbish our historical buildings to provide customers with factory tours showcasing our tradition and real production. This place is on the way to the Setouchi Triennale held in the Seto Inland Sea, so we might take advantage of that.

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Manufacturing, Japan


Manufacturing, Japan
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Yosuke Kawasaki


Yasuhiro Tochimoto

President and CEO
Kawasaki Geological Engineering Co., Ltd.



Toshikazu YAGUCHI

ATOX Co., Ltd.