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Masunaga: the original pioneer of eyewear production in Japan

Interview - July 14, 2023

Partnering with renowned designers, Masunaga Optical produces only the highest-quality glass frames.

SOUTARO MASUNAGA, PRESIDENT OF MASUNAGA OPTICAL MFG. CO., LTD
SOUTARO MASUNAGA | PRESIDENT OF MASUNAGA OPTICAL MFG. CO., LTD

Japan’s historical success can be attributed to the monozukuri manufacturing philosophy, which focuses on quality, and if we look at specific regions, many have adopted their own specific monozukuri philosophy. In Fukui, 97% of optical frames made in Japan come from this region. What role does Masunaga play in the manufacture of optical frames, and can you tell us a little bit about your unique monozukuri philosophy?

Masunaga Optical pioneered eyewear production in Fukui, in 1905. The company founder and my great grandfather, Gozaemon Masunaga brought skilled craftsmen from Osaka and Tokyo with the ambition of setting the optical frames industry solidly in place in Fukui. It wasn’t easy in the beginning and retail shops were not interested in Fukui-made eyewear, but as the skills of craftsmen improved, the products gradually sold at stores in the cities. Over the years, artisans who learned their skills at Masunaga Optical went independent and created their own workshops nearby. Today, as you mentioned, Fukui is well known for eyewear manufacturing and Masunaga Optical was the cradle of the optical frames industry.

In terms of our monozukuri philosophy, I want to mention our mission statement since its establishment. It says: “We manufacture excellent eyeglasses. We want to make a profit if we can, but we do not hesitate to take a loss. It is always in our thoughts to manufacture excellent glasses.” These words are still the basis of the code of conduct for our employees. We are the only company in Japan that has a factory in charge of all the processes of eyewear manufacturing from raw material to production. This integrated production system improves detail and quality, and technologies and know-how that have been developed over 100 years are accumulated here.

Another point about our company’s unique business perspective is that we are trying to balance both sides, satisfying things for the wholesalers or opticians who sell them while also thinking about the end users who purchase them. Fukui has been known historically as a place of eyewear manufacturing, and because of that, there are also a lot of companies that supply materials and tools used in eyewear manufacturing. Back in the 1970s, while many eyewear manufacturers acted purely as OEM companies, we started trying to understand more about the retailer’s point of view, which then led to an understanding of what end users wanted from their glasses. Gradually we started transforming our business from just OEM approaches to more market-in business. We produce and sell our own brand, and we are building our own retail channels. We can balance the needs of both opticians and end users. I think this is what differentiates our company from other eyewear manufacturers.

 

You mentioned how the 1970s was an important period for your company, but we can trace the history of Masunaga Optical back to 1905, making your company over 100 years old. One aspect we find interesting is the guild system established by your company’s founder, Mr. Gozaemon Masunaga. Can you tell us a little more about the role this guild system has played in the evolution of your company?

As I mentioned, the company founder Gozaemon entered eyewear manufacturing the hard way, and at first the products made in Fukui were not well received. To improve the quality standards of the products, Gozaemon established a guild-like system where different groups competed in skills, and later full-fledged craftsmen could create their own workshops. Owing to this system, the number of eyewear workshops increased, and the optical frame industry spread all over Fukui.

 

Given Japan’s demographic situation, passing on the skills from these workers to the next generation is going to be challenging. Furthermore, there is also a shrinking domestic market, meaning fewer people to sell products to. What are some of the challenges and opportunities this demographic shift has presented for Masunaga Optical?

There are many problems relating to the aging society that exist out there, and the problem you highlighted is the shortage of the labor force. We feel this problem happening here in Fukui because we are a local company and there is a shortage of human resources coming up to work for us. Currently, we are somewhat okay with the situation. We do have new graduates coming from universities and high schools annually, around six or seven people every year. I think we are somewhat blessed because of our long history in the area. In fact, there is a movie filmed based on our company’s founding story. The movie is going to be released in Japan this fall. And the fact that we do everything in-house, from designing to the finishing, having our own brand and own retails give us a competitive edge to attract new workers.

Currently, 80% of all our products have been sold to overseas markets and 20% are sold domestically. With or without the intention to solve the shrinking domestic market problem, we have started to expand our market naturally.

 

Japan on the world stage is in an interesting position currently. We have the US-China decoupling situation, which people are saying is an opportunity for Japan. If we talk about smaller companies like yours, with the Forex exchange rate being so low and wage stagnation, Japan has never been more cost competitive internationally. In this current macroeconomic climate, do you see big opportunities for your company now that there is such huge demand for Japanese products internationally?

Macroeconomic indicators do not influence our business decisions per se. Currency depreciation may in some ways explain why more and more foreign wholesalers are interested in buying products from Japan. However, we have successfully exported and introduced a lot of products in overseas markets before this depreciation took place. It didn’t happen overnight, but currently, 80% of all our products are shipped to foreign markets and 20% are left for the domestic market.

There are so many challenges when entering foreign markets. From different regulations, different business practices, to customers’ preferences. To overcome these obstacles, we try to adjust to all the criteria, to meet the various needs of different markets one by one. I believe that’s the strength of our company, and it is the quality of products that speaks to our customers, not because of the economic indicators.

 

In Europe and America, glasses are not seen as a fashion item, they are more seen as a healthcare necessity. What is your strategy to overcome the stigma these markets associate with purchasing glasses?

Balancing different aspects is important and I think that eyewear is becoming more and more fashionable these days, but still, we must think of ourselves as an eyewear company, not a fashion company. This is inevitable in our business because eyewear still has a medical aspect to it and needs to function as a medical device. The products need to look good as a fashion item of course, but at the same time, it needs to be optician friendly and end-user friendly. We try to balance three major aspects: technological know-how and function, user-friendliness, and then in the end add a fashion aspect. We must combine these aspects to create better products, which will lead to better customer satisfaction. 



Many are leaning towards the idea that glasses will become wearable devices that monitor our environment and help cut blue light as using screens has become essential to modern-day life. What is your vision for the future of eyewear, and do you believe that people without eye defects should wear glasses as a preventative measure? What kinds of challenges would the integration of this new technology present your firm as a frame maker?

We try to stay on the traditional side of the business and produce excellent eyewear frames for traditional retail locations, but it is not like we have not tried a new approach before. Back in 2013, we developed eyewear to help dry-eye symptoms. The sheet attachment on the frame front fog up for a fraction of a second every 10 seconds. This split-second opaqueness causes wearers to blink, thus moisturizing their eyes. The glasses weigh slightly more than regular frames and include a small battery in the left temple piece that is connected to the frame front which is covered with a liquid crystal sheet.

The product was not as successful as we wished. I think several factors contributed to this. There was a large amount of initial investment required, and there needed to be cooperation between some tech companies. It meant that the road to finalizing the product was a long one. We still do not see much of a market for these kinds of devices, and even large companies struggle. Famously, Google failed to monetize its Google Glasses and it may have created a market situation that’s not exactly an appealing one.

Honestly speaking, we can learn lessons from our past failures, understanding what went wrong in the sector and establishing a plan to move forward to avoid those mistakes. To answer your question simply, we are just trying to do what we think we do best and continue that business to the future. We are good at making eyewear and keeping our promises of quality with our customers.

 

When it comes to selling glasses, many companies are looking to enhance the in-store consumer experience. What digital technologies is Masunaga Optical implementing to create new in-store experiences for your customers?

Unfortunately, we do not have that much investment capital to build up our own system like other large companies such as Zoff, but we partner with Zeiss and use their virtual try-on system in some of our retail locations. With a product like eyeglasses, people still must come to a retail location to try on, select, and receive the right fitting. That process is still important to this day, but we have taken steps to ease this process. This virtual try-on system creates an avatar of a customer through the 3D scanners, and the customer can later choose the appropriate lens and frame at home based on their scanned data. We are always looking for solutions to help simplify the process for customers.

 

Are you looking for more partnerships internationally or looking to work with international designers to create new products?

Yes, we are always looking for opportunities to work with new eyewear designers or designers who understand eyewear design. We have collaborated with Kazuo Kawasaki and the late Kenzo Takada, and we are currently working on a project with another designer. We look forward to working with such people in the future, both in Japan and abroad.

Having said that, any collaboration with a designer would need to complement our brand, and the eyewear produced by us would need to represent who we are and what our eyewear is all about. If we can create this synergy between ourselves as a manufacturer and the designer, then we can see many more collaborations in the future.

 

Do you have a personal favorite product?

The pair I am wearing right now is my favorite because it is the most comfortable for me. Glasses are subjective and everyone is going to have a different answer.

 

One of the biggest problems with glasses is the pressure around the face and the eyestrain. This can lead to headaches, and we know that your company has been working on the Anti Tension Frame Structure that relieves the pressure from the eyes. Could you tell us a little more about this unique structure and how it relieves the pressure for wearers?

That is one of the biggest problems for glasses wearers and it does create discomfort. The concept relies on the idea of creating a balance between the frame and the lens, which is key to the Anti Tension Frame. The weight is evenly dispersed between the front and the back, meaning that the frames sit neatly on your ears while also dispersing some of that weight to the front around the nose. If the frames were too light, then they would not fit well and would be too loose. With too much weight, you have the problems you mentioned, so there needs to be that perfect balance.

Durability has been a key aspect of eyewear in recent years, and wearers appreciate that. When manufacturing eyewear, you have to think about the kinds of features users want. All the unique features we have described today come from customers' demands, which is why we try to implement our best R&D capabilities to create better products for them.

One of the problems we eyewear manufacturers are facing is that we have possibly reached a peak in terms of comfort, with the perfection of the "anti-tension frame" that won the Silmo d'Or in 2000. This was the point we reached after introducing all kinds of frames, materials and technologies, but we have yet to develop a structure that goes beyond that point, which is our current challenge.

 

Imagine that we come back and have this interview all over again on the last day of your presidency: what goals would you like to have achieved by then?

That message I pass on must be in line with our company’s philosophy. We have been in this business for more than 118 years now, so the baton pass will be complemented with everything we have achieved so far during the many years of our existence. We have seen it all, and we are proud that we are a local company that started from nothing. The founding fathers thought long and hard about what could be introduced to the area to help local people and make contributions to the local area. They wanted to make the area flourish and provide jobs for locals. Still, this philosophy continues, and it has not changed over 118 years now. Of course, our company has evolved with the times, but the founding principle continues to push us to make significant local contributions.

We are much more than just a simple frame manufacturing company, and rather we would like to be seen as the kind of company that people want to work for. Contributing to the overall society of Japan and helping Fukui flourish for years to come. It comes down to understanding the company’s philosophy and never forgetting where the company came from.


Interview conducted by Karune Walker & Paul Mannion

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