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Superior Japanese quality you can feel on your skin

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Interview - September 17, 2019

Today, The Worldfolio sits with Uchino, who work tirelessly to develop luxury towels and bathroom linens that are more delicate to the touch and provide maximum comfort – always in line with the Japanese Monozukuri philosophy devoted to creating unmatchable quality.

 

NOBUYUKI UCHINO | PRESIDENT OF UCHINO

Japanese craftsmanship finds its roots in the samurai era when warriors used to manufacture their katanas. Today, Japanese craftsmanship has evolved but has kept a unique spirit. Could you explain to our readers what makes Japanese craftsmanship so special? Why will the Japanese culture always be considered as the reference in terms of craftsmanship?

For decades, Japanese craftsmanship has been the source of envy, fascination and inspiration to worldwide manufacturers. Despite numerous attempts to replicate it, our manufacturing philosophy has never been copied; never been outmatched. As an Island nation, our craftsmen have developed proprietary techniques transmitted from generation to generation. Perhaps more remarkable than mere technological transfers, the true achievement of our industry has been to cultivate a distinctive mind-set, a unique manufacturing philosophy devoted to creating “unmatchable quality.” The paramount ethos of ‘Monozukuri’ (the art of making things) is to always place what is ‘human’ at the centre of creation. Whether it is a client or a supplier, we pay the utmost respect to our stakeholders. This is noticeable through the numerous bows, the different marks of respect and the general mind-set of Japanese people. Here at Uchino, we consistently consider ‘the consumers’ before producing an item. For any manufacturing activity to be successful, one must first analyse the desires of one’s audience and one’s ability to cater for such demand. As such, we systematically interrogate ourselves: “What products do our clients want?” “Why do they want this product?” “How can we ensure that we can deliver unsurpassable quality?” 

Japan’s unique mentality is best exemplified by our nation’s reaction to a tragic event: The Great Tohoku Earthquake. In 2011, our country was devastated by a natural disaster of unimaginable magnitude. In a matter of hours, entire families and villages powerlessly witnessed their entire lives disappearing in front of their eyes. As shortage plagued the damaged areas, the Government distributed food and resources. Extraordinarily so, these food and water procurement sessions were characterized by calm and serenity. People would calmly queue and respectfully wait for their turn to receive vital resources. Behaving with such attitude in spite of such catastrophic circumstances is unique to Japan; and it is precisely that spirit which allows our manufacturers to remain unsurpassed.

 

In recent years, we have seen that a variety of Japanese manufacturers have made intensive investments to lower their production costs. In the other hand, certain companies have decided to forsake cost-competition in order to focus on adding-value. What strategy has Uchino adopted?

Uchino has made it its policy never to compete on pricing. In 1996, we established a factory in Shanghai that later closed. When we began our operations in China, we supervised the entire manufacturing flow: from the cotton selection to the spinning, all the way to the production of the final product. This method was unique to Japanese towel industry and to Uchino. The only objective that concerned us -and continues to concern us today- was to provide the best possible towel for our clients. Naturally, achieving our objective without an integrated production line would have been inconceivable. In order to register our facility, we met with representatives of the Chinese Government who asked us:

“What are you going to manufacture?” 

Our answer was simple: “The world’s best towel.” 

As he listened to our response, we witnessed on our interlocutor’s reaction a combination between surprise and curiosity. At the time, everyone was expanding in China to produce the “world’s cheapest towel.” Nevertheless, we, as Uchino, never lost sight of our principal policy: ‘never compete on price; compete on quality.’

The reason why we decided to build a factory in China was to go to a country where high quality material (cotton) is abundant and to establish an integrated manufacturing management so that we can supply high quality products that consumers want.  This cannot be possible in Japan where cotton is not grown.

 

Could you elaborate on this worlds best towel? How are you able to manufacture it? 

When creating any added-value product, utilizing high-quality raw materials is an utmost priority. This feature is also present within Japan’s culinary tradition for the true essence of “Washoku” (Japanese cuisine) is found in the quality of its ingredients. For instance, to provide the best sushi, the fish utilized must be of exquisite standards, the white rice cooked to perfection and the wasabi precisely balanced. Sushi Masters spend decades researching the perfect combination for these three ingredients to combine in a delicacy. 

In other culinary traditions, it is the blend of ingredients or the complexity of the sauces that renders flavour. As such, one could say that Japanese food is subtlety delicate and I personally believe that it reflects our people’s high sensitivity. In food, clothes, or human relations, we Japanese, are sensitive and considerate to others. By virtues of this characteristic, the feeling a towel arouses when put in contact with one’s body is extremely important to us. As a result, we have made it our policy to provide the softest towels in the market. 

When compared to other manufacturers, our ‘Monozukuri’ has a unique starting point. For example, most towel-making companies around the planet primarily focus on production efficiency. Ultimately, it results in a swiftly-produced, heavier and thicker towel. (Of course it is a fact that the heavy and thick towels are preferred by US and European consumers for a long time and they are satisfied by the product but in many of the Asian countries it was not convenient to use.) At Uchino, our first priority is to provide comfortable material to our customers. It is only after this initial step that we analyse how it can be produced. As a result, our production method is, without a doubt, a strenuous and lengthy process; but the results of our production are undeniably unmatched.

 

How do you ensure that the Uchino concept and spirit is respected throughout the world, whether your towels are manufactured in Japan or in Thailand?

Our company began international production in 1988, which marks a turning point in our history.

The decision to produce overseas was taken after the 1985 Plaza Agreement. As the Japanese Yen greatly appreciated, it became impossible to export towels from Japan, but easy to import towels to Japan. To cater for the Japanese market, we decided to open a factory in Thailand. At that time, towels were utilized as a gift amongst Japanese people. Consequently, prices for towels were relatively high and there was a variety of high-end brands. However, I always believed that the importance attached to brands would eventually decay. I envisioned future consumers as more attentive to materials instead of the brand itself.

Simultaneously, we opened a “The Body & Bath” shop in Omotesando, Tokyo. This marked a real turning point for Uchino.  Instead of simply selling towels, we began marketing a unique concept  related to lifestyle. We featured products that promoted a luxurious and relaxing bath-experience, namely, soaps, aromas and lotions. Since then, Uchino began to be regarded as a pioneering brand for toiletry marketing.

To everyone visiting Japan in the future, I encourage you to come and visit our “Uchino Touch” shop in Roppongi (Roppongi Hills, West Walk, 4F), which truly embodies the Uchino spirit. The concept behind the name “Uchino Touch” is to incite people to select products by the touch; not by the colour or the brand. This shop is the essence of Uchino and it displays all our patented materials; our light and soft towels; our comfortable and relaxing pyjamas and all our carefully manufactured products.

 

Today, Uchino has more than 430 stores outside of Japan. Looking at the future, what markets do you believe have the highest growth potential for Uchino, and why?

Our first international base was established in 1990, Singapore. As Singapore has an embedded western culture, we noticed that all the towels domestically sold were thick and heavy. When we introduced our products to department stores, the good feeling, lightness, and easy to wash features were appreciated and sold much better than traditional western style towels. We concluded that Singaporeans preferred our towels and that Uchino had potential to grow in Asia. 

This also demonstrated the issue of supply, meaning that consumers did not know of other options. All of a sudden, Singaporeans had more choice, more appealing colours to choose from and different levels of softness to select. In a matter of months, Uchino’s products became popular in Singapore. 

This story embodies the fact that the organizations selling western towels were pushing the product into the market instead of analysing what the consumer wanted.

 

Could you tell us more about what you believe customers from around the world expect from a towel?

After conducting our research, we have concluded that there are four reasons that motivate people to buy towels:

Firstly, it must be light and easy to handle. 

Secondly, it must be soft and pleasant to the touch. 

Thirdly, it must adequately absorb moisture.

Finally, it should be quick to dry in order to increase practicality.

The growing popularity of Uchino’s products is due to our ability to analyse and implement these 4 characteristics in all our products. By understanding and grasping our customers’ wishes, we have been able to exactly provide what they most wish for in a towel.

By virtue of the technology employed to manufacture them, some of our products are undoubtedly unique. For example, our hollow yarn waffle is composed of soft and silky waffle weaves, creating an unmatched softness and a delight to the hand. Another example is our unique Marshmallow technology, which has a cotton count of 100 yarn per 1.0 grams. Most our towels use a count of 1/5th whereas normal western towels use a count of 1/7th. 

While we are aware that these products aren’t the most efficient to produce, our mission is to create the best towels for our customers, not our factories!

We have a saying in Japan which goes: “if you ask a manufacturer to produce what he wants to produce, it will not sell. Instead, ask him  what he doesn’t want to make.” 

 

 

Uchino continues to pursue the best satisfaction for customers, tirelessly working to develop products that are more delicate to the touch and more comfortable to use. The technology to establish this goal is very hard and difficult and challenging for factories. However, we strongly feel that we must address those challenges to attain customer satisfaction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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