YAMATOTAKADA, Nara Prefecture--When the sock makers of Nara Prefecture started to feel the pinch from cheap Chinese imports, they decided to put the boot on the other foot.
The manufacturers sent cargo boats straight back to China and are now getting more for a pair of socks sold in Beijing than the price in Tokyo.
Nara-Sakura, a brand set up by small and midsize manufacturers from Nara Prefecture, Japan’s largest sock making area, is touting the high quality and design excellence of the Japanese products and has been rewarded with strong demand from the wealthy and young people with disposable income.
At one Beijing department store, socks carrying the “sakura” (cherry blossom) symbol are being sold alongside major brands such as Atsugi and Calvin Klein for 1,000 yen ($13) apiece, about three times the price in Japan. Tights cost 2,000 yen.
Shizuo Mori, a 68-year-old managing director of the Nara Prefectural Textile Industry Associated Federation based in Yamatotakada, came up with the idea for the new brand.
Manufacturers in Nara Prefecture account for more than half of all production of socks and tights in Japan, with many located in Yamatotakada, Koryo and other municipalities in the central part of the prefecture. Many are small and midsize subcontractors catering for major manufacturers.
In recent years, they have been fighting an influx of cheap Chinese products. Membership of the industry federation has shrunk from about 500 companies 20 years ago to only 158.
The industry federation in 2003 proposed a joint program to export products to China, but only four companies answered the call and took part in a Beijing trade fair the following year. Nevertheless, feedback on the quality of products was strong, and the federation signed an agency arrangement with a Chinese company to begin selling its products in department stores in China’s big cities.
The federation sold only 970 pairs, worth 260,000 yen, in 2004, but sales rose to 66,000 pairs, worth 24 million yen, in 2011. Forty outlets in seven Chinese cities, including Shenyang, Dalian and Wuhan, now deal in its products.
The federation hopes to sell 40 million yen worth of socks this year. About 30 companies are now participating in the program, which also embarked on online retailing two years ago.
Colored Nara-Sakura tights have been featured in a Chinese fashion magazine.
"Nara-Sakura has obtained name recognition almost on a par with other Japanese enterprises," said Kaname Takahashi, the head of the Shanghai Branch Office and the senior vice president of Daisen Ltd., the Osaka-based publisher of the Sen-i News, a trade newspaper for the textile industry.
"Small and midsize enterprises in many textile production centers across Japan engage in joint programs to export their products to China, but few such programs have been as successful as Nara-Sakura," Takahashi said.
The Nara Prefectural Textile Industry Associated Federation is also backing attempts to promote the individual brands of particular makers. More than 10 companies have started exporting their products under independent labels, and their combined sales have exceeded 100 million yen.
"Nara-Sakura's name recognition and scale advantage have helped us learn better about the Chinese market," said Toshimitsu Takai, a 39-year-old managing director of Takaitatsu Co., a Yamatotakada socks manufacturer that exports products under its own Legacess brand.
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