Aiming to cut costs, a Japanese baseball glove manufacturer long supported by the labor of skilled craftspeople is moving its production base to China. It would appear that aggressive moves by popular overseas brands such as Nike are part of the reason for the move.
How will the product manufacturing process, which relies on intuition and experience, be communicated to line employees who know nothing about baseball? Looking for answers, I visited a factory in Shanghai belonging to Mizuno Corp., Japan’s largest manufacturer of baseball gloves.
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Mizuno’s plant sits on an expansive 50,000-square-meter lot located about 30 minutes west of central Shanghai by car. Along with sportswear and golf clubs, the factory also manufactures balls and gloves for baseball. The baseball division has a staff of 237. Including the general manager, Kenji Kosaka, 47, only two of those employees are Japanese, the rest are Chinese nationals.
“A baseball glove? In the beginning I didn’t even know what one looked like. I’d never seen the game played,” said an affably smiling Jinhui Zhang, 48, in Japanese.
When Zhang continued, stating, “Especially the catcher’s mitt, its shape is quite different, right?” another employee, Liujin Yuan, 36, added in her native Chinese, “That’s right; I thought it was a seat for a bycycle.”
Both of them had been working in the factory since 1995 when its apparel division first started operations. Recognized for their abilities, they were chosen to be among the initial members of the new baseball glove division, which started up last year.
Currently the factory serves as a core facility for manufacturing baseball gloves, shipping about 100,000 annually, primarily to major leaguers and top amateur players in Japan and the United States. Zhang works as chief of the intellectually demanding testing and development section, acting as a bridge between local staff and employees from Japan coming to offer technical guidance. Yuan works as a supervisor in the sewing department.
A SENSE OF CRISIS BROUGHT ABOUT BY DECREASING MARKET SHARE
Next year will mark Mizuno’s 100th anniversary of making gloves in Japan. Since before World War II it has been involved in the manufacture and development of gloves, competing with manufacturers from the United States, the birthplace of the sport. In the 1970s, Nobuyoshi Tsubota, 79, who later received the labor ministry's "Outstanding Skilled Workers" award, made the rounds of major league camps, adopting a strategy of repairing gloves while trying to sell the company’s own products.
He won over top players as customers including current Boston Red Sox manager and former Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine, 62, and Mike Piazza, 43, a former star catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. One of Mizuno’s strengths lies in the fact that a single craftsperson would make an entire glove--from selecting and cutting the cowhide to sewing and putting the final touches on the finished product--according to the needs and style of play of the player in question. Mizuno Industry Haga Co., located in the town of Hagacho, nestled in the mountains of western Hyogo Prefecture, has long supported this made-to-order manufacturing process.
However, since overseas brands such as Nike in 1995 and Adidas in 2000, boasting strong popularity in athletic shoes, apparel and equipment related to other ball sports, entered the Japanese market for baseball goods, competition has intensified. Nike has continued its offensive, having signed star Japanese pitchers Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka, now playing in the major leagues, to endorsement contracts. The company is extremely proficient at using world-class athletes in television commercials to enhance its brand power.
Mizuno, which boasted a domestic market share greater than 50 percent in 2001, saw that figure drop to 36 percent by 2011. Japan’s second largest glove manufacturer, Zett Corp., which at one time held almost 20 percent of the Japanese market, has also seen its share decline, and is now reporting a 14 percent share. With Japan suffering a declining birthrate and children losing interest in baseball, the entire amount of baseball and softball-related goods shipped domestically in 2011 totaled 72.7 billion yen (about $930 million), falling slightly for the second year in a row.
Compared with the overseas brands, which do not maintain their own factories and outsource glove production, Mizuno, which has emphasized its specially made gloves costing between 50,000 yen and 100,000 yen each, is feeling intense pressure to reduce costs. Additionally, the number of farming families around Mizuno’s plant in Hagacho, whose members have traditionally taken on side jobs making gloves, are decreasing. Mass production has become difficult as a result, forcing the company to make higher quality products in low-cost China.
GLOVES MADE IN CHINA APPEARING IN THE MAJORS
Today a team of about 30 craftspeople led by “Glove Meister” Kosaku Kishimoto, 54, are still making gloves in Hyogo Prefecture for top Japanese professional players such as Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, who went on to star in the major leagues. However, most of the Mizuno gloves used by more than 100 players in the major leagues are made in Shanghai.
Baseball videos were shown at the Shanghai factory to have employees learn about the game. The Chinese staff also played catch and fielded grounders at a ball field set up on the factory site. Craftspeople from Hagacho visited the Shanghai plant to offer guidance, and Chinese staff also undertook short-term training in Japan for three- to six-month periods.
How do you teach craftsmanship? Reflecting back, then Mizuno Industry Haga plant manager Kazunori Ayama, 46, said, “We also employed an in-your-face, combative type of training. At times, when stitching on the inside of the glove was sloppy, I would cut it with scissors (insinuating bad craftsmanship).” Added another executive, “Because they (the Chinese) have a strong sense of rivalry with the Japanese, if you are angry with them, they make an effort to shame you back (by doing better). We got everyone in a competitive mode and made steady progress.”
Currently, gloves going for around 12,000 yen to 45,000 yen are manufactured in Shanghai. Like the gloves made in Hagacho, the name of the person responsible for the glove’s production is affixed to the product tag. Subsequently, there have been some orders requesting gloves made by particular employees.
“I was very happy (to have someone request a glove made by me). When I saw a glove I had made in a relayed broadcast of a major league game, that also felt good,” said Zhang with a smile.
To raise its brand image, the company has decided to unify its identity in the near future around a design using only its corporate logo, the “Runbird” (running bird), and will remove the name MIZUNO from the wrist portion of the glove. Like Nike, which stamps its swoosh logo on the front of products instead of the company name, Mizuno hopes to create a simplified feel.
“While remaining fastidious about our traditional manufacturing methods, going forward we will not produce items at particular places, but rather with particular people,” noted Masaki Terashita, 45, a section chief in the operations department at the Mizuno head office.
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