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It is early on a Tuesday morning and I am once again at Heathrow. I am heading to Japan, where I will be spending some time with the tanners around the ancient leather centre of Himeji.
Japan is a rather forgotten country in the world of the leather making industry, except for its powerful automobile industry which consumes a lot of leather. Volumes of leather produced have been in steady decline, and what was once a top ten producer looked like slipping into oblivion. Imports of luxury items and leather footwear are both very big.
This is why I have not been to Japan for fifteen years despite having been a frequent visitor in the eighties and nineties. We well remember the days before China when the world feared the dominance of Japanese industry in one sector after another, and no one bought computers or electronic gadgets without first visiting Akihabara in Tokyo.
Now, as the economy in China is maturing, what is the future for a leather industry in Japan that in many ways is still deeply based in its very historic roots? Retail in Japan was always highly advanced, and is now getting more attention since the Chinese slowdown makes it likely that Japan will stay as #2 in the world after the U.S as a market for luxury goods. Chinese tourists now make up a big part of the store sales in Japan and we wait to see how the Japanese will accommodate their love of Internet shopping.
Luxury today is moving forward from its curious split into absolute and affordable luxury, and is much more about connoisseurship and personal fulfilment than it is about ostentation. Craftsmanship is back, along with authenticity both of which the Japanese know a lot about. More than most Asian countries, Japan steps away from the binary approach of the west and is often quoted as seeing popular taste and high culture, even rural and urban, as naturally overlapping. With experiences becoming more important, the separation between aesthetics and performance in leather has also become much less meaningful leaving the Japanese perfectly placed to marry their advanced technical skills with their profound capabilities in craftsmanship.
I can see a positive future in many sectors for Japanese leather, as supply lines change and a degree of reshoring takes hold.
13th September 2016
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