MOONSTAR is one of Japan’s leading sneaker manufacturers. Its products’ comfortable fit, as well as their stylish designs with all the unnecessary elements stripped away, are made possible through the use of its long-cultivated shoemaking techniques and experience.
Our fifth interview is with MOONSTAR, a shoe manufacturer that produces vulcanized sneakers*, which can only be made by a handful of factories in Japan. We visited the plant in Fukuoka Prefecture’s Kurume known for being a rubber-industry city, and talked to the Product Development Youth Project Division Chief, Mr. Hirata, and designer Mr. Yamada.
* Vulcanized sneakers: sneakers made using a process in which a rubber sole containing sulfur and upper part of the shoe are attached, and iron and pressure are applied in a kiln.
01 Manufacturing of Made-in-Kurume Products
The rubber industry grew in this region that is blessed with the rich offerings of the Chikugo-gawa River. Its roots go back to the jika-tabi (a type of outdoor footwear in Japan) that was developed in this area and served as the prototype for sneakers. MOONSTAR, a 140-plus year old shoe manufacturer, along with its friendly rival ASAHI SHOES, LTD., has lead the way in Japanese shoemaking. Today, through highly-skilled handiwork and an integrated manufacturing system, the company continues to make footwear for all ages, from children to the elderly. What kind of monozukuri (product making process) is carried out at the Kurume Plant? We asked Mr. Hirata about it.
ー Is most of the work at the Kurume Plant done by hand?
At this plant, very little of the process is done by machines, and the rest is done by hand. It’s not than we are being particular about sticking to doing things by hand, but it’s more that we can’t do it any other way. The rubber that we use as the main ingredient, for example, is like udon noodles, so it has to be handled completely differently in the summer compared to the winter. Those who knead the rubber rely solely on how it feels to their hands. Tasks such as cutting, sewing, and adding glue are assigned separately. Watching the workers at the plant, I can see that they maintain quality by mainly doing work by hand and making minute follow-up adjustments on whatever is off the mark. This sensibility in doing follow-up work involves a million different unpredictable ways to go, so I believe the work can only be done by the human hand and not by a machine.
ー How has the spirit of craftsmanship taken root?
The workers in the plant say, “We refuse to make bad shoes.” But this seems to not mean that they are into making cool shoes or anything like that. It just means that they are always careful about things like “making sure the glue doesn’t come off” as they do their work. These are your very average middle-aged ladies, and they perhaps feel that they wouldn’t want their grandchildren or sons to wear bad-quality shoes.
ー What do you call the people who work at the plant? Artisans, for example?
They seem to feel embarrassed to be called artisans. They say, “Since I do the same thing every day, don’t you think it’s natural that I’d get good at it?” We don’t call them laborers or factory workers, nor do we think that we are above them. People in the past used to called them “obachan (“aunties”) on the factory floor.” If you visit the plant often, they’ll start to trust you, saying, “For you, we’ll make sure we do a good job.”
02 From OEM Products to Developing Original Brand Products: MOONSTAR-MADE IN KURUME
MOONSTAR-MADE IN KURUME are sneakers with a very simple and straightforward style. Their appeal is in their sophisticated details and the unique feel of their materials. The company launched its own brand four years ago, making use of the techniques and experience of manufacturing various OEM and school products, like indoor and gym shoes, that it had created over many years. We asked the designer, Mr. Yamada, about the appeal of MOONSTAR-MADE IN KURUME.
ー Why did the company decide to begin developing its own brand?
We make footwear for all ages, from the elderly to children, but when it came to shoes that targeted the 20s to 30s’ age group, we only had OEM products. So we, as the Kurume Plant, wanted to do something about that, and that is how the company brand MOONSTAR-MADE IN KURUME was born. As for their design, we seek to create not complicated designs, but rather, beautiful silhouettes when they are worn. We strive to develop basic-style shoes that of course we can wear, but also that can be worn by everyone in our generation.
ー Please talk about the main features of the MOONSTAR-MADE IN KURUME products.
The MOONSTAR brand has two groups of products—the FINE VULCANIZED products that are made using the vulcanizing process, and the CHIC INJECTION products for which the soles are attached with a machine called Direct Injection to make an insertion (“injection modling”). Both of these manufacturing processes can only be done at the Kurume Plant. Our lineups include those made with a discriminating use of a fabric called Kurume kasuri, a traditional local craft, as well as those with soles with gradated colors, and those that are redesigned versions of the traditional school gym shoes.
ー How do you create an overall feel of the brand?
Those of us on the design team all have similar sensibilities, so we feel that if someone on the team wants to do something, it’s probably not going to be off the mark. We would say things like, “We can take photographs ourselves, have the space to take photos, and can use our own clothes, so why don’t we make our own leaflets?” or “This kind of image would be good for our website, don’t you think?” We outsource things like coding for our website and printing, but we create the data needed to make these things ourselves.
ー After you developed your own brand, what were the reactions of those around you?
In the past, customers that ordered OEM products from us tended to conceal the fact that their products were made by MOONSTAR. But as we began doing this kind of work, perhaps a positive image that our products are made in Japan spread. Now, so many tell us they want to display that the products are made by MOONSTAR. When we look at SNS posts by our general customers, we would see comments like, “I bought indoor shoes for my child. They are made by MOONSTAR.” These days, I am often made to feel that the image of MOONSTAR is drastically changing.
03 MOONSTAR-MADE IN KURUME, Going Forward
Sneakers, which are an essential part of our lives, add color to our everyday life not only by providing comfort, but also as a fashion statement. This spring, why not look for a pair that you like from their basic line of quality-made sneakers? In closing, we asked them what the future for MOONSTAR-MADE IN KURUME looks like.
ー Are there new challenges that you would like to take on?
We would like to see many parents wear the MOONSTAR-MADE IN KURUME shoes together with their children. The KIDS GYM CLASSIC series are made not with the elastic bands that make it easy for children to put on, but instead are designed with shoestrings, just like their fathers’ shoes. We envision a father helping his child tie his or her strings. To make this a reality, we have been thinking that we want to have our own shop that will allow us to introduce the MOONSTAR products to a wider audience.
ー Tells us what the future holds for MOONSTAR-MADE IN KURUME.
At the Kurume Plant, we have imono (metal casting) and iron works, rubber, people who cut and people who sew, and we make all kinds of things here. As we do our planning work, we are realizing that these techniques contain other hidden possibilities that go beyond just making shoes. You know, some of the ladies on the factory floor wear aprons made by someone at the plant in charge of sewing. We are currently talking within the team about how it would be great to apply the shoe manufacturing process to make some sort of a new product in the future.
MOONSTAR began making jika-tabi in 1873 in Kurume, a city in Fukuoka Prefecture that is known for its rubber industry, and has been manufacturing footwear for over 140 years, continuously ensuring comfort by researching foot shapes and insisting on the best quality rubber materials. And as a way to step out onto a new path, the company created the MOONSTAR-MADE IN KURUME line of shoes infused with 140 years’ worth of shoemaking confidence and pride