Back in 2009, I spent a few very busy weeks conducting, editing, and translating fifteen interviews with leading Japanese musicians, fashion designers, and photographers for the Onitsuka Tiger book Made of Japan. While the project was a great chance to get into the minds of individuals who shape contemporary Japanese culture, I also wished at the time that I could turn my attention at some point to the rich history of Onitsuka Tiger itself.
So earlier this year, in warm welcome from the company, Ian and I raided the archives of old catalogs and industry circulars in Onitsuka Tiger’s Tokyo office dating from the early post-war onwards. The photos, graphic design, and copy of these catalogs alone perfectly chart out the development of consumer culture in Japan. The two-color printing of 1960s’ materials, for example, looks identical to 45 rpm singles of that era. And by 1976, the catalogs were filled with foreign athletes with impressive moustaches — very much in the same mold as the first issues of era-defining men’s magazine Popeye.
Our humble web journal has always been dedicated to the intersection between Japan and global culture, and in these catalogs, Ian and I were excited to find the story of a local company working tirelessly to position its Japanese technical know-how as the material means to international athleticism. Beyond today’s kneejerk embrace of the Olympics games as a glorious sponsorship moment, founder Kihachiro Onitsuka seemed obsessed with the wider conceptualization of the Olympic tradition — the celebration of global diversity in the opening ceremony, the huge variety of competitive games, the jet-setting descent of VIPs upon world capitals, the modernist virtues. As part of that Olympic framing, the company overtly and tirelessly referenced the games in catalogs and shoe names, and more broadly, built an Olympian-scale product strategy that offered specific shoes for every possible athletic activity — from marathon, track, volleyball, yachting, and baton twirling. (They also made a “referee shoe” at some point.)
Onitsuka Tiger asked Ian and I to work on essays related to these catalogs, and Ian has also produced two new fonts Kirimomi Swash and Kirimomi Geometric Sans (download here) based on the catalogs’ old lettering work. We will also be publishing two essays. I wrote a piece on the history of golf in Japan, based on glancing through materials on Onitsuka Tiger’s golf shoe brand GOOD SHOT and some solid library time. Until now, I had never looked much at the history of Japanese sports but I was intrigued to find that the pattern of importation and adoption echoes the model seen with other kinds of Western culture coming to Japan. (Hint: It’s “trickle down.”)
Ian meanwhile looked at the development of Onitsuka Tiger’s visual identity in the context of Modernism, both the chronologically-defined art movement and the broader idea of 20th century social development. The visual tone of Onitsuka Tiger’s early ads and catalogs encapsulate and document the recent history of typography in modern times.
So stay tuned as we roll out these essays over the next month.