Eikobudogu is a martial arts equipment manufacturing company founded in Kawaguchi city Saitama prefecture in 1992. Originally founded by Madokoro brother's father, the family business has been passed down to his two sons, and the brothers currently run the company together. This time we had the privilege to hear their story of their factory for the first time. In this interview we introduce to you Eikobudogu, revolutionaries and innovators who have produced numerous hit products.
Mr. Yoshiaki Madokoro, Senior Managing Director
Eikobudogu Co., Ltd.
Eikobudogu’s History & Roots
—Please tell us about the history of Eikobudogu.
Madokoro: “My father founded this company about 25 years ago in 1992 (Heisei 4). He didn’t start out doing Kendo, but his interest in the martial art grew after seeing my brother and I pursue Kendo. Eventually he started Kendo as well.”
—What was the reason or incentive behind manufacturing Kendo equipment as a business?
Madokoro: “When my father would go out to buy Kendo equipment he seemed surprised at how expensive all of the equipment was. At that point he thought about creating Kendo equipment of the same quality as those on the market, but with a more affordable price to make Kendo available for all customers who are passionate about it.”
—Did you have any prior experience in manufacturing Kendo equipment in the past?
Madokoro: “Not at all. Our company president, who is my older brother, practiced Kendo throughout high school but decided to pursue boxing at university. And at that time my father quit his office job and decided to pursue the field of martial arts equipment manufacturing. For someone with no experience or knowledge in Kendo to to start a company like this one sounds pretty reckless, doesn't it! (laughs)”
*The company’s president received 1st place in Japan’s ranking
—Did you find it to be quite a struggle when you were just starting out establishing this company?
Madokoro: “Back then it was customary for people to purchase Kendo armor through advertisements in Kendo magazines, or to get recommendations from your local instructor. Now we have the internet, which is an extremely convenient tool, but at that time my father was just networking through his connections. Since he was selling products at a lower price than the market value we saw this as a new style of approaching the industry.”
—Your customers have probably been very happy with the price and quality of your products.
Madokoro: “I’m happy to say that I think that is the case! While I can’t say how businesses in the same field as us feel about it, back then my father was sure that this was the right approach to take with his business, to put our relationship with customers first. Not just to sell cheaply, but also to create high quality products is very important to us.”
—When did you start working in management with your company?
Madokoro: “My older brother had already been working in the company, and I joined him right after graduating from university at age 22. When I first joined I was working in sales and product development, but my job has been heavily focused on management ever since my father retired 8 years ago and my older brother became the representative of the company.”
—Which store was your company’s first location?
Madokoro: “My father opened his first store in Kawaguchi city, Saitama prefecture. We only had that one store for about 10 years but later opened 2 more stores in Ueno, which is my father’s hometown. After that we also established an office in Koshigaya city in Saitama as our head office and distribution center, but it now functions as our “Koshigaya Shop” and “Repair Center”. Also our original Kawaguchi shop operates as our “Omiya Ekimae Shop”.
A store where the management team and staff themselves are Kendō experts
—Congratulations on your recent promotion to the Seventh Dan of 2017.
Madokoro: “Thank you very much.”
—I heard that your company’s president also participated in the seventh stage of the national and prefectural competitions. As employees who actively practice Kendo, do you think your experience in the field helps your product development?
Madokoro: “It definitely benefits our customers and improves the experience for our users. Oftentimes our customers ask us questions about the product, and I personally think it is difficult to understand our products and help customers with questions about our products if we ourselves haven’t used them. If we get a question like “what are some good features of this particular armor?” we can only give them the specifications of the product, but we can’t tell them about the experience of the product if we don’t use them ourselves. If we can only give them the specs, they will evidently just choose the cheapest options.
We love Kendo and Kendo equipment, so all of our products are dedicated to high quality and ease of use. In addition to the armor, other equipment like the dougi, hakama, shinai-bukuro, and bogu-bukuro are all tested for comfort, which we think is important in the customer’s choices. Our top priority is to talk with the customer at their level and perspective, in order to best understand the customer.
I myself also teach Kendo at the local dojo and can understand the needs and troubles of swordsmen and women of various ages, and I also receive important feedback from the who practice Kendo as well.”
—It seems that other companies communicate a lot with Kendo athletes to listen to their concerns about their equipment in order to improve on their products.
Madokoro: “Of course we do this as well, in addition to communicating with our fellow Kendo acquaintances.
For example, we’ll hear from those people about their hopes and concerns regarding their equipment and armor, but actually figuring out how we can improve it and what we can change is a lot more complicated. While it is pretty easy to improve our product in terms of its ease of use by reducing the volume of the core material in the equipment, and making it lighter, it unfortunately decreases the equipment’s safety, since the protective gear would not have enough padding.
One of the foundational basic functions of Kendo armor is to protect. Rather than focusing on reducing the weight of the armor, if you better fit the armor comfortably around the body it will feel much lighter. concept is that those who wear this armor will overall perform better in their craft.”
Weight is not important
Madokoro: “A long time ago there was a nationally famous craftsman named Hiroyohi Saegusa, and when I first saw his armor I was taken back by how heavy his armor seemed. This was 50 years ago, so the armor was especially heavy with a lot of sheet metal which added a lot to its weight.
The craftsmanship of this expert’s armor was amazing, and I was beyond impressed just by looking at it, and when I actually tried it on I was amazed at how light it felt despite all of the sheet metal making it look heavy for sure. That’s when I realized just how important balance and distribution of weight is when making armor like this.
Personally, I don’t like the idea of lightening the armor by decreasing the core material, or even lightening or softening the armor in general. As my customers have told me, when you soften the armor and lighten the armor by decreasing its weight, you lose the sense of quality and the feeling of good craftsmanship. Thus I think that it is important for armor craftsmen to avoid this process entirely.”
—I understand that the balance of the Shinai changes with the position and thickness of the knot, but what about balance in terms of the armor?
Madokoro: “The weight of one’s head takes up a considerable proportion of the human body. When you put on the and if the Men-futon is light, then the will naturally feel heavy and your center of gravity will go forward. So it is important to find the right balance between the Men-futon and Mengane. While a light Mengane and a light Men-futon are good in terms of balance, the downside is that it won’t have any strength.
Kendo is said to be a lifetime, lifelong competition, so it is important to consider the risks of getting hit in the neck, kicked, made deaf, et cetera. Because it is a lifelong sport, it makes me worried to think that people are using weak and lightweight armor in their life of Kendo.”
—So I take it that you find it important to provide Kendo equipment that combines safety with practicality.
Madokoro: “Absolutely. Strength differs from person to person, but as I have been doing Kendo, I can better determine which aspects are painful and which ones aren’t, and I can apply these observations in the development of our products. Especially since many of our employees practice Kendo themselves, so their experiences and input can help improve our products.”
A look into the Kendo equipment manufacturing factory
—Where is your company currently manufacturing your products?
Madokoro: “Of course there are some things that we order from other manufacturers, and many of our products come from China and Vietnam. However, our original brand products are manufactured mainly in the Philippines. The man who first built the factory that we now use was a famous craftsman who practiced his craft for many years in Japan.
We actually met this craftsman about 20 years ago, and that’s when we began negotiating. At that time every manufacturer in Japan was saying that the best armor came from that factory. The products were so outstanding in technical strength that it was renowned nationwide.”
—Would you say management was being compromised?
Madokoro: “As we had feared, we had actually gone bankrupt. It felt like a lightning bolt from heaven, like a curse for us, as we were just preparing for the Year-End/New Year’s Sale.
Of course we were worried about the sales, but we were more worried about the possibility of losing all of our talented and gifted craftsmen at the factory.
As soon as we heard that our factory craftsmen had stayed along with their factory manager, our president made immediate plans in cooperation with the plant manager to build a new factory.
That time caused a lot of difficulties and hardships for our local employees, and it was especially strenuous for us as well.”
—That sounds like something out of a drama. It seems like you have a strong bond with your employees as well.
Madokoro: “We couldn’t have done it without them. When we were at our worst point there wasn’t a single smile, the air was heavy, and even when hearing the news about our success in opening a new factory, many of our employees were heavy with worry and anxious about the future.
We realized that in order to change this environment it was important for us to visit the factory frequently, and the president and I frequented the factory like every month, attending their Christmas parties and making curry together, gradually building deeper and stronger relationships with all of our employees. It wasn’t long until we began to see their smiles back on their faces. We really owe a lot to the plant manager and his employees for sticking with us even through our hardest times.”
—Do other members of your company other than management visit the factory?
Madokoro: “We feel that it’s important for our employees to understand the various jobs that employees have throughout the company, so we have them take turns visiting different environments. This way our employees who are selling the products will think more about the craftsmen who make the armor.
The amount that we invest in connecting with the factory craftsmen is at a level in which they almost feel that it’s too much! When people hear that we are manufacturing in places outside of Japan, we receive some mixed reactions, but I think this is a mistake. These craftsmen have very good technical skills, and they are very serious about their craft, so all of us take a lot of pride in selling the products made by these great factory workers.”
—I can see how your company is not only united, but also succeeding in selling great reliable products.
Development of the “Tonbo Series”
—You have various product lines like the Tonbo Series, BAK Kendo-gu, TONBO Armor and Armor Bags, and BAK underwear. Could you tell us exactly how you came up with the concepts of these product lines?
Madokoro: “We can make very elaborate and fancy armor, and it was well-known that our products had very high technical capabilities, but we saw that ease of use was one more step that we could take in improving our gear.
That’s when we decided to start our Tonbo series. At the time flashy armor was quite popular, but we started looking into manufacturers that were focusing on the ease of use of martial arts equipment, and we thought that it was these companies that focused on ease of use that would succeed and come out strong in the end. We felt like the era of flashy armor would be short-lived and would decline fast.
However, when it came to the gloves I knew that its three-dimensional characteristics would make it complicated to make, so I ended up going through the many Kote that I already had and breaking them apart!”
—Did you actually break apart your Kote?
Madokoro: “Yes, I realized that when I start making models of a design, I gradually start to understand how it works. I talked recently with craftsmen who make Kote, and they tell me that it’s impossible to make a good template of Kote if you’re not a craftsman in that field. Despite this I decided to go ahead and try. I tried numerous times and there was a lot of trial and error, sending numerous drafts to the factory.
Although the first sample was far from satisfactory, there were a lot of things that we could work off of. We could get a feel of how a completed product feels, and improve things like widening the seam allowance. Then we would recreate our product again and again, until we were satisfied with a Kote that was well-crafted and easy to use.”
—What aspects were the most difficult?
Madokoro: “For example, if we are considering making the Kote smaller, there are other patterns that follow. Whether it be adding more fur inside the Kote, changing the amount of Tenouchi, making the outer head smaller, etc. Figuring out what would change if we tweaked one part of the product was difficult to figure out.
Making the inner hand in Kote A smaller, adding more fur padding in Kote B, enlarging only the head of the glove for Kote C, adjusting both the inner hand and fur padding for Kote D — as I make these different combinations, I start to make out the patterns of the product. When we were finally satisfied with the outcome after endless prototypes, that’s when the Tonbo was born. I believe that our very first ever easy-to-use armor is the Tonbo.”
—So your goal has basically been to design and create Kote that are easy to use.
Madokoro: “I would say so. We started from there and later began to focus on the Futon as well. I know that people aren’t necessarily that interested in the Futon, but I think it’s very important. We studied the Futon, core material and shape carefully, and we were able to create a great product even with the Futon. Once we accomplished the Futon, we figured that we could have a go at making the Men and Tare as well, so in the end we created the whole set.”
—It seems as though you’ve applied the knowledge you obtained from manufacturing the Kote into your other products.
Madokoro: “As of now we have been selling them as a set for about 10 years. Our catchphrase is ‘Very strong and easy to use! But it’s not lightweight.’
Everyone was like “...what?” to that jingle, but as I mentioned earlier we felt it was fitting on a light note. It’s all about balance. It’s an armor that can move with little resistance, without stress, and without any unwanted disturbance for the athlete.
The “Bogu-Bukuro” and “Shinai-Bukuro” that we are currently selling are also easy to use, so we named it ‘TONBO’.”
—I see, it’s very easy to understand!
Madokoro: “We have a variety of items in our Tonbo series, each with their own distinct features, but our concept and motto remains the same. As I mentioned earlier with the Bogu-Bukuro, it was a matter of relentless trial and error. When I would think about the ways in which they would be used, I would think to myself, ‘What about this shape? Would this make it easier?’ and make changes.”
Development of the “BAK Series”
—How did the development of the BAK series come to be?
Madokoro: “The BAK series started out with underwear.”
—How long ago was this?
Madokoro: “About 6 to 7 years ago. My boss contacted Kentaro Takahashi, who was my superior back in high school, and an associate professor at Kanto Gakuin University, as well as the training coach for the Kendo representative of Japan, about wanting to start up an underwear line. Kendo has a tradition of not wearing any undergarments under the armor, but when we started to consider how more body support could prevent certain injuries, more interest grew in terms of designing underwear that would better support the body.
My superior agreed to carry through with manufacturing the product. We realized that Kendo was no different from other sports when it came to innovating to prevent injury.”
—How would you describe how the average Kendo athlete’s muscles develop?
Madokoro: “I would say that Kendo is very different from other sports in terms of muscle development, as Kendo athletes often end up building muscles on their left calves and right thigh. As a result, we designed the BAK series to be purposely asymmetrical in its support design, due to the asymmetrical natures of the sport. We were able to design and create a supporter which allows smooth movement, as the most essential parts of movement for Kendo are reinforced with a power net. On the outerwear we inserted an X-shaped power net on the back area, and when you put it on it feels very natural and form-fitting. The outerwear thereby has the effect of alleviating the fatigue that the spine often carries.
Additionally, by supporting those areas of the body it makes it a lot harder for injuries to happen. Mr. Takahashi told me that he believes that players that don’t get injured are strong, and players that don’t get tired are strong.”
—What does he mean, “players that don’t get injured or tired are strong”?
Madokoro: “In other words, an athlete who repeats and continues the same performance over and over again is strong, and does not get tired easily; he essentially becomes stronger. Even if the athlete is tired, if you yourself don’t get tired then there is a big gap in power between you and your opponent. Additionally if you get injured you lose a lot of time and opportunity having to rest, and the road to recovery takes a very long time. This is why it is important to preemptively prevent injuries in the first place, before they even have the chance to happen.
Mr. Takahashi worked very hard to communicate the importance of this concept to many Kendo specialists. We immediately began to hear a lot of positive results, with many users satisfied with the feeling of security of our product, and many acclaimed how the BAK series prevents fatigue and cramps from continuing through to the next day. With our product, their tiredness from the previous day never lasted the next morning.
Our BAK products are designed and created based on an exercise physiology, called “Biomechanics”. We applied the same concepts to our BAK armor as well, and this product series that Mr. Takahashi and I created together has the fitting name of ‘Boost Ability for Kendo (BAK).’”
The “Kote” Makes all the Difference
—If you don’t mind me going back, you mentioned that stores with easier-to-use Kote products will be stronger from now on. Why specifically is it the Kote?
Madokoro: “The Kote is definitely where you can feel a significant difference in regards to ease of use. For track and field athletes it would be their spikes (shoes). Therefore while we certainly put a lot of research into the development of the whole armor, we started out with the Kote being our foundational research point.
Among these things as well, one thing that I have been particularly interested in researching has been the Tare. I would say that most people aren’t really that interested in the Tare, but my interest in the Tare really grew a lot after I began researching and developing it.
I have been working on researching Tare prototypes and samples recently, and when you try one of these prototypes on, you really feel the power that the Tare gives your body. It almost feels as though someone is holding up your waist and supporting it.”
—So it supports your waist really well?
Madokoro: “Exactly. For example, people who work in grocery stores or fish markets often stand a lot at work, and that’s why they wear those waist aprons. Even when we’re tired, we go like this. We do this because that position is relaxing for the body. Thus by wearing a waist apron, people who stand a lot in their work can continue to stand for a long time because of the support that the waist apron gives.
We applied these concepts to the Tare from the BAK armor series as well, but we are continuing to research even further so that we can improve what we already have. We met with an orthopedic doctor and discussed how bones move and work, and are currently applying that research to the development of our new and improving Tare. Because the Tare has such an impact on the athlete, we believe that it is a very important part of the entire armor.”
—To be honest, I myself really didn’t care much for Tare.
Madokoro: “I think it’s important for people to be able to realize just how much of a difference the Tare can make. It’s no use if they can’t feel that it’s different. The hand has many joints and is a very sensitive part of the body, so when you directly use a Shinai it’s a lot easier to feel. As a result I think that other martial arts stores put a lot of effort in the Kote.”
—I see, so the expectations are raised higher. If there’s one last message you would like to give to everyone, what would it be?
Madokoro: “Since Kendo is a sport that anyone can play regardless of gender or age, it comes with a wide range of requests and accommodations. As a result our company is characterized by the ability to respond to all of the needs of our diverse range of customers. Since it depends on each person’s preference on what they define as good, our company strives to respond flexibly to each customer’s requests and preferences, while still producing high quality equipment in line with our policies and guidelines. We hope to continue to excel in this way.”
—It was a pleasure to have the time to talk with you today, and thank you for letting us take some of your precious time today to learn more about your company.
Madokoro: “Likewise, thank you as well for having me today.”
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