Kyoto Tozando, makers of the overwhelmingly popular「A-1α」series, is one of the most successful budogu company that has emerged in recent years. In 2015 they acquired Mitsuboshi Ltd., another well established bogu company, in order to push new innovations within the industry. Today we will be interviewing Tozando’s CEO, Mr. Kimura, the man responsible for the success of the company. Mr. Kimura’s motivation to start his business was born out of his desire to help out a group of Italian kenshi. I found his personality overall to be very charismatic and I was delighted by his sense of humor. Please enjoy this interview!
1958 (born) Travelled abroad after graduation and joined a well known company after
returning to Japan
1989 Created Tozando Ltd.
2002 Opened Tozando’s first showroom in Kyoto city, Kamigyo-Ku
2009 Created “Tozando Biwako Logistics Center”
2010 Created “Nippon Bogu Manufacturing Plant” in Kuji city, Iwate-ken
2014 Merged with Mitsuboshi
2015 Opened a second showroom in Tokyo city, Shinjuku-ku
2017 Created a holding company for “Nippon Bogu Ltd.”
2017 Created “Hiei Logistics Center”
2018 Opened a third showroom in Sapporo city, Hokkaido
The Reason for Starting Tozando
This is Mr. Kimura, founding CEO of Tozando, please tell us what your reasons were for starting this company.
Kimura Takahiko: I was actually motivated to start Tozando by the enthusiasm of a certain group of Italian kenshi. An acquaintance of mine from Saitama asked me to translate for the Italian national team, so I ended up visited their dojo.
Are you also fluent in Italian as well?
Kimura Takahiko: I told them that I could only speak in English, but they replied, “It doesn’t matter if it’s English, or whatever language it is, please just come” (chuckles). Around twenty-five Italians showed up, they were quite different than how I imagined them to be.
How were they different?
Kimura Takahiko: I had always imagined Italians as a whole to be a merry and playful bunch. However, they were very engaged and listened intently to what their sensei had to teach, even after keiko. I think they were more serious than myself.
They must have been very passionate about kendo.
Kimura Takahiko: They were extremely passionate. However, after talking with them, I realized that they weren’t satisfied with the bogu situation in Italy. Bogu was expensive to buy and there were no places that offered repairing services. There were people getting hurt because the palm of their kote was so damaged.Gradually, I began to feel that I wanted to do something to help these people.
Were you aiming for a foreign market?
Kimura Takahiko: Not at all, I just wanted to help these Italian kenshi and that was the main why I started Tozando. I didn’t even know if it was going to work, but I wanted to keep my promise to them.
This story really gets the blood pumping. How did you start your business?
Kimura Takahiko: When I started, the internet had not been developed yet. I had to go to JETRO to get consultation for my business plans. I learned there that mail ordering through catalogues were a popular way to shop, so I decided to make a catalogue to start.
Were there any companies back then that made catalogues targeted at the West?
Kimura Takahiko: There wasn’t, they probably didn’t even exist. Photo editing had a negative reputation at the time so it was very expensive. Editing even one page of the catalogue would have costed around $100. The first catalogue I made costed $2,500. I wanted to add colours to my catalogue but the cost was too high, so I ended up printed it in black and white.
Was it hard starting your company without any reputation overseas? How did you earn the trust of your customers?
Kimura Takahiko: It was very hard starting completely from a blank slate and we worked hard to procure French kenshi’s interest in our bogu. The man who started kendo in France, Todo Tadao-sensei, helped to advocate my company. It’s was thanks to him that I was able to earn the trust of kenshi overseas.
Growth of the Company
Kimura Takahiko: There was many complaints regarding the payment method in the beginning, as it was quite cumbersome. Foreigners wanted to pay with their credit cards, but at the time, companies without a physical store will usually fail their credit card screenings. Companies that pass the credit card screenings are mostly publicly listed companies with capital stock of one-hundred-million yen or more. I had lost all hope back then.
The lack in flexibility in payment methods must have been quite an obstacle.
Kimura Takahiko: Sumimoto VISA was the only company that even took my company into consideration, all the other credit card companies refused to even listen to my request. I pleaded staff many times until I was let to speak with the board of directors. The staff I was speaking to even told me, “If this doesn’t work, please give up” (chuckles). I was being quite tenacious with my negotiations. To be honest, I didn’t think it was going to go through. But one night, I got a call saying that my business passed the screening (chuckles).
It seems like the staff you were speaking to gave up halfway (laughs).
Kimura Takahiko: To be honest, I gave up halfway myself, that’s why I was so surprised to hear the news. I later learned that there was another staff at that bank who also did kendo. The staff had apparently told his superiors that, “These types of companies are essential for spreading kendo around the world. People who do kendo can’t be bad people, so please let this company pass the screening.”
That sounds like a miracle!
Kimura Takahiko: Tozando only had one million yen in capital stock back then, we were an anomaly for even passing that screening. The news was very well-received by foreign kenshi, now that credit card payments were an option, orders came in one after another. I truly felt the importance of payment methods.
Were you worried about starting your company during a time when there were only a small number of foreigners doing kendo overseas?
Kimura Takahiko: There were many times where I thought that I was going to go bankrupt. But whenever the company reached a danger zone, we would be saved by a large order. England, Belgium, and Hawaii comes to mind. After surviving through many hardships, the anxiety of failing also started to disappear.
The company sounded like it’s had a tough start. What made you decide to start selling products other than kendo bogu?
Kimura Takahiko: Tozando grew as a company by adapting to our customer’s needs. Our customers overseas do other budo besides kendo as well. We started by adding Iaido goods to our collection, then we expanded towards other budo related products.
Was it part of your initial plan to include other budo equipments as well?
Kimura Takahiko: Not at all, we simply adapted to the needs of our customers and ended up including other budo products to our line as a result.
The Meaning of “Japanese Quality”
Kimura Takahiko: Is domestically made bogu really all that great? I call that sentiment, “The temperment of quality-conscious-Japanese-people”, I will explain more about what that means later. To be honest, at first glance, domestic bogu and bogu made overseas doesn’t look all that different. That’s how well foreign bogu are being made nowadays.
I feel that it’s quite difficult to tell the difference just by looking.
Kimura Takahiko: Well then, what is the difference exactly? In my opinion, Japanese craftsmen will focus even on details that can’t be seen with the naked eye, while foreign craftsmen feel that not as much attention is needed on details that can’t be seen. This difference makes a big impact on the quality; for example, the stitching in foreign made kote are not done properly sometimes. This can make the process of fixing that kote in the future extremely difficult. “Japanese Quality” is the awareness to these types of small details. If foreign craftsmen simply copy what the Japanese craftsmens do on s superficial level, there is not much meaning to it.
I think it’s rather hard to change a person’s mentality to those of a Japanese person’s mentality.
Kimura Takahiko: It’s difficult, but we have craftsmen from Kuji that visits our factory in China periodically. We instruct them on skills relating to bogu making, but we also stress the Japanese mindset on focusing on the details.
Would say that your factory overseas hold itself to a high standard?
Kimura Takahiko: I would say so. We might not be “Made in Japan”, but I would like to say that we are “Made by Japan”. For example, the stitching in the strings. The width of the strings in our men is on the thinner side, so we order special strings and bind them tightly so that our men will last through years of keiko. Our company is especially picky regarding these types of details.
10,000 Units of Kote (“Michi” Line) Sold for 10,000 Yen. Zero Profit. That is Fine.
Kimura Takahiko: Last year, Mitsuboshi came out with a line of kote called the “Michi”.
The price is quite startling
Kimura Takahiko: We made ten thousand units and sold them for ten thousand yen each. To be very honest, we made no profit at all. But that is fine, because in return we earned the trust of both customers and bogu craftsmen. Many of our repeating customers are bogu shops with their own existing craftsmen. Many of these craftsmen were skeptical at first thinking that good bogu cannot be made at this kind of price, but many were surprised by the quality of the final product. Creating a cheap yet good kote is a very difficult thing.
You really don’t cut corners in terms of quality.
Kimura Takahiko: There are people who quit kendo because of reasons such as “it hurts to get hit” or “bogu breaks easily”. I hope that by providing bogu with good protection at a good value, I can increase the number of people doing kendo even by a little. That was the reason I started this business in the first place.
I’m impressed at how Tozando is able to preserve quality while selling it at such a low price. There are many companies that are solely focused on selling cheap bogu.
Kimura Takahiko: Our company is able to provide bogu at low prices because we have confidence in what we do. If a company does not have confidence, they will always be worrying about customer dissatisfaction. As a result, they will set the price of their products slightly higher to compensate for returned products. We will not create a product that our customers will be dissatisfied in, in fact, we’ve had no complaints so far. We are confident, and that is why we sell at such a cheap price.
This also applies to our line of gi and hakama, we only sell what we have confidence in. We are in an exclusive contract with a factory in China that uses real aizome dyes. They do a fantastic job and not a single drop of artificial colouring is used. As such, this factory is respected even by Japanese budogu makers. The only downfall is that they are on the expensive side, but even if that is the case, I want to make sure that our products are of good quality. When I made a contract with them, I had told them that if the quality of the goods were to fall short, I will immediately terminate the contract. We have been been with the same contractor for six years and created good relations. Even if we earn little profit, I want to sell only good quality products. I feel like that is the secret to our business’ success.
Gaining the customer’s trust is indeed the secret to a long and successful business. I also noticed that Tozando created its own online shop.
Kimura Takahiko: It’s the same even for our shinai, we don’t make our shinai at an Indonesian factory called “Hirotatsu” as most other bogu shops do. While a profit can be made through cheap shinai that breaks easily, the company will in return lose their customer’s trust. The trust our customers place in us is extremely important and we would like to cherish that trust by providing items of the best quality.
The companies, contractors, and customers who all value quality can all benefit from this three-way partnership! To conclude, please tell us your vision of Tozando in the future.
Kimura Takahiko: I want our company to be loved by our customers for a long time to come. When I hear kenshi say, “Both my grandfather and father bought bogu from Tozando, so I am going to do the same”, it makes me very happy. As of now, resources that can help consumers differentiate between good and low quality kendogu are few and far in between. We here at Tozando want to show the world what good quality means, and as a result, I hope that in the future companies that hold themselves to a higher standard will remain in the market. I see this as paying our respects to the kendo world.
Thoughts from BUSHIZO
As of now, Tozando is the leading bogu company in Japan in terms of sales. The secret to the company’s success lies in the commitment of its founding CEO, Mr. Kimura. The way his leadership brought about Tozando’s growth reminded me of the story of Mr. Suzuki Toshinomi, founder of Seven & i Holdings Co., Ltd. Even as the head of his company, Mr. Suzuki would demand quality even from a single rice ball and would give instructions himself to individual stores. Selling products of quality at a low price is in fact a very difficult accomplishment. As a shop with a variety of brands and goods, BUSHIZO is prepared to uphold our quality in the products we select. We are proud to introduce bogu from our partner Tozando!