Union Royal is one of the more well-known Japanese manufacturers of quality shoes, who makes shoes in many different price ranges and with various construction methods such as Gooydear welted, hand welted and a kind of blend of Bologna and Goodyear. Shoegazing visited their factory outside Tokyo.
It is a large, grey relatively anonymous building in Chiba east of Tokyo, where Union Royal is inhabited. Three floors, with warehouse and logistics on the ground floor, middle-floor for manufacturing, and office and material storage at the top. Union is one of the oldest factory manufacturers of classic quality shoes that are still active in Japan. The company was founded 66 years ago, in 1952. Here I meet Product Manager Satoshi Oda, an open and attentive person who shows me around the well-oiled factory, and talks openly about both what works well and what challenges they have and have had.
“It’s an interesting time right now. Interesting but demanding,” says Satoshi Oda.
We start at the top with product development, where designers and a small team develop sketches and samples on new models for all the brands they manufacture in the factory. Here are some closing made, some for production but mostly for different samples. Otherwise, stitching of the uppers are made for the more premium ranges of a factory in northern Japan, for the cheaper ones in Vietnam.
To place manufacturing, in whole or in part, in other parts of Asia where labor is cheaper than in Japan is common among shoemakers and other Japanese industries. Union Royal had a factory in China for many years, just outside of Shanghai, but never got the quality level they wanted, so they sold it and instead invested in a factory in Vietnam. Here they as mentioned do closing, which is the assembly of the shoes upper, here they sew stitches for the hand welted ranges which are then finished in the Japanese factory, as well as making the entire shoes for some cheaper ranges.
“It has been a challenge to reach the quality level we are looking for in Vietnam too, but it is going in the right direction and has become quite good now, we do not have to remove as many shoes in quality control as during the first year,” Satoshi Oda says.
In connection with the offices are the material storage, where all the different parts of the shoes are in boxes stacked on the shelves, and a larger part and room are set for hides. The clicker here (as is often the case) is one of the most experienced employees, an older man 60+ who who cut the upper by hand, accompanying the laser cutter in the other room.
“If European manufacturers have a challenge in terms of leather purchases, then there’s nothing compared to how it is for us. We have a domestic leather production, part of it is okay, but not rarely, Japanese raw skins are not perfect for use in shoes. For our finer ranges, we therefore only use European leather, which is a struggle to get good versions of.
I ask Satoshi if it won’t be positive now with the EU-Japan free trade agreement, which is expected to come into force next year (read more about this here).
“To be honest: no. Certainly, European leather will be cheaper to buy, but we already have tough competition from European manufacturers in the shoe market here, and when they eventually get cheaper, it will not be easy for us. And I think Europe is a tougher market to get into for us Japanese, although I’m glad that many now started trying seriously,” he says.
Down on the floor where production is made it is full activity. Making for different brands at different levels of quality makes it quite varied on the factory floor, both with types of shoes and types of processes that are made. They still seems to have achieved the good efficiency, after working like this for decades.
Here you will find the beautiful hand welted Union Imperial shoes (about €350 / 45,000 yen), Soffice & Solid (about €430 / 55,000 yen) made entirely in Japan with an interesting method that combines the Bologna method which is a kind of mockasin construction and Goodyear welting, a slightly simpler Union range (approximately €289 / 36,000 yen), which is Goodyear welted and is sold at the department stores Isetan and Hankyu, and blake stitched mockasins under the name Marelli. Besides their own brands, they make a lot of Private Label manufacturing. However, compared with the major factories in Europe, this is still a small business. About 30 employees work in the factory, and the output is usually around 1,200 pairs a month (the major factories in Northampton make about 3,000-4,000 pairs – a week), even though they are up towaords 1,600 pairs when its peak in production.
Since 2000, Union Royal is part of a major conglomerate in Japan, similar to Church’s who is owned by Prada, RM Williams and Berluti of LVMH, and John Lobb of Hermés. Union Royal is part of Secaicho, which has many own shoe brands in their stable and are agents for many European brands. Secaicho, in turn, belongs to the Japanese Okamoto Group, which is primarily one of the world’s largest manufacturers of condoms, but has grown since many decades in several other business areas. In any event, the ownership has given Union Royal stability.
The brands manufactured by Union Royal are mainly sold at various retailers in Japan, although they now have their own online store, and also sell some via Amazon.
When the factory tour is complete, the lasting impression is that this is, like many other Japanese factories that make quality shoes, a well-oiled and modern facility, which do lives in a pretty tough reality. Japanese quality shoes are relatively low priced at home, which means tight margins, not least for manufacturers like Union relying on retailers. The free trade agreement with the EU, which I and many others in Europe applaud, can make it even harder, as Western products have high status here. So far, things are working, and it’s just to keep fingers crossed it will continue so.
“We have a great knowledge and skill in the industry in Japan, not just among bespoke shoemakers but also in the factories. I’m proud to be part of it, “says Satoshi Oda.