One of the oldest still remaining manufacturers of welted shoes in Japan is Central Shoes. Founded in 1949, and still located in the same building in the middle of Asakusa, the shoemaking district of Tokyo. Shoegazing got a tour around the premises.
Asakusa is one of my favourite places in the world. For shoe interested people it’s a great experience to wander around the city district, where you through the open windows hear soles being hammered and wagon of shoes being rolled across the tiled factory floors. This is the center for shoemaking in Japan, and all types of footwear are made here today, in often small factories or workshops. During the early 1900’s, this was Tokyo’s entertainment center, but the area was bombed hard by the Americans during World War II, and after that Shinjuku took over that role for the city and Asakusa instead developed in a completely different direction, where one leg has been as a center for crafts in general and footwear in particular.
Walking around here you pass wholesalers who sell materials for footwear, many office buildings hold stalls where freelance closers and other specialists are working, and in the south near the popular tourist destination Senso-ji temple it’s packed with shoe shops of all kinds. In this way the area reminds more of for example the Italian shoe district Marche, rather than ones like Northampton in England or Almansa in Spain, where there are more large-scale factories. Just as in Marche it’s also a great variety of shoe styles that are made here, from cheap slippers to classic bespoke shoes of highest class are manufactured in the houses here.
Central Shoes is reminiscent of Marche factories in another way as well, the quite cramped space with a bit of a mess for an outsider, but where the workers here find their way among all tools and materials perfectly fine. The factory is located on several small floors and separate buildings, not the most practical layout, but has become this way when the factory has developed through the years, since it was founded 71 years ago. Today it’s run by Yoshiaki Nakazawa, an old man who’ve been working here since he was 18 years old.
– Let’s just say that I find my way around here pretty well by now, Yoshiaki says with a smile.
Central Shoes makes a variety of shoes, but focus is on Goodyear welted midrange to low premium level shoes. Quite classic old fashioned style when they are under their own label, but nowadays a majority of the production is for other brands like Sanyo Yamacho, Trading Post and Tomorrowland private label. They used to make hand welted shoes as well, but at the moment there’s only machine made production.
– The quality of the production went down about 50 years ago, we made more finer shoes back then. We are working to reach that level again, Yoshiaki Nakazawa says.
He brings forward an old dusty sample that looks really neat, as an example of what he want to do more of, and also says that he dreams of having a bespoke department one day, similar to what for example Otsuka Shoes has.
When I walk around the various stations of manufacturing in the factory it hits me how young most of the staff is. Usually it’s the other way around in shoe factories, both here in Japan and in England, Spain, Italy and so on, the majority of staff are older persons who’ve worked for decades, and it’s a challenge to get in a younger generation. Central Shoes have already managed this change, and have trained a new young range of staff that makes them future proof.
Today they are around 18 persons working in the factory, and they produce a bit over 150 pairs per week. Their own range is priced at about €500, which really is quite good for the quality, the price for the other brands they make here varies depending on specs etc.
– I hope we can start making more of our own shoes going forward, and would also be very interesting introducing them in Europe in the future, now when the EU / Japan free trade agreement is in place. We’ll see where things go, says Yoshiaki Nakazawa.