Taito-Ku, Tokyo is an area where craftsmen of all kinds of Japanese crafts gather. There is the modern and sophisticated storefront of Maehara Kouei Shoten, which also serves as a workshop and store for Tokyo Umbrella. We interviewed Mr. Shinji Maehara, the third-generation owner of Maehara Kouei Shoten. Mr. Maehara, who is the president of the company and a father of four children, spends his time outside of work on housework. He says, “Housework is fun because it’s like a game to get it done in time between jobs!”. We asked Mr. Maehara about his past and future plans.
―Did you think about becoming a craftsman when you were a child?
I never thought about becoming a craftsman. If you ask me if I was interested in making things, I honestly wasn’t. I only remember that arts and crafts was my favorite class in elementary school. I am sorry I did not meet your expectations. (laughs) Even as a child, I didn’t consciously think about getting this job. When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a professional baseball player. When I was in junior high and high school, I didn’t particularly want to be anything.
―What path did you take in junior high school and high school?
When I graduated from junior high school, other kids around me went straight to high school, but there was nothing in particular that I wanted to do or study. I wondered why I had to go to high school if I had no purpose. When I thought about what I wanted to do, I suddenly decided to go to America. The only motivation I had was that it would be “just cool”. But since it was only a junior high school student’s idea, I had no power to persuade my parents, and I ended up going to the same high school as the others. However, in the corner of my mind, I still had the passion to go to the US. I had decided to save up money to go to the U.S. while I was still in high school, so I convinced my parents to let me study abroad after I graduated from high school.
―Where did you go?
I went to Los Angeles for five years, where I stayed with a host family for about a year. Then I rented a room, lived there while working part-time, and went to a local university through an English language curriculum called ESL.
―Why did you choose the U.S.?
Actually, when I graduated from high school, I wanted to go to a university in England, not in the U.S. The reason why I wanted to go to the U.S. was really simple that I saw the movie “Back to the Future” and thought it was cool (laughs). I couldn’t get the image of that high school out of my head, so I wanted to go there. But then I entered a Japanese high school, and while taking English classes, I learned that the roots of English are in England. From there I decided that I wanted to learn English in the real place anyway.
―What did you decide to do after graduating from college in the U.S.?
I had thought about working abroad after graduation, but my father’s health got worse at that time and I decided to return to Japan. I had not found what I wanted to do at that time, and I had no intention of taking over the family umbrella business. However, I remembered that I wrote in my junior high school graduation essay that I wanted to take over the umbrella business, and I wondered if I was setting my parents’ expectations high.
―So you took over the family business upon your return to Japan?
Yes, my father passed away shortly after I returned to Japan, and I took over the business. I am the second of two siblings. My brother is working with me now. He was originally a science major working in engineering, but he quit that job to take over the family business with me.
―You spent five years in the United States and you took over the family business when you were 23 years old?
I thought that if I started doing this, I had no choice but to make this path the right one. In fact, I think that doing what you love is the ideal form of work. However, I also thought it would be cool to master a path by continuing to do something that I neither like nor dislike but devote my life to. I think I would have thought that even if it wasn’t an umbrella or not.
―How was it working with the craftsmen at that time?
It was my first year in the workforce and suddenly I was taking over the family business. I can say I was saved by the warmth of everyone around me. Working with craftspeople changed my image of craftspeople from what I thought they were and what they actually are. Craftspeople are human beings, and they have an image of being stubborn or rigid, but in reality, they are not like that, and they are all kind-hearted people.
―What do you keep in your mind as you run your company?
There are many things. I learn a lot from the words of others and books. I am always aware of phrases such as “Think while you run” and “When you ask for something, ask the busiest person for help”. There was a time when I was doing self-education by looking at the words of Steve Jobs or Muhammad Ali. I would repeatedly put those words into practice when I happened to come across a word that fit in with a work situation.
―I heard that you are focusing on succession planning, but what exactly are you doing?
We are trying to make it a logical structure by interviewing young people. The umbrella market is on a downward trend, and we are facing the barrier of a shortage of craftsmen. A live-in, pocket money system is also not feasible in this day. I felt that we had to create a different system than what we had in the past. We are creating a system that allows young people to take over the work of craftsmen who are over 80 years old.
―That’s really great and effective approach! What are your future plans?
I would like to be conscious of our corporate vision of “Enriching people’s lives with umbrellas”. When I began to think about the organization of a company, I realized that a company is an aggregate of people who are strangers to each other, who come together through some kind of fate, and spend a lot of time there. We place the utmost importance on how we can make that environment more conducive to work. Although there are only a few employees, I feel that improving the company environment is a contribution to society. I would like to contribute to society from the inside by creating a cycle in which they interact with customers through umbrellas, and feel happy when they are told that they are glad they were served by you and that they were able to purchase an umbrella.
After the interview
I was very impressed by Mr. Maehara’s awareness that improving the company’s internal environment is a social contribution. I was also impressed by the cycle of creating an environment where the members of the company are satisfied with their life, and then deriving that satisfaction to the outside world, so that the customers can feel the satisfaction and be pleased. Umbrellas produced under the philosophy of “Enriching people’s lives with umbrellas” are available for purchase from the Suigenkyo online store. Please take a look!
You can watch the making process on YouTube!