Story of our Founder
When you fall, you’d better get up:
Kihachiro story ‘Resume of Failures’
Kihachiro Onitsuka slogged through the salaryman life for just three years after the war. This is because he became fed up with company managers acting out of their own self-interest.
And then one day, he heard the words ‘If you are going to pray, you should pray for a sound body and sound mind.’ He found that sports was the best way to develop a sound body and mind. In those days, in the turmoil following the war, clearly sports would help Japan’s youth to quickly recover. He found his life’s work would be to help spread this belief.
Onitsuka then thought of becoming a shoemaker. Why a shoemaker? Because shoes are necessary for all types of sports. At the time, canvas slippers or tabi socks were used for most sports. Young people needed shoes that would allow them to exert their full strength and break records. His eyes were opened to a sense of mission. But these were just random thoughts. Onitsuka was a complete novice and had no knowledge of what kinds of shoes would be best suited for sports.
The first thing he made was a basketball shoe, a request from a high school coach. His heart leapt at the challenge of new work. He huddled down in his workplace, learning by watching and imitating, and after working late into the night for many days in a row, he came up with a model of sorts. But when Onitsuka presented the shoe to the coach, they slapped the floor like straw sandals. While chasing after balls at the gym, he observed the players’ feet. He asked the opinions and desires of all the players and made improvement after improvement. But he could not do anything about the poor grip of the shoe.
Then one summer day, Onitsuka’s mother made a pickled cucumber dish for dinner. It was then that he noticed how the octopus tentacles stuck to the dish, suctioned. He wondered about applying that principle to the soles of shoes. That was the beginning of the basketball shoe with suction cups. But the grip on the first shoe was too strong, causing many players to fall down. He then left the suction depressions but modified the shoe for quick push-offs and sudden stops, and the Tiger basketball shoe was completed. The high school basketball team that wore that shoe went on to win the championship not long thereafter.
A shoe with quality that could be trusted was born. But it was not known at all. There were no sales channels. Onitsuka began to peddle them himself, going around to all the regions. He did not stay at inns, instead sleeping on train station benches. He did not eat anything decent.
Onitsuka soon contracted tuberculosis and was ordered into the hospital immediately. There were no medicines for tuberculosis in those days, but somehow a new medicine was introduced just then and his health was restored. Once his condition improved, he began to look forward once again. He started to expand the types of competition shoes he produced. But then, a year later, he was diagnosed with microbacterium tuberculosis. The diagnosis was equivalent to a death sentence this time. The company office was an 88-square foot night watchman’s room, and Onitsuka laid out a futon and began his fight against the disease. The microbacterium tuberculosis spread to his throat, damaging his vocal chords, and he lost his voice. Onitsuka kept working. Every morning, he called the company employees to his bedside and wrote his directions down on paper. He felt like death was near. And then a new medicine became available. His fever subsided and his voice began to return. He was in fact blessed to be saved twice by a new medicine becoming available. It was then that he once again decided to give his all to making sports shoes.
Next, he devoted himself to making marathon shoes. Runners naturally get blisters. In those days, runners were recognized as top runners once conquer blisters. But Onitsuka felt that if there were a shoe that would not leave blisters, more records would be broken. A runner at the time told him, “If you show me such a shoe, I’ll show you someone running a marathon on his hands.”
He began to devour literature on marathons. He searched all over for European and American research reports and Japanese patents. But this was before any scientific research was performed, and he could not find the answers he sought anywhere.
Then one night, Onitsuka looked at his feet in the bath for no particular reason and it came to him. How much a shoemaker thinks about the human body does not matter. Physicians know the physical body better than anyone, he realized, and he ran to meet with a professor at the university medical department. The professor explained that blisters forming are the same phenomenon as being burned. He learned a specific countermeasure––cool shock heat and somehow alleviate the inflammation on the sole. The hint turned up in an unexpected place. Onitsuka was riding in a taxi when the engine overheated and stopped working. The driver had forgotten to pour water into the radiator. Onitsuka then thought that cooling the feet with water would work.
He immediately applied this idea in making new shoes. But the results were disappointing. Adding water to the sole of the shoe weighed it down and made the shoe soggy. He switched from a water cooling method to an air cooling method. He used coarse fabric for the shoe upper and added holes on the front and sides for better ventilation. Warm air would be expelled from the shoe upon impact, while cool air would flow in when the foot lifted from the ground. He had made a new shoe structure that allowed air to move in and out.
He asked the runner who said he would show him a runner running a marathon on his hands to try the new shoe out. The runner’s feet were almost normal even after running 30 kilometers. Even after running a marathon distance of 42.195 kilometers, the soles of his feet were merely slightly red. He had no blisters. That runner stared at his feet for a long time, disbelieving.
When he started something, Onitsuka could not be satisfied unless he threw himself completely into it. His favorite saying was that if you start with something difficult, anything thereafter would be possible. He’d rather be cheated than cheat someone else. Others started to call him honest to a fault. He became humorless. He would eat anything, sleep anywhere, and not be concerned. He began to live a perfectly honest life. He kept running for 89 years. It was an uncomfortable life. He was a stubborn shoemaker father until the end. He believed that if you make those around you happy first, you yourself will be happy. He considered the company bound by a common familial destiny. That father suddenly departed from this world on September 29, 2007.
Every spring, Kihachiro Onitsuka stood before the new employees and, in a loud voice, read the Five Rules of Sportsman Spirit passed down from ancient to modern times.
(Rule 1) A sportsman obeys the rules and does not treat his colleagues with distrust.
(Rule 2) A sportsman respects courtesy and commits to the spirit of fair play and does not spite any opponent, does not falter, is not haughty, hates unfairness, and always competes fair and square.
(Rule 3) A sportsman always tries his best and fights until the end.
(Rule 4) A sportsman, when a member of a team, shows a sacrificial spirit, and must compete until his team achieves the highest victory. He thus becomes a good, trustworthy friend.
(Rule 5) A sportsman must always consider health, continue to experience lessons, expand the limits of human capabilities, and cultivate the habit of trying his best at all times.
Kihachiro Onitsuka believed, in the turmoil following the Second World War, that sports must be involved in all areas––lifestyles, society, and business––in the future. These days, as people’s values and standards of behavior change and it becomes increasingly difficult for people to live their lives with calmness, the sportsman as defined above would certainly become a guidepost for everyone alive today. As such, I would like to add one more Rule.
(Rule 6) A sportsman should get up if he falls. He must keep trying until he succeeds.
I would like all of you to read these and find a place for them in your own lives.