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'Birthplace of flip-flops': West Japan city set to mark footprints in world market

The entries for the beach sandal design contest are shown in this photo provided by the city of Kobe.
A pair of "flip-flops" designed by CBA is shown in this photo provided by the city of Kobe.

KOBE -- Where were the first "flip-flops" in the world manufactured? The government of this western Japan city claims its Nagata Ward was the "birthplace of beach sandals," and with this title, is set to reclaim the identity of this industrious area originally known for its chemical shoes industry, still staggering through the aftermath of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995.

    The rubber thongs, now popular worldwide, are said to have been invented at a rubber factory in this ward during the 1950s. They were inspired by the traditional Japanese zori sandals made of straw. In the 60s, business flourished and about 100 million pairs were exported. But with the decline of beachgoers domestically and production shifting abroad, the industry lost its momentum. The earthquake was the last blow, hitting the factories in this ward and domestic production was terminated.

    The local government has teamed up with the only flip-flop manufacturer left in the nation, TSUKUMO Co. Ltd. based in Tokyo's Taito Ward. Representative Hiroyuki Nakajima, 48, has revived domestic production since the decline, producing from factories in various locations including Nagata Ward.

    Nakajima originally had dreamed of manufacturing high-quality sandals branded as "Made in Japan" while working for a company selling imports from countries such as the Philippines. In 2004 he was first introduced by a wholesale dealer to a factory in Inami, a town adjacent to Kobe, that used to manufacture flip-flops until the earthquake. He also received help from a synthetic shoe factory in Nagata, and eventually he was ready to go independent in 2013.

    He set up a manufacturing system with divided labor for producing each part such as metal molds, rubber soles, and thongs. The sandals were designed to fit well by sloping the sole downwards toward the toes, the thongs to be tighter around the big toe, and with other refinements. TSUKUMO now assembles about 100,000 pairs annually and ships them to the United States and Hong Kong.

    Hiroyuki Nakajima, right, is seen after he signed an agreement with the Nagata Ward Office, in this photo taken in Kobe on March 12, 2021. (Photo courtesy of the city of Kobe)

    In March this year, the ward and the flip-flop maker signed an agreement to jointly publicize the origin of these rubber sandals. They organized a design contest among those with disabilities residing in this ward, and of the 94 entries, three were selected to hit the market this summer.

    The agreement saw a collaboration with the artist CBA (pronounced shee-ba), who is based in the ward and highly esteemed overseas. He designed a Nagata original pair of sandals that was sold through crowdfunding. Events are also being planned for Aug. 3 to commemorate what TSUKUMO hails as "beach sandals day." (Why this date? In Japanese the footwear is called "bea-san," and the alphabet B looks like an 8 and "san" means 3.)

    Nakajima pledged, "With the support of the high manufacturing skills accumulated in this area, we want to provide the world with 'bea-san' we all can enjoy wearing even after the pandemic."

    (Japanese original by Shinya Yamamoto, Kobe Bureau)

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