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Century-old furniture company committed to quality and sustainability

Interview - December 11, 2023

Founded back in 1920 in Okawa, Japan, ETO sells stylish, expertly-made wooden furniture – pieces that are crafted with an identifiably Japanese aesthetic and are adored by both domestic and international customers.

AYA YAMASAKI, PRESIDENT, ETO CO., LTD.
AYA YAMASAKI | PRESIDENT, ETO CO., LTD.

Japanese design is known throughout the world for its minimalist aesthetic. Designers such as Tadao Ando have adopted a minimalist approach that emphasises clean lines and basic functionality for Japanese people living in small spaces, creating world-renowned designs in the field of architecture. Your company has launched minimalist furniture such as TAMPARE and IKI - what is your opinion of the Japanese aesthetic? How have your products been received abroad since you became president?

I believe that Japanese furniture started from a fusion with nature, just as Tadao Ando's architecture does. Since ancient times, functional wooden furniture has been made in response to the climate of Japan, with its four changing seasons, to enrich people's lives. Later, Western influences, more furniture for young people living in small one-room spaces, and a fusion of various cultures gave birth to the minimalist aesthetic of today. Furniture produced through this fusion of Japanese history and new culture may actually contain Japanese elements, although we are not really conscious of it being Japanese.

However, when we actually do business overseas, we feel that not only furniture but also made-in-Japan products are welcomed in South East Asia, but are only recognised by a very small number of people in the USA and Europe. My experience is that only a very small percentage of people in those countries like and care about Japanese aesthetics when it comes to architecture, food, etc. When you go to the USA, there are not many authentic Japanese restaurants. Of course, there are many sushi restaurants in the cities, but they are not real Japanese food and most of them are Americanised. Even if you go to the supermarkets there, you don't often encounter Japanese ingredients and foods, only pretentious sushi and soy sauce.

The same can usually be said for furniture. Furniture with a Japanese aesthetic does not have a chance to be sold abroad because it is cheaper to manufacture in other Asian countries. However, we have been able to find good partners who understand the Japanese aesthetic and we are able to export.

The first opportunity came when a well-known American company found and bought our IKI series made of cypress wood. They liked our products and the aesthetics we value so much that they approached us. They are a well-known American company that has been featured in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and they also have our furniture in their directly-owned shop in New York. They are very good at introducing American consumers to products and aesthetics from Japan and many other countries. They specialise in sourcing unique products from different countries, and they chose us to represent Japanese furniture.

Furniture with this kind of attention to detail is very expensive and therefore difficult to sell in Japan, but the quality is very good. On the other hand, in the USA, it has become a best-selling product and many people have purchased it!

 

Can you tell us more about this story? Why did this US company choose your furniture to represent Japan in their shops?

At the time, they were building a Japanese collection and were looking for furniture that represented the Japanese aesthetic particularly well. They called us and told us that they had chosen us based on furniture they had previously imported. We spoke to them over the phone and they eventually made the decision to come and see us. We have a mountain from which we source our timber, and they wanted to see it for themselves. So we gave them a look at the mountain, the mill, the trees and the team that makes our products. They were immediately hooked, not only by the products we were producing, but also by the whole business.

 

Hinoki is a large evergreen tree and has long been used in Japan for temples and shrines. Why do you use cypress for the base of your furniture?

We have always manufactured a lot of children's furniture and have always considered it important to make furniture that is safe and secure for children to use. While making furniture using various types of wood, we thought that cypress wood might be suitable for children's furniture because of its antibacterial properties and relaxing effect, so we started developing children's furniture using cypress wood. At first, we manufactured bunk beds for children, but when we came in contact with the beautiful grain and colour of furniture made from cypress and the smell that made us want to take a deep breath, we wanted to make more cypress furniture, so we increased the number of items we manufactured. Around that time, the Japanese government also announced a policy to use domestic timber for manufacturing, which made us wonder if there was anything we could do to help the forest environment in Japan.

 

What advantages and characteristics does cypress timber have compared to other timbers?

Hinoki wood has been used as a building material for temples and shrines since ancient times. It has outstanding durability and is said to become stronger 200 years after logging and only gradually weaken after 1,000 years. It has a beautiful white colour with a faint reddish tinge, smooth to the touch and has a unique lustre and fragrance. It has a fine texture, a strong core and can withstand humid environments. It is hygroscopic and constantly shrinks and expands as the amount of moisture it absorbs increases or decreases with changes in air humidity. As a result, most timber warps, inverts and splits. Hinoki, on the other hand, is soft and has a fine grain, making it less prone to warping, and it is widely used as a base material for lacquering, house shrines, Buddhist statues, small sculptures and chopping boards.

Unfortunately, however, the existence of hinoki is not well known outside Japan. It may have some recognition in Korea, but it is probably not even recognised in the West. In South Korea, it was recognised because of a TV programme featuring the cypress tree being very good for children.

Hinoki varies considerably depending on its country of origin, and in Japan it has been established as a famous tree with long-lasting characteristics and can be used for up to 1,000 years.



Hinoki is actually a very difficult wood to handle as it is soft and knotty. We are good at handling cypress because we started out in the timber industry and have experience in running a factory that manufactures cypress furniture. When we make natural furniture, we make use of the knots in the cypress, and when we make furniture with a modern, sophisticated design, we carefully select materials with no knots and beautiful grain. We are able to bring out more of the beauty of the hinoki tree, which is why we are able to create furniture with a natural, natural look and feel.

 

A recent trend is the idea of multifunctional furniture, which not only increases user convenience but is also considered part of everyday life, for example by incorporating power sockets and USB ports in the bed frame. However, the trade-off is that bed frames can be bulky and less aesthetically pleasing than those without modern features. As a furniture manufacturer, how do you strike a balance between functionality and aesthetics?

Right now, our company has a 30% share of the bunk beds and system beds sold in online shops in Japan. It doesn't mean that we only pursue Japanese aesthetics and don't do functional furniture. We are both importing and building in Japan because many people are now looking for functional furniture. Our company manufactures a wide range of furniture in factories in different countries, including Japan. We are therefore able to make products that are both functional and design-oriented, or a combination of both, respectively.

Of course, we are always looking to enhance the design of functional products and the functionality of well-designed products. For example, we have developed a bunk bed called KOTOKA, which won a design award, with a three-way design so that it can be used in three different ways as the child grows. We place great importance on manufacturing furniture that is easy to use, well designed and can be used with care for a long time by our customers.

As mentioned earlier, Japanese people live in small houses and need space for their children. Children's rooms in Japan are small, so system beds like the KOTOKA bed are very popular because they combine the necessary functionality with a beautiful appearance.

 

The KOTOKA series of bunk beds for children is the first cypress furniture series. What we found interesting was the 3-way KOTOKA product, which can be converted into a king-size bed, a bunk bed and a single bed. Why should customers invest in KOTOKA beds and how do you plan to grow the brand further in the future?

In Japan, children share a bed with their parents when they are young. Basically, children do not have their own room until they are older. It is against this background that we created the 3-way bed. KOTOKA as a brand has evolved over the years. We originally introduced it as a bunk bed and then introduced the three-way. Today, we receive a lot of positive feedback from our customers in Japan and abroad, and we often receive suggestions regarding new features and ideas to add to the next generation of KOTOKA beds.

Children sharing a bed with their parents is not a new concept in Japan. Many have asked us to make the beds bigger so that they can be used by both parents and children.The evolution of the KOTOKA brand is a natural progression and we are simply following the path set by our customers. We feel that our customers are guiding us in the right direction to further expand the brand.

We also export to Taiwan, and our beds are the number one bestseller in Japan. We have also won a Good Design Award with this brand. However, outside of Japan, it is difficult because, as you know, sizes vary from country to country. We also need to take into account that not many people in other countries understand Hinoki. So we are lucky that our American partners have written beautiful stories about the cypress and explained the inherent value of our wood to the local people. That is why we are able to sell so many cypress products. As such, it is essential to have a good local partner who understands our story and shares it with the local people in order to expand our business to other regions. Even if a matter is known to everyone in Japan as Japanese culture, it does not necessarily translate overseas, so we need support to sell it abroad.

 

One of the challenges you mentioned is that different countries have different sizes. Another challenge when buying furniture is that different countries have different climates. For example, Taiwan tends to be hot and humid, while the east coast of the USA is dry in summer but cold and chilly in winter. How do you adapt your products for these different climates?

Climatic influences are a very difficult problem. It is one of the reasons why many companies find it difficult to manufacture cypress furniture. Eto began as a sawmill company, so we have the knowledge to avoid the effects of climate, so we have been able to overcome the problems that arise when dealing with different countries. Speaking of within Japan, not only do we not produce much during the rainy season from May to July, as Japan is a very humid country, but we also try not to keep extra stocks of timber in our warehouses during that time. Nothing is stored in the warehouses because the products are shipped as soon as they are sold. To be honest, we have never had any problems with the climate.

In Taiwan, preferences are different and clear-coloured water-based paints are used to look natural. Of course, Taiwan is more humid than Japan, so we get requests to paint the cypresses with water-based paints to prevent them from rotting and warping.

The company Eto has an advantage that it has gained from its experience. It has very knowledgeable personnel in charge of logging and warehousing. We are able to adjust and fit the furniture to the needs of our international customers. Our ideal is to let the quality of our products shine through to an international audience who are interested in the products we offer. Knowledge and expertise are passed down from generation to generation of workers and we have collective know-how as a great strength.

 

You use locally sourced natural resources, but Japan is very mountainous by global standards and does not have vast forests. How do you ensure the sustainability of cypress trees?

We think it is very important to protect our forests. In fact, our company also has mountains in other prefectures, where we regularly plant trees. Mountains are not finished when trees are planted; they need to be cared for through regular thinning. We work with the forestry cooperatives in the regions where our mountains are located to protect the mountain and forest environment and to ensure sustainable production.

Our partner company in the USA, with whom we are now doing business, was also very strict about the supply of timber, so we went with them to the mountains in our possession and they saw what we were doing. They understood that we were working with the forest cooperative to preserve the beauty of nature and that everything was legally sourced.

About 20 years ago, there was a great recession in Japan and as a result most of the local sawmill companies disappeared. At that time we had to decide what to do. Since then, our business has shifted from sawmilling to importing timber, and then to importing and exporting furniture. It is because we have constantly changed our business style in this way that we have survived and prospered for more than 100 years. Okawa, our base town in Fukuoka Prefecture, has traditionally been known as a furniture town, and we place great importance on promoting the skills and attractions of this furniture town to the world.

 

You also offer an OEM service where you produce original furniture such as children's beds and distribute them to wholesalers, manufacturers and online shops. Can you give us specific examples of products you have made for customers using your OEM service?

We have wholesaled to a famous hospital in Tokyo where dignitaries visit, a foreign hotel and a high-end mattress manufacturer. It is difficult to list them all as there are so many, but these are just a few examples of the companies we work with. We feel that our experience in manufacturing high quality furniture in such a variety of fields is extremely valuable and is still very useful today in furniture production and quality control.

 

What is your favourite piece of furniture that your company handles and why?

My favourite piece of furniture is the IKI series, which utilises local cypress wood. I have always dreamt of having the opportunity to export my furniture to the USA, and that dream has come true. The products we exported are not strictly IKI series, as our customers have their own designers; they started with the IKI series as a base and now they are using IKI as inspiration, using cypress wood and skilled craftsmanship to create a design that they like. Basically, their furniture comes from our cypress wood and IKI product range, but with a unique difference: it is made for the US market. We are very happy with this collaboration and it will continue to grow. Of course, we would love to visit the company-owned shop in New York, but due to the new coronavirus, this has not yet happened.

Recently, our OEM business has been doing well and we are getting more and more requests. We have received OEM requests from companies in many different countries, and we feel that our name is spreading around the world.

Most recently, in March 2023, we participated in an international furniture exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City. Thankfully, we received a great response from many different countries and we can't imagine where the need for our furniture is spreading. Many countries we have never been to or done business with before, and the requests we receive are very different, so we are very busy, but we see this as a great opportunity for us.

 

Since 2010, your company has established a presence in Hong Kong, as well as in China, Vietnam and Malaysia. Products are now exported worldwide. Are there any countries or regions where you are interested in expanding your physical operations, such as locations or retail outlets?

As you mentioned, we have a presence in Malaysia, China and Vietnam, and in those countries there are many different languages, including English. A lot of people now speak English and are familiar with global management. More or less, we now see the world as a fine soil ready to sow the seeds of expansion. I cannot name specific regions, but we are willing to seize business opportunities when the chance arises.

But again, we cannot do this on our own. We specialise in selling to the Japanese, so in order to enter foreign markets we need partners who can sell our products and services locally. The global pandemic of the new coronavirus was so bad that it was unpredictable except for a few people, but life doesn't wait and neither do we. It is true that our normal sales activities have been slowed down by the pandemic and we have not been able to travel within the country, let alone visit outside of it for two years. However, through this situation we changed our way of selling and actively tried new things. Considering the situation, we did really well during the pandemic. Things like the new coronavirus had a huge impact on a lot of companies, but we thought it was important to adapt to the world we live in and make the most of the situation we were in. And I feel that the results of that are bearing fruit now that the pandemic is over.

 

Imagine being interviewed again on your last day working as president, when it is time to pass the baton to the next generation. What kind of company would you like to be as the president of Eto? And if you had to leave one word for the next generation, what would it be?

This morning I was listening to Steve Jobs' famous speech at Stanford University. In it, he talked a lot about "exercising your personal spirit" and "believing in yourself". There are many pitfalls in life around us, and of course we need to avoid dwelling on the negative and the things that knock us down in life. Focus on yourself, 'you have to find what you love', I think he said. Focusing on yourself as a human being helps you balance both your personal life and your corporate life.

If you don't work hard in your personal life, you will not be successful in the company. Take care of yourself and think about what you can contribute to those around you. I always want my employees to share this vision. I always tell my employees that I want them to be themselves, believe in their own strengths and take on new challenges and opportunities. I, as president, bear the ultimate responsibility, but employees also need to come up with new ideas to move the company forward.

Japan is an old-fashioned country, and unfortunately, men often make up the majority of the workforce at important meetings. I think we need to be more energetic and make sure that the people representing our company are gender-neutral. Our company has a large number of female employees - more than 50% of our staff are women. This is very rare in the rural area where our company is located. The number of women in management positions is also increasing. We are looking for people who are proactive and who like Eto and the values we hold dear. Stuck-in, male-dominated workplaces have to come to an end. It is essential to create more open workplaces where people can freely share ideas and their personal lives. The most important thing is quality of life. I believe that a balance between work and private life is the foundation of a company in the long term.

Life is Short. One of my mottos, I think it is short but very profound.


Interview conducted by Karune Walker & Paul Mannion

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