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Midori Anzen and the tireless pursuit of product innovation

Interview - December 19, 2022

Fujio Matsumura, President of PPE manufacturer Midori Anzen, stresses that Japanese SMEs like his must "continue to work tirelessly in pursuit of product innovation", in order to compete and survive in the current market environment.


In the last 25 years, we’ve seen the rise of regional manufacturing companies from countries like Korea, China and Taiwan, who have replicated Japanese monozukuri processes but at a much cheaper labor cost, pushing Japan out of mass production markets. Despite this we still see many Japanese firms maintain leadership in niche B2B fields. Can you tell us how Japanese brands have been able to maintain their position despite steep price competition?

The strength of Japanese manufacturing comes from the culture-based Japanese spirit rooted in the belief of Zen - a sect of Buddhism often considered as a religion or disciplined way of life.

According to Zen’s teaching, there exists a universe within oneself and that each individual himself is merely a miniscule part within a greater universe. As such, we should always hold a humble attitude toward all things in life.

Zen teaching is used as a methodology to create a workplace marked by a sorted, organized, safe and clean (4S) environment – all of which are attributes contributing to waste reduction and productivity optimization.  It's a holistic design to help us build a quality work environment physically and mentally.


How would you define Midori Anzen’s monozukuri? What do you believe to be the strengths of your firm that allows you to compete and succeed in the global market?

Pursuing monozukuri is equivalent to pursuing innovation.  In the case of Midori, we have shattered the traditional belief within the safety shoe manufacturing industry that it is difficult to create a toecap capable of protecting all five toes. Through years of extensive research and trials, we have succeeded in productizing a compact toe cap that features a small lateral winglet. This new toe cap provides protection to the pinky toe without compromising the shoe’s lightweight feature. And for our work shoes, we have invented a highly practical feature – the slip resistant sole design -- which has made a huge difference in preventing accidents in the watery and greasy environment of food industry kitchens nationally.

In the same spirit, we have made a significant impact in the disposable glove-making industry as well by rolling out our own cross-linking technology and sharing it with our manufacturing partners. This ultimately results in an increased production of hypoallergenic nitrile gloves for the market, particularly in segments where there are users suffering from TYPE-IV allergy. 


Not only is Japan the oldest country in the world, but it is in a state of rapid demographic decline. This means that the domestic market is shrinking, and there is a smaller pool of talented graduates to hire to replace more seasoned workers. How is this shifting demography presenting your company with both challenges and opportunities?

Indeed, the shifting demographic changes the dynamics of human resources utilization and forces us to think smarter in how to maximize our limited pool of talents to achieve the same or greater business objectives. To cope with this challenge, we have adopted a direct-selling, no-distributor business approach in which our teams of local sales staff nationwide make frequent visits to customers to a) capture the first-hand information of customer needs directly, and then b) feed that information in a timely fashion back to our product development team for immediate assessment. This approach enables us to be more responsive to customers’ needs and smarter in optimizing our existing product R&D resources for creating product solutions to match needs. All of these processes contribute to helping us win business opportunities in every market segment. Meanwhile, we are also adopting the same approach as we expand into new markets, such as the medical and healthcare industry where opportunities abound for our uniform, scrub, shoe and glove products. Over the years, this simple and yet highly productive business approach has time and time again rewarded us with business success in spite of our limited human resources.


In recent years you have diversified into the medical market with products such as nurses' shoes and uniforms. Can you share your motivation for this diversification and your plans to grow in the medical market?

We have employed multiple female sales specialists to enable our sales team to be more sensitive to the needs of nurses and medical workers, many of whom are female in Japan. And as a result of this staff adjustment, we have been able to capture multiple business opportunities by answering to the needs of female medical workers. One example is the success achieved by our popular uniform products, some models of which feature our patented Easy-Flex tailoring design that facilitates a variety of body movements including squatting and bending. Furthermore, we have also introduced color options favored by female medical workers, rather than sticking solely to the traditional standard colors.

In addition, we are also drawing from our pool of popular industrial products and introducing them to the medical and healthcare markets. Among these are the highly welcome hypoallergenic gloves and protective glasses, both of which are much sought after products at hospitals and healthcare service providers. Our antistatic shoes have also proven to be an instant success, particularly at hospitals where electronic devices and medical equipment must be guarded from potential static interference.


Can you tell us more about how Midori Anzen is contributing to a recycling society and the importance of sustainable development?

Actually, we’ve been putting this to practice long before the SDGs came into public limelight. In the Japanese culture-based spirit, there is always a mentality of optimizing efficiency in all that we do without creating collateral wastage. Incorporating that concept, we have been conducting product recycling that encompasses our uniform and safety shoe products, primarily from a material and chemical recycling perspective. One such example is the recycling of our inner shoe soles material and reusing it as a part of the cushioning material for our new shoes. Given the large annual quantity of shoes we produce as one of Japan’s leading safety shoe manufacturers, this material recycling undertaking is one of the many corporate eco-friendly responsibilities that we have committed to fulfilling. Being proudly awarded the Japanese Eco Mark Award in 2017 certainly serves as a strong testimony to that commitment of ours.


We’ve heard a lot of different strategies from different companies in the personal protective equipment (PPE) field for expanding their businesses. We often hear about the importance of finding local cooperative partners as a way of better understanding the needs of potential clients in foreign markets. Can you tell us more about the importance of finding local partners as part of your strategy to invest in Southeast Asia?

Though we own a vast network of PPE manufacturing facilities in Southeast Asia and China, it is simply not commercially sound nor realistic for us to attempt to make all of the safety products that we sell. This is where correctly selecting and teaming up with the right and reliable manufacturers becomes critically important. As a veteran PPE maker ourselves, we have the necessary knowledge and experience to identify and select capable OEM partners, based on the merit of their core competencies, to manufacture products that we have no plan to make on our own. 

In today’s market conditions, two of the major market challenges that we face, as a manufacturing distributor, is to produce the reliable products for the right needs and to justify the product cost on the merit of consistent product quality. To that end, while we will work hard to be as competitive in pricing as we can, we have no intention to participate in any cut-throat price competition to sell products, particularly the cheaper items that lack solid quality assurance. This ties back to our company’s commitment to providing the best possible quality of products for our customers while striving to be competitive in a reasonable and realistic manner.


What are some of the links between this philosophy of constant improvement and some of your other products such as your environmental safety equipment? Can you tell us about how your background in PPE has supported your development of environmental safety machinery and equipment?

Oil is often used to cut metal at manufacturing facilities. However, an inevitable byproduct of this cutting process is toxic oil mist which can potentially be airborne and spread within the work facility. In order to help our customers better safeguard their employees, Midori responded quickly to tackle this safety need by developing and commercializing an oil mist collector.

Furthermore, Midori also has acted speedily to another customer need by developing a highly efficient cigarette fume removal system, which does a fantastic job in purifying air within smoking rooms at a variety of customer facilities nationwide. And we are proud to say that since its market launch, this product has enjoyed enormous success.


As I understand, you have a leather business that sells seat leather to automakers around the world. The automotive industry is right now living in a time of great change, with the shift to EVs and the emergence of newer, more lightweight materials. How are these changes impacting your business?

Despite many of these market changes, we believe that the need for genuine leather will continue to remain steady for a while. There are areas where synthetic leather simply cannot yet be the full replacement for genuine leather. An example of that is shoes made with genuine leather which, thanks to the inherent flexible properties from natural cowhide, tend to adapt better to the contour of our feet than its synthetic counterpart. As such, these leather shoes generally are known to deliver a higher level of comfort and durability over the long run. Furthermore, I am sure most will agree that when it comes to projecting a classy image, nothing beats genuine leather with its natural look-and-feel and smell appeal. Functionally, genuine leather is also known to perform better than its synthetic counterpart in suppressing heat absorption. This is particularly notable in leather car seats, which often prove themselves well on a hot summer day when the temperature inside an automobile often soars to 50 C and over.


A long way down the road when you retire, you will have to pass your presidency on to the next generation of Midori Anzen executives. When that day comes, what message would you like to share with the employees of Midori Anzen?

I think it is critical for Japanese small & medium enterprises to continue to work tirelessly in pursuit of product innovation, in order to compete and survive in the current market environment. And this is precisely the message that I would like to pass on to all future Midori executives. To continue our success as Japan’s leading PPE company, we not only must be able to deliver need-matching products with consistent quality, but also always ready to think outside of the box to achieve innovations.