TOKYO — Slow and steady wins the race in the eyes of Keiko Shinomoto, who cofounded the boutique Tortoise with her husband Takuhiro. If the going-on 16 years running design-centric homeware store is any indication, the strategy seems to be working.
Shinomoto shared how the duo built a business on the basis of slower, more sustainable consumption — one that tries to reconcile how technological advancements have increased human life spans year after year, and yet the life span of man-made products seems to decrease.
After careers at Idee, the eyewear brand, the couple chanced upon the U.S. green card lottery. Since opening the store in 2003, they’ve been introducing and exhibiting products by Japanese artists and designers to the American market.
This could be in the form of colorful stencil-dyed Serizawa calendars or Takuhiro’s original Hasami porcelain designs, or traditional tengui towels, which Shinomoto said figure as their most popular purchase.
“In the beginning, we focused on direct import — things that you can buy only at Tortoise. But now we know that as long as we are true to our selection and to our nature, we can be true in the curation. Tortoise itself is very original.”
Half of the products are now Japanese designers but who are selected from the American market, she added.
The couple has also noticed there are some advantages to being based outside their home country.
“Hasami porcelain was actually launched outside Japan and I think that was the strategy my husband had,” Shinomoto said. “Because if the product was popular outside Japan that itself creates the value. I don’t know if it’s limited to Japanese people but when something is being recognized outside, they realize for the first time that was a good product.”
Shinomoto also entertained the possibility of one day opening a store in Japan. Although the Japanese visitors she receives in the store may feel that they can easily buy all of this back at home, she noted that with every trip back to Japan, she’s surprised to see many non-Japanese people living there.
“If you go shopping and Ginza or Shibuya there are so many non-Japanese visitors so if you open a shop in Japan, it’s not necessarily targeting Japanese people anymore, things are changing. In the past, there was no point of us having a store in Japan but if going forward there is an opportunity, we may consider it.”