TOKYO — The Japanese textile and apparel industry has begun new efforts to rebuild its export business after more than 20 years of erosion brought on by rising imports that now account for nearly 80 percent of the market share.
The number of looms in operation in Japan has dwindled to one-ninth of what it used to be three decades ago — down to 78,000 from 700,000 — while that of knitting machines has declined by 80 percent to 12,000, a recent report by the Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry said, pointing to a serious hollowing of textile manufacturing in this country.
The report also forecast that the size of the Japanese clothing market could shrink by one-third over the next 50 years due to a declining population and a changing market structure. The market, which was estimated to be on a scale of 6.03 trillion yen, or $51.1 billion at current exchange, in 2005, is expected to diminish 31.2 percent to 4.15 trillion yen, or $35.2 billion, in 2055, according to a median projection.
Growing concerns and increasing recognition in the industry of the need to expand globally is compelling Japanese manufacturers to take a fresh look at export potential, particularly of high-value-added merchandise, technology-based products and Japanese-specific products and brands.
A new Japanese focus is also on China, which is emerging not only as a major global supplier of textile goods, but as a huge consumer market as the country becomes more affluent.
Apparel imports to Japan from all sources in 2006 increased 11.5 percent from the previous year to 2.65 trillion yen, or $22.77 billion, while apparel exports came to 40.67 billion yen or $349.3 million, up 11 percent in yen value but down 5.7 percent in dollar value, according to the Japan Textiles Importers Association, based on customs figures.
China continued to be the largest supplier to Japan, accounting for an 83.1 percent share of total apparel imports last year, followed by Italy with 4.2 percent, Vietnam with 2.8 percent, South Korea at 1.4 percent, Thailand and the U.S. at 1.1 percent each, and France, India, Indonesia and the U.K. with less than 1 percent each.
Total exports of all textile goods from Japan in 2006 — including $3.15 billion in woven fabrics, $631.9 million in knit fabrics and $886.8 million in yarn — came to $8.1 billion, up 0.4 percent, or 942.38 billion yen, representing a 5.9 percent increase.
Asia made up the bulk of Japanese exports — 77 percent was shipped to East Asia and 4 percent to West Asia — while 9 percent went to Europe and 8 percent to North America. By country, the largest buyer last year was China, taking 43 percent share, followed by Hong Kong with 11 percent and South Korea with 5 percent. Then came Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand with 4 percent each.
The Japanese “counteroffensive” is coming in several ways, with one significant move aimed at attracting more buyers from overseas to textile, apparel and fashion trade fairs in Japan.
The fourth Japan Fashion Week in Tokyo, the biggest fashion event in Japan representing the collective effort by Japanese textile, apparel and fashion industries to promote Tokyo as a global fashion name and business, and as a new stop for buyers after Paris, Milan and New York, ends its eight-day run today. The event, supported by METI, highlighted runway shows by 37 Japanese designers. A tent was set up in Nihonbashi — the central district of Tokyo in the Shogun era — on a vacant lot across the street from the main Mitsukoshi Department Store to stage some of the important shows.
There are multiple other large-scale trade shows organized in Japan every year, including the biannual International Fashion Fair, Japan Creation, “rooms” and Frontier, a casualwear exhibit.
IFF said it is holding the next fair at Tokyo Big Sight from July 18 to 20 with the participation of 700 exhibitors that is expected to draw 30,000 buyers. The last show, in January, featured sections introducing Japan’s skills and techniques in textiles, and its centuries-old traditional technique of making white leather using salt and coleseed oil for tanning that originates in Himeji, west of Osaka.
JC organizers said the next exhibition will take place at Tokyo Big Sight for three days beginning May 9. They said the last JC event in December attracted more than 44,000 visitors, including 13,000 from the apparel industry.
Another significant movement in industry, supported by local governments, is encouraging collaboration among local companies in different segments of textile manufacturing and processing in various regional Japan production centers for development of new products. The Japan Yarn Fair, which was held in Ichinomiya near Nagoya last month, showcased rich varieties of yarns, while Kyoto Scope introduced a broad collection of natural fiber fabrics for women’s wear at its biannual exhibition in Tokyo in November.
While trying to get more foreign buyers to come to Japan, more Japanese are reaching out to trade shows in Europe, the U.S., China and other major markets to promote their products and brands. For one, some 26 Japanese firms took part in the Première Vision in Paris last month.
Eyeing the Chinese market, 31 Japanese exhibitors took part in Intertextile Shanghai in October. This year, some 37 Japanese exhibitors will have a presence at China International Fashion & Accessories, opening in Beijing on Saturday, according to the Japan External Trade Organization, which helps organize Japan pavilions.
“Establishing a brand is as important as marketing,” said Kimihiko Inaba, director of JETRO’s overseas trade fair division.
JETRO’s role, he said, is to provide information, contacts and experience to companies wishing to cultivate a market overseas or to enter the Japanese market.
One of the major objectives of Japan Fashion Week, supported by JETRO, is to provide a “platform” for Japanese designers to spring into the world fashion business, said Atsushi Kubo, deputy director of JETRO’s foreign trade division, noting that efforts to bring creativity, craftsmanship and business together are becoming increasingly important.
The Japanese industry began to lose its competitiveness on the export market following the Plaza Agreement in 1985 that triggered a sharp appreciation of the yen against the dollar, noted Akio Mera, chairman and chief executive officer of the Japan Textiles Export Organization.
The strong yen caused Japanese manufacturers to transfer apparel production to China in the Nineties while supplying Japanese fabrics to Chinese factories for processing and reexportation to Japan, Mera said, as well as providing apparel-making equipment and technology to Chinese factories.
In the last several years, however, Chinese suppliers began to use locally produced fabrics in increasing quantities, reducing the need for textiles from Japan. Mera, who has just returned from a visit to Shanghai, said he was told by his Chinese peers that, until five or six years ago, more than 80 percent of “take-home” apparel made in China for shipment to Japan used Japanese fabrics, but the proportion, it is said, is diminishing fast to 40 percent.
Japanese executives are pushing their country to work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on an agreement that will be based on a “fabric-forward” formula in order to compete with China. That way, apparel comprising Japanese fabric can be imported duty free.
Sources here agree that difficult times are ahead for Japan’s industry. But they also agree the industry, which is supported by a strong infrastructure of long-accumulated textile and apparel manufacturing technology, will survive global competition.
Toray Industries and Teijin, two major fiber producers, are establishing nanotechnology for commercial production of nano-fine fibers. Toray has developed a new technique to form a 3-D structure in polymers through the use of multiple kinds of functional materials.
Companies Mitsubishi Rayon, Teijin, Toyobo and Asahi Kasei are introducing “intelligent” or “mobile” fibers that expand when they absorb water, but revert to their original shapes when dry. The new type of fiber, for instance, can make sweaters with meshes that open or close according to water absorbency.
Inkmax is commercializing ink-jet printing using nano-fine color pigment that requires no water in print dyeing fabrics. Other recent introductions include paper-yarn denim, bamboo fiber textiles and natural-dyed fabrics that apply Japan’s traditional technique using dye extracted from plants.