From Battlegrounds to Brassieres: The Life of Wacoal Founder Tsukamoto Kōichi

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Celebrated Japanese lingerie maker Wacoal was founded by Tsukamoto Kōichi after his return from the battlegrounds of World War II. A new book explores how he built his empire and the horrors in his past that inspired him to do his best in business.

From Brutality Back to Japan

The Battle of Imphal saw some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific War and brought the Japanese Army one of its most bruising defeats. Japan’s reckless offensive, which aimed to conquer British India, ended in ignominy and caused the deaths of at least 30,000 soldiers.

The defeated Japanese army was pushed back into Burma. The straggling survivors wandered in confusion through the jungle, where many died of starvation and exhaustion, their bodies left to decompose on the “road of bones” back into Burma. The campaign became known in Japan as the “worst in history.”

This book covers the life and work of one of the men who fought on the Japanese side in that terrible battle. He was one of only three survivors out of the 55 men in his unit who took part.

Dynamism and Hardscrabble Life in Postwar Japan

Tsukamoto Kōichi was a young man of 26 when he returned to Japan.

Burajā de tenka o totta otoko (The Man Who Won the World with Brassieres), published this year, tells the story of how he founded Wacoal and turned it into Japan’s leading producer of women’s lingerie and underwear, and eventually led the company to successful expansion overseas. The story of hard work and triumph in the face of hardship skillfully evokes the turmoil of Japan in the immediate postwar years, alongside the passion and determination to rebuild the country and achieve economic growth. It is a true story far more gripping than most dramas.

Wacoal is famous in Japan as the country’s leading lingerie brand, a byword for quality and sophistication. The brand takes up considerable amounts of glittering retail real estate in department stores and has an image as a luxury brand that is out of reach for most young women.

Many people probably assume that the company has enjoyed its reputation for glamor and frills since the beginning. This book turns that assumption upside down.

Tsukamoto starts out selling women’s accessories on the black market. Impressed by the president of a supplier he has never met, he impulsively sends him all the money in his possession. When he can’t get an appointment to meet the president in person, he dons a disguise and lies in wait for him deep into the night. Resolved to move to Tokyo, he squeezes in through the window and doesn’t blanch at standing for 10 hours on a packed, swaying train.

Once he sets his mind to something, he acts. The book shows him as a young man traveling all over the country from Kyoto, literally sweating his way to success. It’s a tale of grit and determination a world removed from the shiny glamour of the department store boutiques, with their mannequins draped in silks and lace.

Though he may have waggishly described himself as “the erotic president of the Erotic Trading Company,” deep down inside he was deadly serious about what he was doing. As he noted: “I have a responsibility to live my life for the fifty-two of my comrades who never came home. There is no room for weakness.”

Decades after the end of the war, he still had nightmares about Imphal, and used to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

A Manager with an Eye for Talent

Tsukamoto was known for his daring and unique promotional ideas: from a “live public sales competition” against a rival at a Kyoto department store, to exclusive “lingerie fashion shows” from which men were strictly excluded. Tsukamoto was a man full of ideas and dynamism. Even more than his originality, the popularity of this young entrepreneur seems to have stemmed more than anything else from his simple likeability and charm.

He had a straightforward personality, without sneakiness or guile. And when he saw it was time to strike, he would use whatever outlandish methods seemed necessary to seal the deal. Open-hearted and considerate of others (and popular with women as a result), he was always forthright and sincere with his subordinates.

In many ways, he seems to have been the kind of boss most people dream of working for: “He had a great virtue. It makes a big difference whether you can get the talented human resources you need. Some people can do it, and others can’t. And it’s those who can who rise to the top.”

These are the words of Watanabe Asano, who was scouted by Tsukamoto and later became the first woman to rise to a managerial position at Wacoal. Watanabe was just one example of another important aspect of Wacoal as a company: the way in which it encouraged women to work in different roles and develop their talents in business, at a time when this was still unusual in Japanese companies.

Energetic, hard-working women were responsible for all areas of the company’s work—sewing, customer development, sales, and retail—and played a crucial role in driving the success and growth of the company. If Tsukamoto decided someone was the kind of person he needed, he made no distinction between the sexes. He would speak to a woman much as he did to a man, and would happily hire her and give her a place to put her energies to work.

Bringing Women to the Workplace

For some years now, encouraging empowerment of women in the workplace has been a major slogan in Japanese business. Many companies have established numerical targets for the proportion of women in managerial roles, and have launched special training programs to achieve reach these targets.

Despite these efforts, Japan continues to languish close to the bottom in international rankings, and no doubt many women are growing frustrated by this reality. Even if the times are different, what Tsukamoto did at Wacoal in terms of hiring women and assigning them to important positions within the company, holds many lessons for business leaders today.

Perhaps because he was born into a family of Ōmi merchants (in modern Shiga Prefecture) and studied at the famous Shiga Prefectural Commercial High School (now Hachiman Commercial High School), Kōichi didn’t go out of his way to promote women’s empowerment as a theoretic idea or make a fuss about what he was doing. Everything he did was based on a simple approach: Who was the best person for the job, and who were the employees he needed to grow the business and increase the company’s profits? These simple questions drove all his policies and helped shape Wacoal’s success.

Considering the times, this cannot have been an easy thing to do. But he did it calmly and without fuss.

People will naturally have respect and affection for a talented leader who evaluates them solely on the quality of their work, without respect to sex gender or official title. The happy working environment that Tsukamoto established at Wacoal is another thing that comes across clearly in the book. The author talks to many women who worked with Tsukamoto in their younger years (most of them are now in advanced old age), and they all speak with evident affection of their time at Wacoal.

This seems to have been the result of two factors: the natural charisma and lightness of touch of the company’s founder, allied with the determination he felt throughout his life to live it to the fullest in tribute to his many comrades who never made it home from the horrors of Imphal.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The cover of Burajā de tenka o totta otoko: Wakōru sōgyōsha Tsukamoto Kōichi. Courtesy of President Inc.)

Burajā de tenka o totta otoko: Wakōru sōgyōsha Tsukamoto Kōichi (The Man Who Won the World with Brassieres: Wacoal Founder Tsukamoto Kōichi)

By Kita Yasutoshi
Published by President Inc.
ISBN: 978-4-8334-2502-5

business book review Wacoal lingerie