Kihachiro Onitsuka, who was tired of selling bootleg beer, went into the shoe business following World War ll. In the ensuing decades he built his Kobe-based company into the biggest athletic footwear and apparel maker in Japan and the fifth-biggest in the world. In September 1949 he established Onitsuka Co., Ltd. with only four employees.
Onitsuka consulted about the business with Kohei Hori, a former comrade in arms who offered as a maxim the words of Juvenal: “If you pray to God, you should pray for a sound mind in a sound body” (“Anima Sana in Corpore Sano”). These words made a great impression on Onitsuka, and became the motivating force for him to create good sporting shoes in order to foster healthy young people through sports. Later, they would also become the source of the acronym ASICS.
The first competition sports shoes made by Onitsuka Co., Ltd. were a pair of basketball shoes. It all came, because Onitsuka bet that basketball was about to take off in Japan. The initial attempts ended in failure. Those were said to be the most difficult sports shoes to manufacture, so it was Kihachiro Onitsuka’s idea that if he could overcome a high hurdle at the start, he would be able to keep overcoming other hurdles as well. A number of prototypes were made at Yoshikawa Rubber Industry, a local shoe manufacturer in Nagata Ward, Kobe City, and the first model was released in the spring of 1950.
The tiger’s face emblazoned on the arch of the shoe later became the basis for the ONITSUKA TIGER trademark. Onitsuka took prototypes to the Kobe High School basketball club, at the time one of the strongest teams, and repeatedly tested and refined the shoes. It was one hot summer evening in 1951, where Onitsuka himself was chewing on a salad of cucumber and octopus, where he realized that if he could mimic the concave shape of the octopus suckers in the rubber sole, he could create a sole that would grip to the basketball court, allowing the athlete to stop and start immediately. The Onitsuka Tiger was born and the OK basketball shoes were released, which are a popular product of the tiger mark.
In 1953 a Tiger rubber factory was established, directly in Onitsuka’s house which hosted 50 employees. The mass production of suction-cup basketball shoes began. Shortly following that the first volleyball shoes were released, as well as the first tennis shoes – all with a Tiger mark.The factory focussed on the production of many different sports shoes, yet it was quickly noticeable, that the Marup running shoes became the absolute highlight.
The 1950s were the time to rise and shine for the Tiger mark – in the late 50s climbing boots (as well as later mountain engineering equipment), golf shoes, ski shoes, and training shoes were released. And only one year later, delegation shoes that the athletes wear in the Parade of the Nations, started getting produced for the Rome Olympics. Another life changing inspiration struck again in 1959 where Onitsuka was enjoying a warm bath, when he noticed his toes wrinkling. Heat – must be the principal cause of blisters on a long-distance runners feet. And the logical answer? – Holes. Two years later the legendary Ethiopian marathon champion Abebe Bikila won the Mainichi Marathon in Osaka wearing a pair of Onitsuka shoes, which also happened to be the first race he’d run in footwear.
The 1960s and 1970s were enriched by the production of many shoes for different disciplines, as well as shoes meant for athleisure purposes and post-skiing, hiking and running which focussed on the recuperation of the foot.
In 1977, Onitsuka merged with two Japanese clothing makers and changed his company’s name to ASICS – Anima sana in Corpore sano.
The company then evolved into a general sports goods maker that sold skiing, baseball, swimming and golf products, and showed high success with its running shoes. The air cooling methods which were used in motorcycles was borrowed by Onitsuka to create vented marathon shoes.
Great determination or re-climbing the ladder after some desperate years shows the idea of going back to the roots of the Onitsuka Tiger, which got discontinued in the late 70s, the basketball boot was reissued in Europe in 2000 in order to capitalize the retro-sneaker-mania. The biggest boost was given when Uma Thurman appeared in Kill Bill with Tiger wear.
Until Onitsuka’s death in 2007, he remained actively involved with the company, serving as a chairman and constantly experimenting with new designs and innovations, for example by opening the Research Institute of Sports Science in Kobe, Japan in 1990. Since then many remarkable technological innovations in sports shoes and apparel have stemmed from this unique site where scientists, athletes and coaches work together. Studying and analyzing the movements of the human body and testing all kinds of materials, are the main activities of the 200 people who work at the institute. Obviously all this work is being done with only one goal: to enable professional and recreational athletes all over the world to perform better, to reach a higher level and enjoy themselves as much as possible.