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[Part1]Kyoto manufacturer finds success with tailoring site in Cambodia





Kheav Nary, who has been working for five months at a kimono tailoring factory operated by Tangeshin Co. in Cambodia, says, "I feel like I am doing incredible work when I think I am sewing a kimono that costs $10,000." (Emi Tadama)

Every Saturday, fabric for kimono is loaded onto a jet that takes off from Kansai International Airport. A day later, the fabric lands in Phnom Penh after traveling more than 4,000 kilometers.


But that is not the end of the journey. A 15-minute drive over unpaved roads leads to a new three-floor building located in a small village.


The building is a tailoring center established by Kyoto-based kimono manufacturer Tangeshin Co. Here, Cambodian workers--men and women mostly in their 20s--put the finishing touches on the traditional Japanese apparel.


The large workroom in the tailoring center is often busy with close to 50 workers. In Japan, kimono tailors often undergo an apprentice period of four to five years. In many cases, one tailor will handle all stages of creating a kimono.


However, in Cambodia, a division of labor system is used. This means some workers handle only the sleeves, while others work on the part that covers the torso.


A whiteboard by the wall shows how many workers are handling what part of the kimono on a particular day. The parts are referred to by their Japanese names, such as "sode" (sleeve), "migoro" (torso) and "eri" (collar) written in "romaji." On an average day, the workers complete about 50 kimono.


Yin Ratana, 26, is in charge of "kenpin" (quality control). She checks work on the fabric with what is written in the specifications.


When workers who were working on migoro were called over and told there is a difference in the lengths of the parts that are worn overlapped, the two workers had to unravel their sewing and start all over.


The measure used is the "kujirajaku," which measures length in units of "sun" and "shaku" that differ from measurements used in the West. That aspect of Japanese sewing has been passed on to the workers in Cambodia.


"There was confusion at first," Ratana said. "But we have now become very accustomed to it."


Kon Phearom's job is to sew the migoro onto the sleeve. Before taking on his current job, he worked at a Western sewing factory run by a Chinese company.


"I did not know what kimono were at first, but I soon developed an interest," he said. "The cloth is thin and soft so it is easy to use."


The average monthly salary of workers is about $150 (18,000 yen), slightly above the standard wage for local workers in comparable industries.


At 11:30 a.m., everyone stops working and moves to the third floor, even though there is no bell or signal. The workers have lunch on the terrace, and the menu consists of stir-fried chicken and cauliflower, a stew of fish and green vegetables, and white rice. A couple that lives in the building prepares lunch and dinner for the workers every day.


All the workers are from outside of Phnom Penh and live in a dormitory on the first floor.


"Whenever I go to rural areas, I can easily gather young workers," said Mamoru Hatanaka, 57, the Tangeshin official in charge of the tailoring center.


Tangeshin began tailoring kimono in 2012 in a different area in Phnom Penh, but moved to the current location because it wanted to expand operations.


It was actually Chinese workers who taught the Cambodians the ins and outs of kimono tailoring.


"Two skilled workers at our Chinese factory were asked to come here to teach the techniques over the course of a year," Hatanaka said.


Tangeshin constructed its first overseas factory in Shanghai about 20 years ago. It has handled the tailoring of about 30,000 kimono annually for retail outlets around Japan.


Although tailoring in Chinese factories had become a trend for Japanese kimono manufacturers, many of those companies moved their operations to Vietnam about a decade ago when costs for labor in China began increasing dramatically. Ho Chi Minh City became the center of overseas tailoring of kimono.


According to statistics compiled by the Kyoto Kogei Sensho Kyodo Kumiai, a cooperative of Kyoto kimono dyeing companies, in 2012, Vietnam accounted for about 420,000 silk kimono imported to Japan, far exceeding the 180,000 from China.


Tangeshin also thought about moving to Vietnam because of the higher costs in China. However, with its own rapid economic growth, Vietnam was also becoming a nation where personnel expenses were rising rapidly. Tangeshin officials also learned from those working for rival companies that it was becoming increasingly difficult to recruit young Vietnamese.


Company President Hirofumi Tange considered returning the tailoring work to Japan, "however, there was an insufficient number of workers in Japan, so it would not have been possible to resume operations," he said.


In 1984, there were 6,300 members in the Nihon Wasaishi Kai (organization of Japanese kimono tailors). That number had dropped to 1,351 in 2014 because of overseas transfers of factories and the aging of kimono tailors.


Tangeshin gave up on moving to Vietnam and searched for a location with even cheaper labor costs. The company decided on Cambodia, where personnel expenses are about half of China's and 20 percent of Japan's.


Hatanaka acknowledges that the ability to assemble the various kimono parts in Cambodia is still not quite up to the level of Japan. He has also heard criticism about tailoring traditional Japanese attire in an overseas factory.


"But, we would not be able to continue making kimono if we did not go abroad," said Hatanaka, who currently lives in the factory with his young workers. "That is why we came here. The workers are young, so they will be able to improve their skills."


Although there are no exact figures, anywhere between half to up to 70 to 80 percent of kimono sold in Japan are tailored abroad.


Along with the decline in kimono tailors in Japan, there has also been a dramatic fall in kimono sales.


According to industry sources, sales in 2012 were only about one-tenth the level of 1982, when sales were 2 trillion yen. For a time, kimono manufacturers were able to get by with fewer pieces sold because kimono were sold for high prices. The marketing strategy relied heavily on promoting the use of fancy kimono for special occasions, such as Coming-of-Age Day and wedding ceremonies.


However, the end of the asset-inflated economy and the declining birth rate led to a rapid shrinking of the Japanese market for kimono. Promoting the wearing of kimono only for special occasions also backfired because young people now rarely consider kimono as something to wear on a daily basis.


By EMI TADAMA/ GLOBE Staff Writer



Translated by The Asahi Shimbun AJW. More related stories available at http://ajw.asahi.com/category/globe/feature/.






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