Matsui Kigyo / JOHANAS: Rooted in the past – designed for the future
In 2010 Noriko Matsui accompanied her father on a visit to a supplier of his silk factory. The two professionals talked passionately about silkworms and cocoons. About how delicate a job it is to cultivate cocoons, how important it is to appreciate every one of these tiny living creatures.
Only then could they provide for quality silk products. The enthusiasm the two men brought to their metier made Ms. Matsui think. At the time, she was a paper pushing office worker at a broker in Tokyo. She had never considered following in the footsteps of her father. Neither had her father pushed her, or her two sisters, to take over the family business Matsui Kigyo.
The Matsui Silk Company is the only remaining traditional silk fabric manufacturer in the northern prefecture of Toyama. Since 1877, its factory has been located in the once renowned silk town of Jouhana. Matsui Silk Co. specializes in shike-silk fabrics, made from an irregular fibre only a certain type of twin cocoons can deliver. The shike-silk is mainly used to decorate traditional sliding doors. With changing lifestyles the demand for the product is waning. For weeks after the encounter with her father's colleague, Ms. Matsui pondered whether the company would collapse. Would the silk industry disappear all together from her hometown? Would the craft of silk making and silk handling be lost? Would the children of Jouhana loose touch with their heritage? “No! That should not happen.” In the summer of the same year Ms. Matsui returned to Jouhana to lead the Matsui Silk Co. into its sixth generation.
Breathing new life into Matsui Kigyo
It was only several months later that another “life changing event”, as she calls it, helped Ms. Matsui decide to breathe new life into Matsui Kigyo by creating a new, consumer oriented brand. It happened when she visited the famous textile maker Reiko Sudo in Tokyo. It was 11 March 2011, and their conversation was cut short, as this was the day of the strongest earthquake Japan ever experienced, accompanied by catastrophic tsunami and meltdowns in the nuclear power station of Fukushima I. Already Ms. Matsui was terrified by the events of the day, yet, Ms. Sudo, unknowingly, added to her state of shock by saying: “You have quite a detached attitude towards textiles, you know.” Back in Jouhana where she had yarns and rolls of fabric around her, Ms. Matsui touched the samples and noticed the bright irradiation the threads naturally produce.
She needed time to think which she often spent in front of the Buddhist house altar in order to collect herself. While Ms. Matsui saw the enormous potential of the technical knowhow her factory commanded, she finally realized that the feeling of detachment, so accurately diagnosed by Reiko Sudo, had to do with the lack of contact with the people who actually use her products. The shike-silk her family produced was sold to wholesalers. Finally the idea took shape. Ms. Matsui started developing products for daily care that modern people really want to use. To this end she combined the scientific knowledge around the curing properties of silk and the high technical standards of producing good quality products at her factory.
A new brand was born: 'JOHANAS', named after her hometown Jouhana with an additional 's' that stands for silk
Ms. Matsui's ideas for daycare accessories are supported by her marketing research. She always interviews the people who try out her products at great length. “It is important to know whether the products deliver what I want them to. And I listen carefully to the suggestions users come up with.” The line of products include facial towels, pillowcases, hygiene masks, eye masks, eyeglass cloths, and decorative cushion covers. “During the height of the covid-pandemia, when people had to wear face-masks all day, we had orders of 8000 pieces at a time. With such quantities we had to outsource the sewing work to local makers.” It is proof that people value her products. Meanwhile JOHANAS' collection expands. Ms. Matsui's newest designs are nightgowns, pajamas and bed sheets. The temperature regulating properties of silk make for better sleep, while the proteins of the fabric have beneficial effects on the skin at the same time. It is this combination of qualities rounded off by the beauty of silk that characterises the JOHANAS brand.
Everything under one roof
All of the company’s items are produced in the rooms of a century old wooden building. There a cacophony of moving weaving-looms and spinning wheels meet the visitor.
The machines are about sixty years old and still going strong, thanks to the highly skilled technicians who do the repair work. There are yarn washing and dyeing basins, where human hands have to do the work, as all the steps in the silk yarn and fabric making process are being done in-house.
The quest to bring back the organic cultivation of silkworms
Ms. Matsui is working on bringing back the cultivation of silkworms to Jouhana. In 2016 she started to rear them in a corner of the factory building. A year later she invited local school children to plant some forty mulberry trees with her. Since then the children of Jouhana call her by her nickname, 'mama silkworm', a title she is proud of. Some 2000 cocoons are being reared every year.
At Matsui's they are used to make traditional new year decorations, rather than silk thread. She wants more mulberry tree groves to cover the mountains around Jouhana, like in the old days, enough to produce plenty of food for all the silkworms her company needs.
Because Ms. Matsui's ambition is to switch to organic, locally grown and processed silk, the soil has to be restored over a number of years. “And yes,” she says while mulling over the electricity her machines consume, “maybe we should reactivate wooden water mills in the river. We had them when my great-grandfather was running the factory.”
Participating in the “Family Business Innovation Lab” and collaboration with Dutch Design Studio BCXSY
Noriko Matsui attracts a lot of attention with her energetic approach towards her family business. In the summer of 2021, she once again won a competition. This time it was a so-called Craft-a-thon among small and medium craft related enterprises organized by the Family Business Innovation Lab, an initiative of the insurance company N.N. Life Japan. Matsui Kigyo was elected to collaborate with the Dutch design studio BCXSY to develop products for overseas markets.
The two partners will be using shike-silk for home interior products like lampshades or wallpaper. And they have yet another ambitious plan. Together they will make a documentary about the history of sericulture in Japan including their own thoughts and efforts towards making the entire silk production cycle as nature friendly as possible.
With the changes Noriko Matsui has put in place and with all the ideas going through her head, the now 144 year long journey of Matsui Kigyo is on a steady course. The fresh restart combines innovation and sustainability, honouring history and nurturing the future.
Interview by Judith Stalpers