Q and A with Mr. Naomasa Ochi of Tabio
Socks have sartorial stature in Japan. The traditional custom of leaving your shoes at the door makes them a very visible part of Japanese culture. The variety and abundance of socks available is mind-boggling and at the top of the heap is Tabio, the world’s most respected sock maker, founded by Naomasa Ochi over 50 years ago. Naomasa’s sock obsession began when he was 15 and is so palpable that he is affectionately known as the “god of socks” nationally.
The name Tabio, derives from the traditional Japanese tabi sock worn with geta sandals.
Kitty: This is a delight, thank you. To begin, how did you decide to make socks your life’s work?
Mr: Ochi: At the age of 15, I left my home in the small village of Aichi to become an apprentice at a sock wholesaler in Osaka. This was where I developed my passion for socks. I worked there for many years until the company reorganized and my colleagues and I were forced to leave. My love and expertise of socks was the only thing I had at that moment, so I decided to start my own sock company. I was 28 years old.
Kitty: It has been noted by many that Tabio approaches sock-making like couture tailoring. How are Tabio socks different from other socks made in Japan?
Mr. Ochi: Historically speaking, the Japanese sock industry is renowned for its quality and craftsmanship. The proprietary machines developed purposely for sock making and the attention to detail enabled Japanese sock companies to be the world’s top producers of hosiery. However, the eventual competition from China forced prices down, flooded the market with inferior products and bankrupted many Japanese sock factories. Tabio was able to remain steadfast and the singular Japanese maker to continue to this obsessive manufacturing tradition. We treat every sock we produce with care and respect, paying particular attention to stitch detail, machine tension and room climate to ensure that we create perfect socks. Since comfort is key, Tabio designs socks based on the anatomy of the foot, recognizing the wider toe and heel sections, as well as the angle of the hind foot. This results in socks that fit and stay put. Many of Tabio’s socks are so calibrated, a pair may have a right and left sock.
“It almost doubles the production time, but when it comes to quality, we don’t compromise. And while it is common to set knitting machines on automatic, we tune the machines by hand to create the precise balance in texture, prioritizing product quality over production efficiency. Some of our machines are so finicky that they require at least a decade of training to master.”
Naturally, Tabio uses the best quality materials, from French linen to the world’s thinnest wools. If we can’t find it, we develop it ourselves. In 2019, we began cultivating our own 100% organic long-staple sea island cotton in Nara, Japan.
Kitty: That sounds like an ambitious project. Wow, seed to sock, is it...?
Mr. Ochi: Exactly. Cultivating cotton locally for socks has long been an aspiration of mine. However, the challenges associated with this have seemed more like a dream than an achievable goal. Fortuitously one day, the Mayor of Koryo - the town of our base of operations - approached me with an interesting proposal. Could we engage the town’s community of retired persons in some manner?
Japan has an early retirement age, and its Silver Human Resource Center (SHRC) programs provide part-time, paid employment to retired men and women. Securing post-retirement work has been shown to contribute to better health and well-being. In addition, the Mayor informed me that there was an increase in fallow fields and abandoned uncultivated land.
Today, on eight hectares of this available land, managed with assistance from the Silver Human Resource Center, we grow and harvest organic cotton – a variety reminiscent to the Sea Island cotton that was protected by the British royal warrant for hundreds of years. Harvested and spun in Japan, our cotton yarn has a silky luster that feels like cashmere; it is the best cotton for socks. While the yield is still relatively small, we look forward to increasing our future use.
Lastly, there is another aspect of this Koryo cotton cultivation that I am particularly proud of. The cotton crops absorb the salt content in the soil. This helps regenerate the rice fields damaged by the tsunami that resulted from the Great East Japan Earthquake. By planting cotton on these fields, the salt concentration is reduced each year and rice will be able to grow there again. We were able help to launch this reconstruction project based on the knowledge we gained from cotton cultivation.
So you see, my far-flung goal of cultivating fine cotton in Japan for Tabio socks has developed into a holistic social and geographic project that benefits our environment as well as our products.
Kitty: Amazing. A virtuous cycle. Certainly another element that makes Tabio distinctive. In your opinion, what are 5 key elements inherent in every Tabio sock?
Mr. Ochi: If I were to narrow down to five, they would be: good materials, beautiful design, ease of wear, natural comfort, and durability. However, the truth is that Tabio is not just about a list of elements but rather their balance relative to each other in every product. The most important thing of all is that you achieve a harmony of qualities. I test all the styles myself and believe that “it takes all five senses to adequately evaluate a product.”
Kitty: Indeed. If I may say, we take a similar point of view at Semifinalist. Product quality is a given. But there are humanistic elements that aren't quantifiable. This is the reason we describe our products as "favorites" rather than "best."
I'm curious, do you have a personal philosophy regarding how you approach life in general?
Mr. Ochi: There is a tenet in ancient Chinese philosophy that being true is the optimal way of living. The belief is that you are what you do. The things you do in your everyday life, how you interact with others and the activities you pursue, all form who you are in practice.
This philosophy is my compass as I strive to act with integrity and sincere thoughtfulness each day. As a result, I extend respect to everything, from people to socks. Without compromise, I pour my soul into every pair of socks to share comfort to as many people as I can.
Naomasa Ochi with his son, Katsuhiro, Tabio’s CEO.
*Thank you to the Tabio team for their kind translation assistance!