NIKE AND JAPAN, A TRANSOCEANIC RELATIONSHIP

Bold as it may sound, one could say that Nike was born Japan. Phil Knight was looking for an alternative way of doing things, and he found that right in Asia. Since then, Nike and Japan have maintained a very special relationship.

The first great idea of Phil Knight, founder of Nike, was to bring to the sports field a phenomenon already happening with technological articles. German cameras, once associated with an expensive and avant-garde product, were being replaced by Japanese ones: similar technology but cheaper price due to labor and currency exchange.

What was merely an idea began to materialize on a journey that Phil Knight intended to take around the world. His backpack included a suit he thought he would wear when introducing himself in business meetings, but he hadn't planned much more. He even started to doubt whether that idea was just a way to justify a trip (and an economic loan) to his parents.

Once in Asia, he programmed a visit to the Onitsuka Tiger factory (now known as Asics) as a first step for future agreements, but he had no idea how a shoe was made, much less had he thought of the name of that "important American company" he said to represent. Blue Ribbon Sports, the name he came up with in the middle of the meeting, emerged as distributor of Onitsuka items in the United States. And it was born in Japan.

Eight years later, in 1970, Blue Ribbon Sports was already one of the leading sports equipment distribution companies in the United States, but its relationship with Onitsuka had begun to deteriorate. Knight considered the idea of creating his own brand that would run parallel to his job as a distributor, but he needed money. External help came from Nissho Iwai, a Japanese merchant company that acted as an intermediary and granted credit lines to emerging businesses. It was Nissho Iwai who put him in contact with the Japanese factories that would develop the new brand's sneakers, and who provided him with the credit necessary to grow.

The alliance between the two was definitively sealed with Nike Japan, a branch created by Nike (51%) and Nissho Iwai (49%) to develop the brand adapting it to the Japanese public, who had very different needs than the people of the United States. Part of the product was exclusively manufactured for sale in Japan, resulting in a special edition market. In the 1980s, following the economic boom, Japan went from being a producer country to a consumer one, and in 1983 it already accounted for half of Nike's sales outside the United States. In the 1990s, the Japanese editions took two directions. On the one hand, the phenomenon of collecting was born thanks to exclusive stores; also, Nike began working with Hiroshi Fujiwara. Japan was the first place where the Air Max were made sacred, while the Jordan appeared in manga and were combined with art toys to create new products.

On the other hand, Nike discovered that Japanese runners were looking for a product very different from the US typical one. Japanese anatomy and pace required very fast shoes, with a lot of response and little drop, so Nike created a specific design team to meet their needs. The Streak saga, sometimes decorated with Japanese motifs, began as an exclusive product for Japan and was gradually adopted by the rest of the world.

During the first decade of the 21st century, Japan positioned itself as the true streetwear trendsetter. From there, Nike established partnerships with Atmos, Comme des Garçons, Fragment, Mastermind, Sacai and Undercover. The line between limited editions and performances becomes blurred in collections such as Gyakusou, which have become a key reference point for understanding the future.

Japan continues to offer new ideas that Nike is willing to develop. Years after Nike was born, the swoosh brand doesn't hide Japan's importance in its development. And it does so with small details hidden in the Oregon headquarters... among offices, laboratories and athletics tracks, a small Japanese garden reminds the brand's origins with a name unknown to many, the Nissho Iwai Garden.