How Four Girlfriends Became Some of Japan’s First Women Entrepreneurs

These female entrepreneurs started their clothing business in Japan 65 years ago. The business has evolved including an e-commerce division, providing experiences that make them more than just a clothing store.

In 1948, not long after World War II, then 30-year-old Atsuko Banno and her three friends became four of Japan’s first women entrepreneurs.
“It was a new time, a new era for women,” says Atsuko’s grandson, Tadahiko Okazaki, now the President and Creative Director of Familiar, the children’s clothing store his grandmother and her friends founded, a shop that is still going strong 65 years later.
The company was named Familiar because they wanted to create a homey atmosphere for their company.
Watch the video above to take an inside look at Familiar, and read on as Okazaki shares his grandmother’s unique entrepreneurial adventure.

Your grandmother and her friends are considered some of Japan’s first female entrepreneurs.  How did they break the mold?
The early 20th century was a very different time in Japan, and in many parts of the world women weren’t running their own businesses.
For a woman to start her own business was not something my grandmother and her friends thought was possible when they were young. |It just did not happen in our country.
In post-war Japan, there was nothing left, especially in Kobe, which was heavily hit by air raids. To say it was a difficult time is an understatement.
People’s bank accounts were restricted. You were not allowed to withdraw your own money from the banks. People had to sell whatever was left to have cash on hand.
After the war, our family’s storehouse remained intact. A lot of my grandmother’s things were there, including six pairs of custom-made shoes.
She brought those shoes to the shoemaker who made them, hoping she could get some money.
The owner of the shoe store told her, “No, I made these shoes for you. I can’t sell them to other people. I put my heart into making them for you.”
But on that visit, my grandmother was carrying a purse and a photo frame she had made herself, and the shopkeeper noticed the items.
Impressed by how well-made they were, the shoemaker offered her two display cases in the store, suggesting that she could start selling them. That was her first business opportunity, and she asked three friends to join her.
My grandmother’s father, along with other friends, encouraged the foursome to start a new career and found a company. The advice was encouraging, and became the building blocks to ‘Familiar.’

How did they go from purses to baby clothes?
As Japan was rebuilding, there was this notion that children’s well being was more important than ever. My grandmother and her friends started Familiar with that in mind.
They started the company because they wanted to make children’s clothes filled with a mother’s love and caring, the kind of clothes they wanted for their own children.
That passion has never changed throughout our company’s history.
Today, Familiar is not just a clothing store. We help expecting and new parents with classes on childcare. On top of that, we have an e-commerce division that is growing every year. In this era of omni-channel, we have to offer the same great experiences in our stores, our content, our clothing, our classes and our website. Every visit must be memorable.

What advice did your grandmother give you that you can share with other aspiring entrepreneurs?
My grandmother was curious and always challenged herself.
When I was a child, she told me people should never lose their sense of curiosity. She said that to me so many times, it was almost like her own lullaby.
Also, she was a fair and open-minded person. If she found someone’s idea better than hers, she would change the direction of what she was doing without hesitation.
Never lose your sense of curiosity and be willing to change. Don’t be narrow-minded or have tunnel vision. If someone has an idea better than yours, don’t let pride get in the way.
From my perspective, she was an innovative woman who was very forward thinking. She was not afraid of change, and created business models to help the company grow.

Where is Familiar going in the future?
Our heritage and our roots lie in the philosophy “For Children.” Everything we do is for the well being of children. That’s how we started, and our mission is to keep that heritage alive for the next generations.
Since our founding, we’ve never compromised product quality.
These days, fast fashion is all the rage, trends change constantly. We see ourselves as “slow fashion.”
We create high quality products that are timeless and also comfortable.
Industrial machines produce fabric very fast, whereas we knit ours gently, slowly.
When a fabric is knitted quickly, the texture becomes rather tough. It’s stiff and resistant when stretched.
Fabric that is made slowly is fluffier. Some companies think this is inefficient–our machines work at 1/6th the speed as more modern equipment– but we believe 100% in our way of making fabric.
We want to make the very best. We always think of the children.

You actually chose FedEx with that in mind, didn’t you?
We make our products with love and passion, so the most important quality that I look for from our courier is a love for delivering their packages.
That’s something I’d never compromise. Our customers are very important so I want a courier with great customer care, one with superb tracking ability.
The world is advancing at such a fast pace, but at the end of day, we believe the human factor still matters in the service industry. I expect a courier to take great care of the packages and products we made with so much love.
Automation and advancement is important, but at the end of the day, there should still be a human touch.

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