BreakThrough Interview

Thoughts of a Long-Standing Company Put into Its Luxury Plastic UmbrellaWHITEROSE Co., Ltd.

2017.02.02

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CEO Tsukasa Sudo (at the plastic umbrella workshop)

  • This article covers the birth story of the plastic umbrella developed for the first time in the world by a long-standing umbrella manufacturer, doing business since the Edo period, as well as an ultimate umbrella featuring many unique improvements.

"Umbrella covers" made from plastic became a huge hit after the Second World War

The history of WHITEROSE Co., Ltd. dates back to 1721 (the 6th year of the Kyōhō era) during the Edo period. At the time of its founding, White Rose was a wholesale store of shredded tobacco, but it later shifted to a rain gear seller. In the Meiji era, it also started manufacturing and selling Western-style umbrellas. After the Second World War, in 1949, Mitsuo Sudo (former CEO of White Rose) tried to restart the umbrella business upon his return from imprisonment in the Soviet Union, but competitors in the same industry had already booked all of the materials suppliers. Thus, Mitsuo started to consider the development of a new product, and he focused on the new material, plastic, that was being used for table cloth brought to Japan by the occupation forces. The mainstream umbrellas back at that time were made from cotton fabric, and it was common sense that water would leak when it rained. When using a dyed umbrella, the rain would absorb the color, and the water droplets sometimes stained the user’s clothes. If that is the case, then wouldn’t putting a plastic cover on top of the umbrella prevent the umbrella from getting wet and create a perfect umbrella? The idea of an umbrella cover, which was novel back then, became a huge hit, and people purchased an umbrella cover together when purchasing an umbrella.

However, the demand for plastic umbrella covers dropped sharply as the synthetic fiber, nylon, appeared and started to be used as a material for umbrella that has excellent waterproof properties and is easy to process. Therefore, White Rose began to carry out the development of new products that would replace its umbrella cover.


“Umbrella cover” made from plastic

Developed the world's first “plastic umbrella,” but faces the backlash of the umbrella industry

Plastic, which has perfect waterproof properties, is undoubtedly an ideal material for umbrella. Then, why not attach the plastic directly to the spoke and ribs? Based on this idea, White Rose developed the world’s first plastic umbrella. It also devised a crafting technique to use high-frequency welding to bond plastic materials cut into triangular shape. However, unlike its umbrella cover, White Rose faced an unexpected backlash from the umbrella industry for its plastic umbrella, with some rejecting it outright. Because there was a strong understanding that umbrellas were handmade by craftsmen using textile materials, the umbrella industry saw the plastic umbrellas—which were produced in factories without requiring craftsmen—as a challenge against the existing system.

With the wish to some day spread plastic umbrellas throughout Japan, White Rose scrambled to secure sales channels by relying on word of mouth and by directly promoting its products to street-level stores in Ginza. Eventually, the name recognition of plastic umbrellas gradually improved, with an offer from an overseas buyer who became interested when visiting Japan for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to sell them in the U.S., as well as students on school trips to Tokyo purchasing them as souvenirs. Because it is possible to print various colors and patterns on them, plastic umbrellas also attracted attention as fashion items.


Plastic umbrellas made by White Rose

Plastic umbrellas made by White Rose

Later, plastic umbrellas started being used all across Japan, but most of them are low-cost umbrellas produced overseas. Against this backdrop, domestic plastic umbrella manufacturers pulled out of the market one after another, and ultimately White Rose became the only one left. It was around this time that White Rose received an order from a veteran assembly member, who was about to run for an election, for a large, transparent, and sturdy umbrella. The assembly member wanted a plastic umbrella that would withstand wind and rain during speeches, while allowing listeners to see his face clearly and giving an image of being down-to-earth. In response to this request, White Rose developed a plastic umbrella with special specifications—using fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP) material for the spoke and ribs, and creating a hole called a “check valve” (patented) that does not let rain through but becomes a passage for air to flow from the inside to the outside—and this gained popularity. Although it is an expensive product, costing several thousand yen, many candidates began purchasing it each time before elections, and before long it started being used in news coverage, by government officials, and even by the imperial household, with increasingly more media exposure.

Tsukasa Sudo, CEO of White Rose, states the advantage of plastic umbrellas as follows: “It is funny in the first place that you would block your view with your umbrella when it's raining. If the umbrella is transparent, it's safer and easier for you to be attentive of your surroundings.” Although there is a strong image of plastic umbrellas being disposable, White Rose carefully handles repair requests so that its umbrellas can be used for a long time.


Check valve

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