Is Onitsuka Tiger the Same As ASICS?
The one word answer to that is "yes." However, there's a lot that goes into unpacking that question. (For a quick timeline of Onitsuka Tiger/ASICS history, click here.) Otherwise, let's take a deep dive...
First, a bit of history on sneakers. (Skip ahead if this is more than you bargained for.)
THE HISTORY OF SNEAKERS
Sneaker technology didn't really get going until after WWII. Prior to that, children were playing yard games in something like bluchers or going barefoot. There was hardly any fitness industry at all for adults outside of circus performers, Olympians and Muscle Beach.
Early sporting cleats have more in common with dress shoes than today's sneakers. Forget about gel technology, these early versions just had flat flaps of leather for insoles. Even the idea of left and right shoes was only introduced in the early 1800s and orthotics didn't become a serious study until the polio epidemics of the 1940s and to help the waves of injured veterans returning home.
Babe Ruth's cleats, donated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.
Sports were generally activities for children and the aristocracy. For upper class gentlemen (With few exceptions, it was extremely rare for women to be allowed in any competitive sports outside of riding clubs) the sports they engaged in were more focused on skill than fitness - sports like polo, golf, sailing, skiing or hunting/shooting.
The first shoes that we'd recognize today as sneakers were called plimsolls, developed in the mid 1800s. A product of the Industrial Revolution, they utilized the latest production techniques, the then recent discovery of rubber vulcanization and advances in adhesives to make inexpensive canvas shoes with rubber soles. Additionally, the soles were engraved with grooves to increase surface grip and proved to be popular on tennis and croquet courts as well as amongst vacationers - eventually finding use in military service and as part of school uniforms.
There would be little change to these shoes until the 1910s and 1920s when the demand for leisure footwear began with the Gilded Age, expanding access thanks to department stores and the Sears Catalog, the beginnings of sports celebrity and rubber companies expanding and innovating their line of products. The most notable of the era that are still kicking around today are J.W. Foster & Sons (now called Reebok), Spalding, Converse, Keds, adidas and Puma (in that order and there's probably some more, like Saucony is in that mix somewhere). New Balance was also a fledgling company, but they had yet to make their first pair of shoes, focused on building arch support inserts instead.
Bear in mind that basketball had just been invented, that this was also the time of the Homestead Acts and the last years of the American Frontier/Wild West era, the Suffragette Movement was in full swing and starting in 1914, WWI began. In England, the Victorian era had just ended. While it's true that the likes of Ty Cobb took to the field and Ivy League schools expanded interest in American Football, most of the world lived agrarian or urban industrial lives and had no time or interest in sneakers. Having shoes at all was a luxury for many. There was a lot of cultural disparity depending on a person's place of birth and radio had yet to invade living rooms.
All of these pictures are from the year 1915. It was a rapidly changing time.
the second wave of sneaker innovation
Sneakers began to gain momentum in the 20s. The first commercial radio broadcast happened in 1920 and would quickly revolutionize capitalism as we know it today. Adidas became an international brand, eventually getting their shoes on Jesse Owens as he won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics hosted in Berlin. Chuck Taylor got his signature on his now-iconic court shoes. In the Boston area, New Balance entered the athletic shoe game. But it wasn't until after WWII that the second wave of sneaker innovation really took off.
Two brands would emerge that would propel footwear innovation and begin the trend toward sneakers as part of everyday style: Onitsuka Tiger and Nike.
WWII left Japan in a deep economic and cultural depression. Former military officer Kihachiro Onitsuka recognized that many things needed to be done to save Japan. Looking for the best way to help demoralized youth - Onitsuka put his life’s work into athletic shoes and founded Onitsuka Co. Ltd. in 1949.
With no formal training and working from his living room, his first shoes - intended for the Kobe High School basketball team - looked more like straw sandals than sneakers and were met with derision.
Over the next two years, Onitsuka watched countless games and practices, taking note of the most common issue the players experienced: Slip. The fast stop/start action on the court regularly resulted in players falling. Unlikely inspiration (which would become a common theme throughout the history of the company) came to him.
Eating an octopus salad, one of the tentacles became stuck to the side of the bowl. It would not come off and the thought struck him, “why not use the same suction cup grip of the tentacles on the soles?”
Testing proved too effective, but after some adjustments, he had it. Braking and cutting on tentacle-inspired rubber soles, the Kobe High School basketball team went on to win the championship that year. Word spread and quality improved so that by 1956, Onitsuka Tigers had become the official shoe of the Japanese Olympic Team.
The 1951 "Octopus" Basketball Sneaker. The tread was inspired by the suction cups on tentacles and succeeded at giving players superior grip on the court.
Looking for other sports, Onitsuka created his first running shoe in 1953. The “Marathon Tabi” was modeled after the traditional split-toe tabi sock that were commonly worn by Japanese long distance runners. The “Marathon Tabi” were equipped with rubber soles and uppers made from more durable materials.
The 1953 Marathon Tabi shoe
That same year, the “MARUP” shoe was released - designed specifically for marathon relay races by reducing fatigue during long-distance runs. The upper was made from vinylon, invented in Japan and in full production by 1954, vinylon is three times stronger than cotton, but less insulating - therefore providing better airflow and cooling. Additionally, the shoes were equipped with heel sponges to reduce friction.
The fame of Onitsuka Tiger running shoes spread internationally when iconic Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila - known for winning the Olympic Marathon barefoot - laced up his first pair of shoes. In 1956 he didn’t run in shoes. In 1957, he ran in Onitsuka Tigers.
While Onitsuka further refined his line of running shoes, he consulted top marathoner Toru Terasawa, asking him what the biggest problems that long distance runners encountered. Terasawa simply replied, “blisters.” The blisters that formed 10 or 15 miles into a marathon turned runners' feet into hamburger at the end of 26.2. Japanese runners regarded the problem with a stoic fatalism - blisters were an inseparable dimension of the marathon, another test of endurance.
Beginning by consulting doctors about the formation of blisters, there were three problems to solve: Moisture, heat and friction.
Observing his own wrinkly toes in the bathtub, Onitsuka realized that shoes created their own bathtub for perspiring feet. They needed air circulation.
The company went to work, creating a sneaker with loose cloth on the top and perforations on the side to make them breathable and a double layered sole to protect from heat and friction. This shoe, the “Magic Runner,” also blew out air on the foot strike and sucked in air on the liftoff.
Terasawa was able to run a marathon for the first time without getting a blister.
The original "Magic Runner" shoe from 1960
Toru Terasawa (#76 on the left) at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo Japan. Just the year before, Terasawa set a marathon world record time of 2:15:16 at the Beppu Marathon. Note the shoes. Those are a pair of Tiger "Runspark" racing spikes that copied the three stripe branding of adidas. It wouldn't be another two years until the signature "Tiger Stripes" were added to all Onitsuka Tiger shoes.
ONITsuka Tiger and Nike
The 1964 Olympics was the first to be broadcast on television and the world was paying attention to more than the athletes. Although running was yet to fully catch on in America, that would change quickly thanks especially to one man: University of Oregon's track coach Bill Bowerman. In 1964, he and Phil Knight - fresh out of Stanford Business School - saw potential for the US market. The two men started Blue Ribbon Sports as the sole import and distribution company for Onitsuka Tiger shoes with a handshake deal.
In 1966, Onitsuka Tiger created one of their most iconic shoes in their history. Dubbed the "Mexico 66," they were made for the Olympic pre-trials for the 1968 games in Mexico City and were the first pair that featured the signature "Tiger Stripes."
Unlike other branded designs, the tiger stripes had a real function on top of their identifying mark. The lacing of the shoes was integrated into the vertical stripe to improve stability and flexibility.
Not to downplay Kathrine Switzer's celebrity for breaking the gender barrier at the 1967 Boston Marathon, the first long distance runner to achieve national renown was Bill Bowerman's protege Steve Prefontaine. At the same time, things had soured between Blue Ribbon Sports and Onitsuka Tiger. Bowerman and Knight discovered that they had been misled about being the sole American distributors and the two companies decided to go out on their own. Blue Ribbon Sports became the one and only Nike.
Bill Bowerman had been experimenting with his own designs and many of his earliest trainers were made by Onitsuka Tiger engineers in Japan. The most famous example of which is the Cortez. Created for Tiger just before the split, Nike took Onitsuka Tiger to court to retain the rights to the design. The judgement for which was to allow both companies production rights and while Nike was given rights to the original name, the exact same model (colorway and everything) continued for Tiger as the Corsair. The Nike Cortez debuted as the company's first shoe in 1972.
The celebrity of Prefontaine, Nike's emergence and better technology in footwear design created the jogging boom in America of the 1970s. At the height of that popularity, Onitsuka Tiger released "The California" - a jogging shoe with new developments like a flared sole and reflective tape on the heels and the last branded Tiger shoe before becoming ASICS (Although they continued calling models "ASICS Tiger" on the tongue and sometimes heel through the 80s).
The Tiger Cortez using "Swoosh Fiber" technology as designed by Bill Bowerman and the subsequent Tiger Corsair.
Farrah Fawcett skateboarding in Nike Cortez sneakers in 1976.
Onitsuka Tiger Becomes ASICS
In 1977, Onitsuka Tiger merged with GTO, JELENK and several sewing factories to become ASICS - an acronym derivation from Juvenal that stands for Anima Sana in Corpore, “a healthy soul in a healthy body” - continuing the brand’s founding principles and expanding beyond footwear.
That same year, ASICS created a technology research section of the company that would, by 1985, become the Institute of Sport Science in Kobe Port Island, Japan. Through the research and development of sports medicine and technology some major developments in footwear were produced such as ASICS proprietary gel technology.
Onitsuka Tiger was quietly relaunched in 2002 and Onitsuka Tiger’s Nippon Made - a high-end line handbuilt entirely in Tokyo with high quality materials - rebooted the brands most iconic pieces beginning in 2008.
Demand for these classic silhouettes has resulted in a combination of new colorways, but instead of recreating the originals by spec , these versions incorporate premium materials, construction and the latest technology of podiatric sports medicine.
From a four employee business making sandal sneakers for school children, Onitsuka Tiger has become one of the world’s most influential sneaker brands. Pursuing Kodawari - the relentless pursuit of unattainable perfection - Onitsuka Tiger and ASICS have changed athletics and the way people move for 70+ years. It's amazing to reflect the rapid developments in footwear since the turn of the 19th century to today and Onitsuka Tiger/ASICS contributions.
So, the answer to the original question is "yes." Onitsuka Tiger is ASICS, but there's clearly a lot to the story.
Thanks for taking a deep dive into Onitsuka Tiger and sneaker history.