29 Mar 2017

The UNIQLO Interview: Koji Yanai

News Article

By David Hulmes

Photo: Ando AkiraShingo Kunieda (JPN)

At first glance, it may be hard to fathom why a Japan-based clothing company would be a good fit for sponsorship of the ITF Wheelchair Tennis tour.

Stroll around Tokyo and you’ll notice a lot of cultural and behavioural differences compared with the West: for instance, people generally don’t talk on their mobile phones in public places, such as trains, cafes and bars. And you won’t see many disabled people out and about.

Disability is still a taboo subject in Japan, and Koji Yanai, UNIQLO senior vice-president, global marketing, sees the ITF deal — which in January was extended by five years until 2021 — as one way to help change perceptions.

“Gradually, we are feeling attitudes change in Japan,” says 39-year-old Koji, now an ITF wheelchair tennis ambassador.

“The most important thing regarding the sponsorship is that we can help disabled people. We have more than 1,800 stores around the world, including more than 800 in Japan — and we want to provide opportunities for disabled people in the workplace. We are trying to do this worldwide, but particularly in Japan.”

The recruitment drive resulted in an eye-opening learning process for Koji and his staff.

“After we started hiring disabled people, we realised lots of things, such as someone in a wheelchair cannot reach high up to the shelves, so we are putting clothing a little bit lower than before, and of course we are trying to make stores barrier-free wherever possible — things like flat floors with no stairs.”

The UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour now involves more than 150 tournaments a year in some 40 countries, while the Japanese brand operates in only 17 markets — Japan, Australia, Belgium, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the UK and the US.

Thus the deal presents UNIQLO, part of the Fast Retailing Co. Ltd empire founded by Koji’s father Tadashi — the richest businessman in Japan last year according to Forbes.com — with an excellent business opportunity.

“Of course, we’d like to increase our brand appeal through sponsorship of ITF wheelchair tennis,” says Koji.

“When we are expanding around the world, we are always asked by the media to explain who we are, what we do, and how we contribute to society and the community. In many of the countries that the ITF tour visits, we don’t have any stores, but through the sponsorship, people living in these areas touch our brand and get to know our brand, and we are contributing to those societies through our sponsorship and promotion of wheelchair tennis.”

The ITF agreement also sees the company continue its title sponsorship of the year-end UNIQLO Wheelchair Doubles Masters, become an official partner of the BNP Paribas World Team Cup, and title sponsor of the wheelchair tennis rankings.

Koji and his team have got straight to work on his ambassadorial strategy, which will see him engage the Japanese media, attend key tournaments, and help promote the sport internationally.

“I am very honoured to take up the role of ambassador. We are working on a plan aimed at helping to promote wheelchair tennis, and we’ll be pleased to share this with the ITF as soon as it's ready. 

“I am a huge fan of tennis and wheelchair tennis, and ideally I’d like to attend all the tournaments. Unfortunately, this is not possible due to my work schedule. However, I am planning to attend the UNIQLO Wheelchair Doubles Masters, with the possibility of attending more events if my schedule allows.”

Other than changing attitudes towards the disabled in Japan, Koji has another goal he wants to achieve in his time as an ambassador.

“The level of competition in wheelchair tennis is fantastic. Wheelchair tennis is totally different from conventional tennis, and I would like to convey the difference and attractiveness to people,” he says.

“I feel tennis has probably evolved to its maximum potential, but wheelchair tennis has lots of room to grow and develop further, to reach a higher level in terms of wheelchair technology and playing style. I am proud to be involved with wheelchair tennis, and I am very excited to see how this sport will change in the future.”

Koji is himself pretty active, playing football, golf and tennis: “In the past, tennis was my best, but at this moment it’s golf.”

So has his sporting experience afforded any insights that can be transferred to the boardroom?

“It's an interesting question,” he says. “First of all, I lived in Manchester for some time, and therefore I feel close to all of these sports which originated in the UK.

“On the one hand, I feel all three sports share the common thread of requiring training, planning, preparation and simulation. On the other, I feel each sport can teach me something different. In the case of golf, you can prepare and practice until you reach perfection. Sometimes I can hit the ball perfectly, but you cannot predict what will happen on the golf course — I always feel it is similar to business when my ball lands in the bunker! 

“Football is a team sport, and is about performing together to reach a common goal — literally — and it’s a sport that by changing the head coach, strategy, and tactics, you can change the whole team dramatically, even with the same players. 

“I love to play tennis and love watching it, because it has a certain momentum and rhythm. One point can totally change that momentum, and indeed the whole game. Sometimes I can feel those changes of momentum when I am watching, but I can’t feel that when I am playing — that gap makes me addicted to tennis.”

A key moment in UNIQLO’s involvement in wheelchair tennis came soon after the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, at which Japan’s Shingo Kunieda won gold. He became the company’s first brand ambassador the following year.

“After Shingo won gold in Beijing, attention on him increased. In the past, even if he won a tournament, it was not picked up by the sports sections, but after Beijing he was recognised as an athlete and his results were picked up by the media. So I think people’s mindset has gradually changed,” says Koji.

“We were contacted by a friend who introduced Shingo to us. I already knew of him because Roger Federer commented about him in an interview. That interview was so interesting. Japanese media were asking Roger why Japanese players couldn't win tournaments like him — at that time we didn't have Kei Nishikori — but Roger answered: ‘Not true, you guys have Shingo.’ 

“That’s how I came to know of him. I went to watch him and I was impressed by his play, so when I was introduced to him I strongly recommended to my father that we sponsor him. 

“We believe that, alongside Shingo, we can show people how enjoyable it is to watch wheelchair tennis.”

And with Tokyo 2020 on the horizon, there perhaps would be no more fitting winner of gold than Team Shingo.