Several months ago, I posed the question: “Where did all the Japanese golf brands go?”
Part of the answer assumes a North America-centric viewpoint. And though brands like Yonex, Yamaha, Vega, Fourteen, ONOFF, PRGR and Honma have largely vanished from the U.S. landscape, they’re not extinct. Well, not entirely.
That said, if I consult my crystal ball, it portends a bleak outlook, at best.
So You’re Saying There’s A Chance?
Sort of. But it begs a deeper dive into two important topics.
First is a discussion regarding the prototypical JDM (Japanese domestic market) consumer. Second, we must assess how the global equipment market has changed over the last decade and what that might mean for JDM brands moving forward.
The JDM Consumer
The target buyer for JDM equipment (primarily single-piece forged irons and wedges) isn’t uniformly different in 2022 than in 2012. However, compelling reasons to support the premium price tag are dwindling. Put differently, we’re running out of objective reasons to justify spending the extra dough.
It used to be that Japanese golf clubs sat as the industry’s zenith of high quality coupled with high performance. The engineering prowess in Japan was ahead of other markets. And by many measures, the product was quantifiably better—regardless of how one might choose to define the term.
Golfers who could afford the elevated prices were rewarded with equipment that was superior in terms of materials, design, spec tolerance, and finish. And we can’t ignore the draw that luxury goods represent as something unique and special. Call it ego or vanity. It still sells.
But the rest of the world has caught up. A race where Japan was once comfortably ahead is now, at best, a dead heat. At worst, it’s a case where the superior craftsmanship and attention to detail are isolated to irons and wedges that are designed to fit only a small percentage of skilled golfers.
If I really want to get melancholy, it’s fair to argue that the only current, true differentiating element of JDM equipment is that it allows some golfers to rep a brand that others won’t recognize. It’s a pair of red-bottom Louboutins in the DSW Shoe Warehouse discount bin. It’s becoming a distinction without much difference.
To be clear, it’s not that JDM equipment has regressed. More so, it’s that the rest of the world has continued to progress. And it’s not that JDM materials, processes, or tolerances aren’t exceptional. They are. But the same now can be said for plenty of manufacturers, many of which exist outside Japan.
The Curious Case of Miura
Miura isn’t in the same category as a brand like Fujimoto or Seven. It also isn’t akin to the North American branch of Mizuno. In a sense, Miura is perhaps the bridge between the original and modern versions of JDM.
Prior to the arrival of PXG (you’ll see why this is important in a minute), Miura was one of the most well-known and desired brands of japanese golf clubs. It was also uber expensive (roughly two to three times the going rate of domestic brands like Mizuno, TaylorMade, and Titleist).
(Side note: The Miura CB-57 still sits on my Mt. Rushmore of player’s cavity-back irons.)
Then, in 2017, billionaire Howard Milstein acquired the rights to distribute Miura Golf in North America and abroad—essentially anywhere outside of Japan. The charge was never to mass-produce Miura equipment. That said, in the last four years, Miura has grown substantially while selling every iron, wedge, and putter it can manufacture. If anything, Miura could likely raise prices and likely still sell through its entire inventory.
When PXG broached the equipment scene the year prior to Milstein’s investment in Miura, the industry had no idea how to react. Beyond PXG’s signature rivets and brash TV and radio spots, PXG altered the definition of “expensive.” Prior to PXG, a mainstream iron at $300 or more per club was unthinkable. Now it’s still expensive but in the way a Yeti cooler or Hydro Flask water bottle is expensive. Ultimately, PXG helped normalize a price point that previously seemed out of reach.
By adding a new, budget-friendly line and discounting in-line equipment routinely, PXG isn’t exclusively the high-end, luxury brand it was at its inception. But what PXG unearthed was a robust segment of golfers that didn’t balk at a $4,000 set of irons. In fact, they welcomed it.
By formalizing a global distribution strategy and adding an e-commerce platform, Miura has capitalized on this increase in demand which, oddly enough, is due in large part to the advent and success of PXG. What a world, eh?
Japanese Market Dynamics
The market for Japanese golf clubs still exists but it’s shrinking. It’s no longer a discussion of performance but primarily preferences. Measurable technologies are different now than 10 years ago. Instead of guessing about performance, devices like the Foresight GC Quad can measure it with exacting precision.
If “Video Killed the Radio Star,” then maybe the launch monitor has ultimately the same impact on smaller JDM manufacturers.
(Another side note: “Video Killed the Radio Star” was the first video aired on MTV. So there’s that. Feel free to use this frequently in casual conversation over the holidays.)
Japanese industry excels at taking a product and making it better. But it’s not the bastion of innovation. At times, this reluctance to modernize and change has frustrated consumers and ultimately caused the Japanese to fall behind. Consider the automotive brand Toyota. Consumers laud it for being trustworthy, reliable, and consistent. For the record, I owned a 2001 4Runner with more than 300,000 miles on it. But innovating and cutting edge? Not so much. Toyota’s 5.7 V8 engine with 381 horsepower was quite impressive … in 2007. Toyota didn’t update the powertrain until nearly a decade and a half later.
From a design perspective, JDM equipment is created to look perfect and exemplify style. In a word, beautiful. But the more technical and engineered a product is, the less Japan can compete. This is less of a concern with muscle-back and smaller cavity-back irons where consumers tend to care more about subjective elements such as shaping, sole width, topline, blade length and offset.
That aside, Japan hasn’t invested in advanced materials and designs the same way that Titleist, Callaway, TaylorMade, PING, COBRA and Mizuno have. What’s less clear is whether Japan has a desire or plan to try and catch up. My hunch? Probably not.
Case in point: Look at the last decade and particularly “player’s distance” and game-improvement iron technologies. The biggest brands have evolved these categories and advanced them to a position that one might question when, if ever, Japan will produce something equivalent to Mizuno’s MP 225 or the Titleist T200.
Like Natalie Imbruglia, “nothing’s fine, I’m torn.” I love JDM equipment and I appreciate the nuance and design elements that give it an unmistakable flavor and resonance. Moreover, if my skill allows, I’ll be damned if I don’t have a set of Mizuno, Miura or Proto Concept irons in the bag.
Hell, even if my game doesn’t warrant it, I don’t know if I can move off the attraction of a clean cavity-back with minimal offset, thin topline, and rounded toe.
But I have a growing concern that the business culture surrounding smaller brand Japanese golf clubs aren’t compatible with the world of modern business. It’s already a very limited market and now exceptionally engineered equipment is available at lower price points through a number of retail channels, including an expansive e-commerce network.
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