Collecting Rare Sneakers from Japan

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Japan became a producer of highly sought after limited-edition sneakers in the 1990s. Back then, before the internet, so-called “sneakerheads” would befriend shop clerks to get inside information. They’d line up outside of retail stores to secure new items and even pay homeless people to stand in line for them. Now rare sneaker culture has crossed from Japanese collectors into the global mainstream, where a new wave of enthusiasts seek Japan’s rare shoes for both fun and profit, often paying exhorbitant prices on the secondary market. For The Japan Times, staff writer Andrew McKirdy investigates the past and present of Japanese sneaker collecting and how online shopping has changed the pleasures and pitfalls of the old fashioned treasure hunt.

“The customers nowadays are completely different,” Kojima says. “Our job at Atmos is to explain the story of a sneaker to the customer — why it’s a particular color, and so on. Now, the first thing the customers want to know is, ‘Is this a limited edition?’ or, ‘Is this rare?’ That’s not so bad if it’s something that gets them into sneakers. But I’d prefer that they had more interest in it.”

When you make your living from trading sneakers as if they were stocks and shares, however, you had better make sure you get your hands on the coveted goods when they hit the stores.

Lining up to buy newly released sneakers was once something of a hazardous activity, with the threat of violence and robbery — even in normally safe Japan — adding to the hardship of standing on the street for what could be days on end.

Trouble nowadays is not unheard of, but stores operate a lottery system rather than a first-come, first-served basis, and they also enforce a sneaker-based dress code and demand to see identification to prevent would-be shoppers from employing surrogates to line up for them.

“We had 1,200 people lining up here recently,” Kojima says. “If we hadn’t had a dress code, it would have been 3,000 or 4,000.”

The high demand for limited-edition sneakers means only a chosen few will be able to buy them through official retailers such as Atmos. The rest must find them on resale sites, which do not come with the same guarantee of authenticity.

Counterfeit sneakers have been around for practically as long as the genuine articles themselves, but in recent years they have reached unprecedented levels of sophistication. As the global sneaker market continues to grow, so does the number of convincing-looking fakes in circulation.

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