As a society, it could be said that Japan has a certain tendency towards conservative and traditional values. There are ways of doing things here that are acceptable and existing outside of those parameters can oftentimes come with difficulties. Kaz Shiomi has made her living not only existing in that space, but thriving in it, building her brand in it and encouraging others to also color outside the lines. Shiomi is first and foremost a kid at heart, a great boon to someone creating products designed to bring joy to children through her toy brand Kiko+ & gg*.
Kiko+ & gg* is a minimalist-designed wooden toy brand based out of Osaka, which is where Shiomi calls home. Her toys blend the traditional material of wood with funky colors and retro designs, making them pretty one-of-a-kind, much like the woman herself. Shiomi has never been one to follow the crowd, telling me that when she started the company, “I wanted to do something special, something unique.”
She founded the gg* part of her company in 2007, along with a business partner from her former company and, just a few years later, she launched the second prong of the brand, Kiko+. Kiko+ is where Shiomi’s true desire for color and fun really spilled out, “I studied a lot about wooden toys and I had never seen them with neon colours. So I decided to use neon. That was my Kiko+ line.”
The line includes some nostalgic favorites given a bright new lease of life, including a kaleidoscope camera, retro water game console, and a gatcha gatcha gumball machine. She is also inspired by her pet rabbit Mochi, crafting a pair of usagi, loving rabbits, that jingle as they wobble. Discussing their popularity she states, “I think it’s because they’re so cute and so charming. I think that they have longevity. I think you could hand it down to your kid and then your kid could hand it down to their kid.”
Shiomi wanted to work with wood not just for its eco-friendly nature but also because it connects her to a beloved family member. “My grandpa was a carpenter,” she tells me, “when I was a kid, me and my grandpa were best friends, he let me use his tools, hammers and saws. So I was good at making stuff.” It was whilst working at another toy firm prior to Kiko+ & gg* that she felt herself guided by him, “I was in charge of production matters and designing everything and I realized, oh this is what I want to do! So I studied a lot about wood, and I felt that my grandpa was telling me I should do my own business, making my own toys.”
Shiomi’s store and base of operations is a child’s dream, with colourful neon lights, a small swing, and toys everywhere that they can play with, with no plastic packaging to get in the way. Not only a great place for the kids but for her employees too, as the back of the shop has a large table and kitchen where Shiomi enjoys cooking a veritable feast for her staff every day she comes in. She tells me her purpose behind this is that, “Having a meal together can make our team tighter,” also adding “I like to cook for everyone as it brings me happiness!”
The shop interior isn’t the only colourful thing there, Shiomo herself is one of the most colourful people you will ever meet. Her style looks as if she ran through a rainbow hurricane with some glitter thrown in for good luck. This isn’t just limited to her wardrobe either, Shiomi often sports a new hair colour every few months, from pink to yellow, to orange, or all of them at once. “I try to wear different colours every day,” she tells me, “I don’t have black clothes anymore. I mean I do have black clothes, but they’re in a closet.”
Shiomi pushed them back in there when she decided she no longer wanted to fit the mould of what a “business person” should look like. “When I started my business, I was not like this. I tried to wear high heels and I tried to wear black or a more ‘sophisticated look’ but I stopped because it’s not me.” She does note that she gets strange looks sometimes, especially when she attends business conferences and forums, oftentimes as a speaker, “I don’t care what other people think about me and my appearance. Appearance is just appearance,” she states, “but they can see how hard I work, how strong I am and how I’m so focused on my business.”
Shiomi attends these events looking exactly how she wishes to look and finds herself sticking out like a sore thumb. Not only for her colourful attire, but because she is one of the few female business owners there. She resents being thought of as a female business owner though, “Why do they say I am a female entrepreneur? Why do they always say I am a female business owner?” she laments. She doesn’t like the label, wishing to just be seen as a business owner in her own right, though she does recognize that she has had to overcome more hurdles because of it. Some men in the past believed they could take control of certain aspects of her business because she wouldn’t understand, to which she strongly responded, “I know what I am doing.”
She certainly does, catering to an international market online as well as selling her products in upscale stores in London, Paris, and cities in the U.S. She informs me that she even sells in the luxury department store Liberty’s of London. “Not many [Japanese] companies are doing international business, and especially toy companies, no other wooden toy company based in Japan has international business” she explains. This allows her to broaden her customer reach but also give her the opportunity to spend time abroad checking in on things, attending expos and fairs. These are a welcome relief to Shiomi who sometimes finds herself struggling to feel totally free in Japan. Outside of Japan, she feels her way of speaking her mind and being bold is a lot more accepted, glitter and all.
It isn’t only for herself that she keeps herself adorned in colourful and sparkly attire, “I try to be a fairytale to make kids happy and make everyone genki,” she confesses. She felt this even more after the pandemic, as we all went through such a difficult period, she wanted to come out even more colourful, the proverbial rainbow at the end of the storm. “After covid, because we had to stay at home everything changed. Now we can finally meet people again and I thought more people need me, more people need to be genki, so my clothes need to be even more colourful!”
Her bright appearance isn’t all that keeps people coming back to Shiomo, but her bright spirit. She is exuberant and joyful and always finding ways to celebrate every day, even the rainy ones. She sees her friends as part of an extended family, calling everyone her brother or sister, and feels a deep desire to help out anyone she can. Thanks to this, her shop has become somewhat of a gathering place, where people flock to consult with her, or bring her omiyage from a recent trip, or simply to have a chat.
Shiomi’s dreams have come true with her business, and now she makes a point of helping others achieve theirs in whatever way she can. She truly is a sparkling individual inside and out, a shining technicolor star in the Japanese business world so heavily dominated by black and white.