Zipping up with Zippers from Japan

Practically everyone in the world owns something with a zipper. But did you now that the most popular zipper brand YKK is from Japan?

YKK zipper. | Wendy Berry

Zippers were initially known as a clasp locker and were initially called “hookless fasteners”. It is primarily used for binding the edges of an opening of flexible materials, most often on garments or bags. Zippers have come to be one of the greatest and most useful inventions for everyday use.

Elias Howe received a patent for an “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure” in 1851. He never tried to seriously market his invention. His device was more of a drawstring rather than a true slide fastener. Forty-two years later, in 1893, enter Whitcomb L. Judson. He was an American inventor from Chicago who thought of and constructed the first workable zipper. The method he invented is still being used up until today, based on interlocking teeth. His contraption was more of a hook-and-eye shoe fastener, which was thought of to be more complicated to use. Aided by businessman Colonel Lewis Walker, Judson launched the Universal Fastener Company to manufacture their device called the “clasp locker”. It was debuted to the public at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the rest is history.

By the end of World War II, the Universal Fastener Company, with its headquarters in Meadville, Pennsylvania, was selling over 500 million zippers a year and was considered to be the zipper capital of the world.

Tadao Yoshida, the founder of Yoshida Kōgyō Kabushikigaisha (Yoshida Manufacturing Shareholding Company or YKK), was the son of a nomad bird collector. Yoshida, after a few unsuccessful business ventures, saw the potential growth of the zipper market and opened his own in 1934. He copied the products and machines and made distinctive changes to the zippers such as using aluminum instead of copper.

Tadao Yoshida

At the beginning of World War II, Yoshida supplied the Japanese Imperial Navy with zippers and when his factory burned to the ground during the firebombing of 1945, he relocated to Kurobe.

YKK produced everything used for its zippers in-house. YKK’s designs began developing thousands of different zippers that were aimed at specific individual customers and industries. It pioneered the concealed zipper, the world’s smallest zipper, the first polyester and nylon zippers and the world’s thinnest zipper. Soon YKK was opening factories all around the world. By 1974, YKK was supplying a quarter of the world’s zippers.