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Isamu Tatsuno - Montbell

Isamu Tatsuno - Montbell
3 September 2020

Isamu Tatsuno had a clear sense of direction at an age when lots of teenagers find themselves feeling a little lost. By the age of 16, he’d been inspired by the trailblazing climber Heinrich Harrer to map out some lofty ambitions of his own. As well as wanting to channel his passion for the outdoors into a business, Tatsuno had his sights set on ascending the Eiger north face—the biggest north face in the Swiss Alps.

Fast-forward 50 years or so and Tatsuno is an accomplished mountaineer and the founder of Montbell, the largest retailer of outdoor clothing in Japan. Although it has a couple of stores in America and Switzerland, Montbell is little-known outside of its home country and Tatsuno even less so—we’re proud to be one of its few UK stockists. Compared with his friend Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, Tatsuno has a fairly low profile. Fame is one of the few things that separates the two, however, and those familiar with the fabled life of Chouinard will find many similarities with Tatsuno’s.

Whilst Chouinard was forging pitons as a young man in his early climbing days, Tatsuno was simulating the climbing experience at home by sticking pitons into tatami mats. This was his way of practising self-rescue techniques, which he had to devise by himself as he didn’t even have a teacher when he started. Eventually he became part of a team and achieved his goal of ascending the Eiger north face. He was only 21, making him the youngest person to have ever done so at the time. Soon afterwards Tatsuno founded Japan’s first climbing school before finally establishing Montbell in 1975. His first product was a sleeping bag filled with some nifty macaroni-shaped fibres from America. It was significantly lighter than the conventional down-filled sleeping bags on the market, and it proved to be a hit in Tokyo. As Montbell diversified and its reputation grew, Tatsuno still found the time for outdoor pursuits. In addition to climbing, a preoccupation with kayaking led him to places as far-flung as the jungles of Costa Rica.

Montbell Isamu Tatsuno

Chouinard and Tatsuno shaking on a deal that licensed Montbell to sell Patagonia products in Japan. This was back when Montbell was less of an established brand.

Such an appetite for adventure would’ve made Tatsuno a shoo-in for the Do Boys, a group of outdoor enthusiasts that included Chouinard and also Doug Tompkins of The North Face. What’s more, the group's name is apparently a riff on the Japanese rendering of action sports as ‘do sports’. This is just one of several connections that Chouinard has with Japan. He did a lot of reading when setting up Patagonia and has cited books on Japanese management as being particularly influential. No further details are given but it’s likely that the founder of Panasonic, Konosuke Matsushita, cropped up in his research. Matsushita continues to be studied as a benchmark of leadership and is renowned for his compassionate business philosophy; he had a familial respect for his employees, no matter what their position. This mindset is undoubtedly shared by Chouinard as well as Tatsuno, as they avoid traditional hierarchies where possible and are all ears for ideas from any of their staff.

MontBell’s first product.

Montbell’s first product.

The two founders spend most of their time away from their respective offices and are often associated with an administrative style known as MBA (management by absence). Tatsuno himself has jokingly mentioned this term in the past as a reference to the fact that neither he nor Chouinard has an actual MBA qualification—high school having been the academic terminus for both. The closest Tatsuno came to applying to university was when he told his parents he was taking an entrance exam in Matsumoto, a city known for its proximity to the Japanese Alps. When he returned home with an unusually tanned face it became apparent that he’d been anywhere but an exam hall.

Tatsuno sporting a MontBell hoodie in 2018.

A young Tatsuno in his element
An action shot of Tatsuno ascending the Eiger north face.

Tatsuno’s choice to spend more time outdoors instead of in lecture halls and offices has given him an exemplary appreciation of nature. His altruistic values remain at the core of Montbell, which, in a world of corporate greenwashing, is one of the true forces for good. The company supports several environmental causes and has a track record of going above and beyond when responding to natural disasters. To help combat the effects of Japan’s calamitous earthquake in 2011, it reportedly redistributed 300 tons of supplies in its first month of relief efforts.

Tatsuno sporting a MontBell hoodie in 2018.

Tatsuno sporting a Montbell hoodie in 2018.

Now a septuagenarian, Tatsuno has dialled down the intensity of his outdoor adventures and lives a serene life in Nara Park, an area filled with historic temples and free-roaming deer. He once said the following about his future role in the company: ‘I’d like for people to say someday, “What happened to Tatsuno? Where did he go?” Gradually I’ll just disappear.’ In spite of this, it’s unlikely that those around him will let him slide away so easily. He’s simply too respected for a silent exit, and rightly so. Montbell remains a private company and Tatsuno has ensured that it’s as wary of growth and profit as he is. It looks set for longevity, and, by extension, so does Tatsuno’s legacy.

Check out the latest arrivals from Montbell HERE

• Words by Ansel Swindells

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