Some people devote their entire lives to something: mastering a sport, developing a new pharmaceutical, unearthing a lost civilization. That single-minded focus over decades gives them the power to improve and iterate in their field like few others can.
Then there are those that devote more than a lifetime—family legacies where a child can take up the mantle of their parent’s progress and propel that legacy farther than if they began alone. And each additional generation compounds their achievements.
Such is the case with Shinzo Tamura, the man and his eponymous brand are the result of a family line devoted to a single idea: making the best sunglasses humanly possible. Tamura-san is the third-generation President of TALEX, a Japanese manufacturer that exclusively makes polarized sunglass lenses and a recently launched line of frames bearing his name to pair with them.
I had the chance to speak with Tamura-san about his life, legacy, and what all other sunglasses manufacturers are missing.
Heddels (David Shuck): Who is Shinzo Tamura the person and what is Shinzo Tamura the brand?
Shinzo Tamura: I was born and raised in Tajima, Osaka in 1971, the birthplace of eyeglass lenses in Japan. After graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, I took over the family business and established the world’s first store specializing in polarized sunglasses. The purpose of the factory-owned store was to directly inform customers that sunglasses, like eyeglasses, are just as important as the lenses.
At that time, sunglass lenses were of poor quality, especially polarized lenses, which caused headaches, sickness, and distorted vision after prolonged use. This was so bad that customers called it “polarization sickness. I knew that this was not caused by polarization, but by the lack of optical performance of the lenses.
I decided to stop wholesaler distribution of TALEX lenses and to sell directly to opticians to provide end-users with correct information on TALEX polarized lenses. We distributed lenses only to opticians who share the same philosophy as TALEX, not to discount opticians. Today, more than 400 opticians are registered as TALEX Pro Shops.
H: What was the “philosophy of TALEX” that you thought many opticians and makers were missing?
ST: The sunglasses industry was and still is quite fragmented between lens makers and frame makers. Lens producers weren’t making lenses that were compatible with frame materials, and frame makers were making frames that squeezed and distorted lenses. But neither side knew that anything better was possible because they didn’t talk to each other, leading to an inferior product for the customer.
Companies who make frames exclusively don’t understand it and it’s almost impossible to just educate them. So that’s the time we kind of shifted our business model and started doing a lot of their trade shows to communicate with their end user customers to express what they were doing was lenses and then these end users. They’re the ones who are actually started going to these sunglass shops to see if they can get TALEX lenses.
H: So you needed makers who understood the connection between the frames and the lenses and could communicate that with consumers to provide a quality product to not ruin the effort of creating lenses at TALEX.
And making your own lenses at TALEX and frames with Shinzo Tamura is the ultimate harmony between them for the best final product?
ST: Exactly. There were no frames that could maximize the performance of TALEX polarized lenses. For example, plastic frames, which change rapidly over time, cause lens distortion due to tightening caused by frame shrinkage, which affects the health of the eyes. If lenses are cut and placed in frames to prevent distortion, the lenses will come off if the grooves in the frames are not precise enough. It’s just like ordering a suit made of high quality Italian fabric, but if not tailored properly, it won’t look good or be comfortable to wear.
I have never found anything so comfortable that I forget I am wearing sunglasses. This marks the 28th year since I started our own store, and I have touched hundreds of frames every year. There are some optical frames that are comfortable to wear, but none of them were designed for sunglasses and I was not satisfied with them. Frames for eyeglasses and frames for sunglasses have different fundamental structures and lines of design because they serve different purposes. I think there are only a few designers in Japan who can design beautiful sunglasses that are both functional, comfortable to wear and fashionable.
Finally, after almost 30 years that dream came true. Lenses have to be matched to a frame that fits their shape to work best, and we believe we’ve made the perfect frames to fit our most perfect lenses.
H: How do you define quality?
ST: For lenses, if it best protects the health of the eyes, which is the most important thing next to life. Many people would rather give up their sense of smell or taste before vision, so it’s extremely important that we care for our customer’s eyes because we feel responsible for them.
For frames, we want them to be so comfortable that you forget you are wearing them. We have a client who forgot to remove his sunglasses and went into the bath. We are happy to have more customers like this.
H: What does someone feel the first time they put on a pair of Shinzo Tamura sunglasses?
ST: At first, customers are surprised and say, “Wow!” It sounds cheesy, but this happens fairly often when people first experience a clarity they’ve never felt before. Then they feel a sense of comfort and the silence and the beauty of the landscape, cut off from the chaos of light.
And then there’s a second moment where they’re wearing another pair of sunglasses again, old ones or something that doesn’t have TALEX lenses in it, and the difference is even more stark.
H: What sunglass model(s) do you wear personally? Are there any hobbies/sports you do that require different pairs?
ST: I’m constantly wearing different pairs that I’m testing from the factory. I have a box that I take to and from the office that has about several pairs in it at any given time so I can get the best experience of our product.
But for myself, I usually use models by Oznis & Shinzo Tamura. I use different lens colors when driving. Gray in the city, copper on the highway, and yellow-green in the rain and cloudy weather. When skiing, I use dark gray when the weather is clear, and copper or purple when there is fog or a snowstorm.
As for frames, it’s hard to pick favorites, since we have worked on them all, but I particularly like the Joto model.
H: Why is it important TALEX has remained a family run business? How has that affected the direction of the company and the quality of what it produces?
ST: I am convinced that the most important thing in running a company is trust. I feel that being a family-owned business is the best way to achieve this trust-first management. By thinking about the founder, will your decision lead to the trust of the company in the long run? Is it the right decision as a human being? Is there kindness there as well as strength?
H: Long-term thinking is very different to most large businesses in the west, where the main concern is only what is most profitable for the next quarter, and I think we’re much worse off for it. Can you think of a recent examples where trust and long term thinking affected your decision for the company?
ST: We have a company philosophy book and everyone has it, and every time we have a meeting weekly meetings with daily meetings that we always have that to go back and say, “Are we making the decision based on that philosophy that we created?” And we’re always being reminded with that book. The ultimate question we ask ourselves is “will this be good for our customer?”
Our company is only 150 people, which is very small, considering we produce everything ourselves in the factory. And most workers have been here for more than 15 years, which means they are very knowledgable but also that we are all moving in the same direction to create a better product. Taking care of our workers means we can better take care of our customers.
H: I’ve long been fascinated by the Japanese term ‘ikigai‘, meaning the convergence of what you love, what the world needs, what you’re good at, and what you can be paid for. As someone who has devoted your life to sunglasses, how does your work at TALEX and Shinzo Tamura relate to your personal ikigai?
ST: I’m surprised you mentioned it because I’ve been thinking about the concept of ikigai. I feel it in this moment, simultaneously communicating in Japan and the United States and talking about something that I’ve been working on for 30 years. Ikigai means living and how we can feel the pleasure of living because we don’t feel pleasure from dying. And it’s so easy to die in this world so we should pursue living with as much of ourselves as possible.
To me, a life worth living means becoming better. It is worth living when I can do something this year that I couldn’t do last year or understand something that I didn’t understand before because of my efforts. In other words, to evolve and improve.
I feel ikigai when my efforts enable me to notice things that were previously undiscovered or unnoticed. For me, selling more sunglasses this year than last year means that I was able to please more customers than last year. Also I am supremely pleased when I can produce sunglasses with better features, performance and design than last year.
H: What improvements or designs do you have on the horizon?
ST: I think it’s coming out near the end of this year. But we’re working on lenses that are specifically for night driving. A lot of people have issues high beam and bright lights, these lenses will completely eliminate the harsh effect of bright headlights but not affect your ability to see at night.
And it’s a dream that may be physically impossible, but I aspire to make a lens that’s clear like prescription lenses but has all the polarization and UV protection benefits of sunglasses.
H: Living in Los Angeles, I will be the first person to order the night driving sunglasses. Thank you very much for your time, Tamura-san. It’s been a pleasure.
ST: Your excellent questions have given me the opportunity to think deeply about the company and myself once again. I would like to thank you for the valuable time I was able to spend in conversation with you.