Runner's World

The Original Sneakerhead

Yoshimori Fukui, a curator of the shoe archives at Asics corporate headquarters in Kobe, Japan, goes about his work with a combined air of efficiency and reverence, at times seeming like a highly competent, multitasking reference librarian, and at others like the keeper of a sacred shrine. ¶ “Every shoe in our collection, in a way great or small, reflects the spirit of Mr. Onitsuka,” Fukui says, referring to the late Kihachiro Onitsuka, the company founder and a father of the modern global running movement. “I feel honored by this job.” ¶ A stocky, stolid, 30-plus-year-veteran of the company, Fukui, through a translator, listens carefully to my request. The archives are normally visited by tours of recently hired Asics employees or designers researching for a new shoe. This interest from any Western media—the world beyond Japan discovering Mr. Onitsuka’s story—forms new territory.

Giving a terse nod and slight bow, Fukui strides through the windowless basement chamber, passing a wall displaying editions of the GT, Kayano, and Gel-Lyte series, Asics’ flagship best sellers, stretching from the 1980s to the present. Opposite the wall of newer models, Fukui turns to a vault containing the company’s older shoes, ones with historical significance. He unlocks and wheels open a heavy air-trap door, the kind used in banks and museums. Stepping inside, now resembling a sommelier searching for a rare vintage, he scans the neatly arranged shelves of cardboard shoe boxes stacked floor to ceiling. He pulls down a box and, cradling it with both hands, delivers it to a display table in the front of the room.

Fukui lifts out a pair of Tiger Runspark track racing flats. The royal blue of the nylon uppers remains vivid, as do the intersecting pairs of curving white stripes, the distinctive logo designed by Mr. Onitsuka half a century ago. The sole and midsole, however, are starting to flake and discolor with age, lending the patina of a relic.

“Lasse Viren’s racing

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