Put together, Japanese car brands account for 40% of cars on American roads. There is, statistically speaking, a good chance there’s a car sitting in your driveway or garage made by Toyota, Honda, Nissan or their luxury brands. It’s true of my household; my wife’s daily driver is a Honda Civic.
There are good reasons why Japanese cars have attracted a strong stateside following over the decades. Enthusiastic owners will tell you they're reliable, well-made, retain their value and tend to hold up aesthetically over time.
People who buy Japanese cars also tend to stay loyal to them, too. My father has had two Acura sedans, which he’s driven a combined 400,000 miles and counting. My mother’s Acura is at 110,000-plus miles.
What does this have to do with golf? While market penetration is not quite as deep, golf club brands from Japan have an arguably even more rabid following, with both major and niche makers supplying prized possessions to golf’s own otaku.
Why buy Japanese golf clubs?
Several golf message boards have whole sections devoted to JDM – Japanese domestic market – clubs and shafts. Stop by these forums at GolfWRX.com or TourSpecGolf.com and you’ll find spirited debates on subjects from the basic to the esoteric, like the merits of different iron forging processes. Miura and Epon loyalists face off with the ferocity of Yankees and Red Sox fans. Other, even more boutique artisans stir the passions of other JDM stans.
Hawaii native Chris Pierson has been selling Japanese golf clubs over the internet via his TourSpecGolf site since 2001. Few people are as knowledgeable about why many discerning golfers swear by the items he sells.
"There's a pride and passion and a willingness to get so intense," he said of not just golf clubmakers, but most product makers in Japan, where he lived for several years while teaching English there.
There is some overlap in Japanese golf equipment’s most beloved traits with those of their automotive counterparts. Craftsmanship and aesthetics sit at the heart of the list along with performance and overall prestige. Spend a little time taking in the rhapsodies of these clubs’ biggest fans and certain themes present themselves.
First of all, Japanese golf clubs are gorgeous. Salivating emojis get plenty of run anytime someone posts a pic of a set of sharp, spiffy, stripped-down blades from one of the beloved brands. Clean lines, shiny surfaces and a minimalistic approach to outward-facing tech are all not just approved but required.
"Japanese golf clubs are more expensive and less gimmicky," Pierson said. He explained that while American golf equipment companies often lean on technological features to both improve performance and market their wares, Japanese companies tend to keep their designs more traditional and instead focus on higher-quality materials to help their clubs perform.
Pierson cited "tighter tolerances and higher quality in that regard" as another selling point. Most prominent Japanese companies' manufacturing processes permit less opportunity for variations in the end product. The implication here is that the Japanese bring a higher level of craftsmanship to bear on their clubs, as well as superior raw materials.
This shows through in the marketing efforts of these companies, which blend notions of efficiency and reliability with artistic genius and obsessive pursuit of the perfection of the craft. Samurai swords stand side-by-side with forged irons as emblems of the Japanese approach. If you’ve ever seen the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” JDM golf fans regard club builders as similarly masterful.
These images also lead, inevitably, to premium pricing. The price of a set of irons by major American brands has surged past $1,000 in recent years. Meanwhile, a set of those gleaming JDM irons will likely run you more than double that. The $64,000 question – Is it worth it? – remains unanswerable in the face of individual tastes and values, although many American golfers believe the answer is a resounding “Yes.”
The major players
Roger Cleveland’s influential company became synonymous with wedges over the last quarter of the 20th century, eventually growing to manufacture a full line of clubs. In 2007, it became part of the Sumitomo Rubber Company’s golf division, which also includes Srixon and XXIO. It still makes noteworthy wedges and some of the best budget-price putters around, while its longer clubs skew toward game improvement.
Srixon broke into the U.S. market via its golf balls. The company actually holds more golf ball patents than any other. In keeping with the Japanese clubmaking tradition, Srixon’s club offerings are aesthetically simple and dignified, with a growing reputation for strong performance. They enjoy plenty of play on the pro tours. Shortly after Hideki Matsuyama won the 2021 Masters, finding Srixon clubs in Japan became nearly impossible.
The XXIO brand was Japan-only for many years, but its high-end, lightweight, user-friendly lines of clubs have had smashing success in the U.S. Go to any private club near me in Florida and you will see several golfers of a certain age gaming XXIO clubs. Ernie Els reps them, too, as does GolfPass faculty member Martin Hall.
The Blue M and pointy "Runbird" logo of Mizuno are well known not just to golfers, but across the sports world. A big name in baseball and volleyball as well, Mizuno has made golf clubs longer than any other Japanese company, beginning in 1933.
Though its most recent drivers have garnered significant attention, Mizuno’s bread and butter have been its forged irons. Since 1998, the company’s six-step Grain Flow Forging process has turned single billets of steel into individual iron heads with the help of a 1,200-degree forge in its plant in Hiroshima, producing tight tolerances and solid feel.
Sumitomo is not the only large corporation that makes both tires and golf balls. Bridgestone has been in the golf business since 1935. With Tiger Woods, Bryson DeChambeau and Matt Kuchar in its current stable, Bridgestone touts a wide range of models for all skill levels, not just professionals. Recent marketing of its mid-handicap e12 golf ball even draws direct links with tires, with its new CONTACT dimples that reportedly enable the clubface to touch more of the ball at impact, encouraging a more efficient strike and straighter shots.
Japanese shaft companies
Lest we forget about the component often called the “engine” of the golf club, several Japanese brands have proven very influential here as well. Fujikura has made driver and fairway wood shafts since the 1970s and has featured in the bags of the world’s best golfers as well as recreational players in the U.S. since 1995. The Speeder series dominated the tours in the late 90s, and now the new Ventus line of shafts appears in the bags of dozens of pros.
As for irons, the most recognizable Japanese company in the U.S. is Nippon, with 80% of the LPGA Tour gaming its shafts along with a growing group of PGA Tour players. Nippon shafts are increasingly available as retail options in major OEMs’ clubs as well, with lightweight steel options complimenting their products geared toward higher-speed players.
Boutique and up-and-coming Japanese golf brands
What Enzo Ferrari is to Italian car culture, Katsuhiro Miura is to Japanese golf club culture. With the nickname “Hands of God,” Miura has been making clubs since the late 1950s, and under his own imprimatur since 1977 in the historic town of Himeji, which has been associated with metalworking and swordmaking for centuries.
Whereas many major companies push innovation and technology as the hallmarks of their mass-marketed clubs, Miura adheres to tradition and a handcrafted approach (Mr. Miura and his sons personally inspect the clubs that come out of the Himeji shop), with design principles and a proprietary forging process that have been refined over more than 40 years. The glacial pace of change in the way Miura makes golf clubs is not a bug, but the company’s main feature and appeal to its clientele.
Started in 1959 in the northwest coastal town of Sakata, Honma was the brainchild of two brothers from one of Japan’s largest landowning families. Connections to the ancient art of katana samurai swordmaking is central to the refined image the company projects, with more than 300 highly skilled craftsmen called takumi on staff. The head of this brain trust is Hiroshi Suwa, who has been with the company for 42 years.
Honma takes a holistic approach to clubmaking by also making its line of Vizard shafts to go with its driver and fairway wood heads. In addition to its main lines of irons and woods, the company is known for the BERES series of clubs, which are some of the most expensive money can buy. The 5-star class of BERES drivers, with 24-karat gold trim and other precious metals incorporated into the design, costs $4,500.
Fine Japanese forgings
Several smaller brands enjoy their own legions of fans both in Japan and in the U.S. Epon, the house brand out of the vaunted Endo forging house, sits alongside Miura in many upscale clubfitters’ drawers. Endo has also been responsible for manufacturing many stateside companies’ forged irons over the years. So too has Kyoei, which is unique in its ability to forge, grind and finish irons all under the same roof, exercising uncommonly full control over the whole ironmaking process.
A relative newcomer that dates back to 2015, the boutique Grindworks brand has gained in popularity since outfitting Patrick Reed with his irons. Lead technical advisor Kenji Kobayashi previously worked at the Endo forge and helps oversee the introduction of Grindworks' forged and CNC milled irons – both blades and cavity backs – to the American market.
Influence on U.S. companies
The bellowing voice of owner Bob Parsons may mark PXG’s television ads as distinctly American, but the emphasis on spare-no-expense engineering, craftsmanship and premium pricing would fit right in on the other side of the Pacific. Though the company’s 0211 line of clubs is far more budget-friendly than anything they’ve produced in the past, a set of current-generation irons will run you $2,500 or more, putting PXG on par with Miura and its ilk.
Another brand associated with the Arizona desert, PING recently made available a slate of products typically exclusively reserved for its Japanese market. Golf bags and headcovers – including iron covers – with camo patterns take center stage among this special-edition stateside merchandise drop.
Pierson points to Japan as the cradle of golf equipment innovation going back decades. "The Japanese were the first to use composite materials and carbon fiber crowns," he said, also noting that titanium has been a standard material for JDM fairway woods since long before it became an alternative to steel for clubheads in America.
Over the years, Japanese golf clubmakers have managed to deliver quality product, aesthetics that inspire and stories that resonate with discerning golfers around the world. The opportunity to fall under their spell is one of the numerous rabbit-holes this great game offers its fans.
Do you play any clubs made by these or other companies out of Japan? Give us your thoughts in the comments below!