Embroidery shops have been an important part of Okinawa City in the post-war era. Although the number of shops today may not be what it once was, there is one shop whose reputation lives on and has even traveled across the sea.
A 15-minute walk from Gate 2 of Kadena Air Base, patch shop Tiger EMB on Park Avenue caters to customers from the U.S. military and JSDF in need of patches for their uniforms. Just one block from Charlie’s Tacos, patches of various colors and designs line the walls of the store’s interior and can even be seen from the outside.
Although most of the patches displayed on the wall now carry the names or logos of military units, civilians from the states comprised most of their customers when the stored opened in 1964, according to President Tetsuo Asato, who took over the store from this father, Mitsuo.
“The Vietnam War was going on at the time. I heard that commercial flights from the states were chartered to transport supplies to Okinawa,” the president said. “Commercial pilots and crew who ordered patches were our main customers. There were also some orders for military name tags as well.”
The embroideries at Tiger EMB are made based on drawings that customers bring. They built a good reputation by faithfully re-creating the drawings for more than 50 years. The quality of their products came to be recognized by many customers, especially among those involved with aviation. Their reputation even reached NASA.
“We used to get orders from NASA maintenance crews in Houston for tags and patches,” Asato said. “I guess our shop was known through pilots of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, who had access to NASA.”
However, the shop was not aware of the fact at the time that they received orders came from NASA.
“It started with a foreigner coming to our shop with a drawing, asking if we could make an embroidery. So we just paid attention to materials. But on an order sheet, it said ‘NASA.’ That’s how we found that out.”
Their customers from NASA included Eileen Collins, NASA’s first female Shuttle Commander.
“We didn’t know who ‘Eileen Collins’ was,” Asato said. “We saw a newspaper article that referenced her name. That’s how we realized that she was our customer.”
Over the course of its run, the shop has gone through two major changes. Around the time when Okinawa reverted in 1972, the U.S. military came to be their main customer. Another change came in the 1980s when computer was introduced to embroidery making.
“We used to apply an embroidery method called ‘Yokoburi Shishuu,’ where we attached a cloth to a frame and drew a design on it as a guide for embroidery. We could only produce only one product at a time,” Asato said. “That is good for jackets and bags, but orders from the U.S. military were much larger. Orders for maybe 10, 20, or 100 at a time would come in. We would not have been able to catch up with the pace if we had made one product at a time.”
The use of computers brought a change to their workflow and production volume. But even with the help of computers, making an embroidery takes a lot of time and effort.
“It can take three days just to make the data for a patch,” Asato said. “The data then needs to be revised before sewing starts. Embroidery is a collection of dots to be struck by needles. And dots make a line. That’s how embroidery works.”
On average, Tiger EMB makes around 100 different kinds of patches each year, according to Asato. Behind the counter, employees busily work on embroideries as the sound of machines echo throughout the store.
According to the president, some people place original orders, while others choose from patches and tags on display which can be purchased on the spot.
“Tiger always provided the best embroidery and patches I’ve seen on the island,” said Travis Gibson, who was there to pick up a name tag for his uniform. “I would definitely come back here again, and would recommend it to all of my friends and personnel.”
Looking at all the patches that almost completely blanketed the walls, I could not help but wonder just how many were on display in the shop.
“I face that question often, but I don’t know how many to be honest,” said Asato. “Probably 5,000 to 6,000. We are running out of room for display.”
With more than 5,000 different patches created over the years, there’s a good chance Tiger EMB will have what it takes to create whatever your uniform desires.
PATCH SHOP TIGER EMB
Address: #4-10-3 Chuo Okinawa city Okinawa, Japan 904-0004