Kitaboshi Pencil Company: A Wooden Connection
Among our many slat customers in the Japanese pencil industry, I think one of the most interesting is the Kitaboshi Pencil Company. Don’t get me wrong, we have long standing and close relationships with all of the industry participants and, as I’ve recently written, I find the Japanese industry fascinating as a whole. Most serious pencil fans around the world know of the two largest producers Mitsubishi, with its Hi-Uni pencil, and Tombow, with its Mono range, and they are important customers and leaders in the Japan Market. However, outside of Japan, many of the middle tier and smaller producers remain a bit more anonymous, perhaps even mysterious, given that a large part of industry production is done on an OEM basis for other companies marketing under other brands or licenses.
Much of my feeling of kinship with Kitaboshi, and why I selected their range as one of the first two Japanese producers to feature on Pencils.com, has to do with some interesting similarities between their company and our own. Let’s call it the wooden connection. Kitaboshi, actually started life in 1913 as Sugatani Lumber Company, on the island of Hokkaido, when Yasuzaemon Sugatani moved from Tokyo to start producing wooden slats for the developing pencil industry in Japan. It was really only in the early 20th century that Japan’s wood cased pencil industry got started. This was due both to the nature of the Kanji character system, with its varied width brush strokes, and the fact that it was only after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 that Japan began to adopt more western culture and technologies. Some things came faster than others and wood-cased graphite pencils were one of those that came later, though it’s said that the first Shogun of the Tokugawa era obtained a graphite pencil some 450 years ago. The story I am told is that one of the ancestors of Yasuzaemon Sugatani was a civil servant in the Tokugawa government and was aware of this pencil and passed knowledge of its existence down.
Similar to the US pencil industry, with its initial focus on Eastern Red Cedar in the Southeastern states and later use of California Incense-cedar in the west, much of Japanese wood production for pencils and many other industrial needs concentrated in Hokkaido region. The preferred wood for pencils in Japan in the industry’s early days was Shina, a species of Basswood (or Lindenwood). This wood is similar to that used historically in the Chinese pencil industry and sold by our company today within our EcoSlat product range. Until 1944 the Sugitani family concentrated on wooden slat supply serving a number of pencil companies, but then also began producing a wooden barrel for the Ohto pen company that was used to encase their ball point pens (similar to our new wood cased mechanical pencil offering). At that time the company was renamed to Kitaboshi Stationery Sales Company and increasingly began to focus on finished pencil production. The translation of the Kitaboshi name is “North Star”, related to both their location in Hokkaido in the northern region of Japan and the North Star’s title as the guiding star used to find one’s direction.
In 1950 the company relocated pencil production to Tokyo and was given it’s current name, Kitaboshi Pencil Company. As focus increasingly shifted from the slat business to the pencil business, Kitaboshi soon thereafter reached an agreement to shift its wood consumption to Incense-cedar purchased from California Cedar Products Company as a result of the efforts of my grandfather. Kitaboshi has been a valued and loyal customer ever since, as is most of the Japanese pencil industry, which has adopted Incense-cedar as its preferred pencil wood. Today, the company is headed by President Kuzutoshi Sugitani, a third generation family member and the 4th President of the company (as am I at CalCedar). His son and nephew, both fourth-generation family members, are active managers in the business and his brother, shown in my last post gifting an Incense-cedar guitar to my father, recently retired from the company.
Kitaboshi introduced their natural finish Wood Note product line some 20 years ago to honor it’s history as a wood slat producer and promote the ecological benefits of sustainably managed Incense-cedar. This week, we have introduced several selections from this range on the Pencils.com Store to honor our longstanding relationship (and because they are really great and unique pencils!). We hope you like them. Much of their production today also supports the character pencil business, and they are the leading producer of Disney pencils for the Japan market. A true wood products producer at heart, they have even found value added ways to convert their wood waste to a natural Wooden Clay product that can be used as modeling clay. This is yet another similarity with CalCedar, given our invention of the Duraflame firelog back in 1969.
Finally, Kitaboshi has also been a strong supporter of education, offering tours of their pencil factory to students and residents that are interested. In the past few years, they have opened the Tokyo Pencil Lab, which includes a learning center on the many interesting aspects of man. This has been featured on Japanese TV and now hosts over 100 tours per year and averages over 5000 visitors. One of the children’s highlights is the opportunity to grab as many pencils as they can in one hand out of a box for 200 Yen. Given the average pencil in Japan sells for 100 yen, this is quite a deal. The all-time pencil grab record currently stands at 98 pencils.
For more information on the full range read this post on Studio 602 or go directly to the Kitaboshi pencil page at the Pencils.com Store.