OKI Manufacturing Interview originally published at Okidata.co.jp, translated here for FPGeeks by Rocky Huang.
The Japanese Long Seller That Rose From “Skill” and “Spirit of Manufacturing”
Creating fountain pens that are easy for Japanese people to use
The series of actions that lead to its success include the success of localization of the first gold nib fountain pen and occupying a corner as one of the three major domestic manufacturers. Before that, we must look at the fountain pen as a product and what makes a Sailor fountain pen.
Long ago, paper was widely available in East compared to the parchment that was used extensively in Europe. Later on, changes to metal bending techniques meant that a variety of materials such as gold could be used in pens and in the 19th century, the prototype of the fountain pen had been widely used.
Japan welcomed the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and after that Western culture had flowed in a short period of time. In 1891, the fountain pen was imported into Japan for the first time. However it was expensive and not comfortable for the Japanese people to use.
“Isn’t there a fountain pen for the Japanese people?”
There was a man who put into action the secret wishes of the people. Sakata Kyugoro was born in Okayama Prefecture and he was the founder of Sailor.
When he was 14 he went to Kure, Hiroshima to a metal stationery factory for the Navy that was operated by his older brother. Kure was a military city at the time and in contrast to Hiroshima, which was the “capital of the Army”, Kure was the “capital of the Navy”.
The port was home to naval vessels of various sizes and Kure Naval Arsenal was in charge of shipbuilding, repairs and maintenance. It produced the battleship Yamato and in modern terms it was a harbor with “high tech” facilities. Warships (and merchant ships) were built to collect the best scientific and technological knowledge and the occupants had many opportunities to broaden their knowledge and were “high collared” people. Thus, the conventional writing instrument was difficult to use at sea and the fountain pen was more suitable to this task. During the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, fountain pens had wide spread popularity.
The average price of a fountain pen was 3 yen at the time and the starting salary for an elementary school teacher was 11 to 15 yen at the time (1900 – 1920). So, Sakata founded Sailor on the premise of “making easy to use fountain pens for Japanese people”. At the time the population of Kure was around 110,000 and it was a vibrant and progressive city of West Japan.
Thoughts of corporate culture and branding
In this story, we spoke to deputy director Ishimaru, who is in charge of the stationery planning department.
He joined the company after the oil crisis of 1973. The first question we had for him was “What was the impression left by his boss and seniors?”
He replied, “Our principle was “Yatte minya wakran.” [note: he wanted to express himself using his own regional dialect because there are nuances that can only be expressed with particular dialects, this reflects the attitude that formed a major part of the corporate culture] which in Kure dialect meant that we should “Try doing it first.” This meant that we weren’t pessimistic and we were actively involved in whatever we did. Even now, there is an air of tackling matters without fear of failure (within the company).”
The ideology of the founder Sakata Kyugoro, “Yatte minya wakran.” is company-wide. Also, the traditions of technology and how things have been done are carried through this phrase.
I wonder if there lies examples of method of work across two or three generations in a family. Though it is not uncommon in industries such as steel, shipbuilding and brewing.
“It’s not uncommon in the field of manufacturing.” This was the expected answer. All of Sailor’s fountain pens are made in the Tennou Factory in Kure.
Generations and generations of workers have progressed through the ranks of rookie, middle ranks and veteran and have given birth to masterpieces for 100 years.
Not long after the company’s inception, ‘Sailor’ was used as a brand name. In 1932 the name of the company was ‘Sakata Sailor Pen Kabushiki Kaisha Manufacturing Inc.’. Why the name Sailor? With all due respect aren’t the admiral and captain better options? This was Ishimaru’s answer:
“With any vessel, it doesn’t move merely by the power of the great. It is run with a great number of sailors and crewmen. This was the sense of meaning we are trying to convey, that the company moves with the power of the people.”
Fountain pen – the object that accompanies us through our growth
I would like to ask those who are reading this article. When was the first time you acquired a fountain pen, one way or another?
Fountain pens were one of the staple gifts, along with watches and shoes, marking the coming of age. Presently, the place of shoes and watches went down but it seems that the presence of the fountain pen has not changed.
When we asked a leading stationery store, the response was that the best selling period was March and the average price of pens sold is about 10,000 – 20,000 yen (~$130-$260). Also, demand has been growing rapidly. Fountain pens are popular gifts for retirement, kanreki (60th birthday) and festive celebrations. When it comes to luxury items, it definitely depends on the season. Even Sailor has released a KAN product for kanreki (60th birthday), thus having a wide range is justifiable.
From high school admission to celebration of longevity, in terms of products gifted throughout various stages of a person’s growth there are no other products than fountain pens. When one receives their first fountain pen, for example during high school admission, they won’t forget the feeling of “being an adult”. Similarly, when one celebrates their longevity, the feeling brought on by gifts from their children and grandchildren is just as memorable. The fountain pen is a mysterious object indeed.
For the sake of good writing comfort
Let us go back to 1911, when the company was founded.
I wonder, how was the “making of fountain pens suitable for Japanese people” achieved?
Foreign manufactured fountain pens were imported into Japan starting from the middle of the Meiji era. These pens were developed under the assumption of a horizontal alphabetical style of writing. The writing of kanji and kana, especially the vertical strokes such as 「トメ」「ハネ」「ハライ」were not able to be written beautifully.
For the Japanese, the brush pen was a familiar tool which was beautiful and meets the needs of comfortable writing of Japanese characters.
So, much research and development went in to making a tip that was capable of laying a thin line as well as thick strokes, and Sailor began their progress towards their synonymous comfortable writing pen.
Nobuyoshi Nagahara resurrected the technology that was temporarily disrupted after the war and became known as the “God of Pens” and a contemporary craftsman.
Nagahara was born in 1932 and entered the company at the age of 15. It was then he became involved with the whole pen manufacturing process. He studied and worked on a number of nibs and developed the catchphrase, “This nib, still has potential.” He was a master craftsman with fans around the world and his mantra was “It’s not fun if it’s not a fountain pen.”
The nib that Nagahara revived and developed had a pen point (rounded nib tip) and featured a longer grind than other nibs of the time, because of this it was called the Naginata [note: naginata is a traditional Japanese bladed polearm that's similar to the Chinese guandao]. This is a technique that only Sailor uses.
In addition to sharpening the Naginata nib, Nagahara also made many adjustments and improvements to the nib. He had a saying that, “There’s no end to manufacturing.” Nagahara retired in 2011 but his commitment to technology and ingenuity has been passed on to his son, Nagahara Yukio.
The Cross Concord, developed by Yukio Nagahara, has a ‘Cross Point’ base and features a tab for flow control and also serves as an additional ink reservoir.
As previously mentioned, all stages of manufacturing are still carried out at Tennou factory in Kure.
Even now, the final assembly stage of the production process is still carried out by hand. In periods of high production, machine manufacturing is used. But the fountain pens are still assembled by hand and so are the writing tests. There are also tests to see if the pen would retain its form through various temperatures and humidity levels.
The ‘written test’ is the final check and is carried out in a small room designed to block out external sound. While writing experts repeated tests hundreds of thousands of times [note: total number of tests performed by all personnel in one day] to detect subtle differences in terms of friction noises made by contact with paper. One by one, from these difference the degree of perfection of fountain pens can then be examined.
The flagship product – ‘Profit Series’
There are 120 different types of Sailor fountain pens. Out of these, the company’s flagship product would be the ‘Profit Series’ which started selling in 1978.
The Profit series is the finest ‘introductory’ series and is a line that symbolizes what Sailor is about. More than 600,000 have been made so far.
These pens would be “the fountain pens that match the Japanese”, with traditions passed on by the founder, every owner experiences the goodness that is the day to day “comfortable writing” experience that we have described.
The charm of the fountain pen? The thing that stays with you
Recently, as more and more kinds of writing instruments arise, the opportunity to use a fountain pen declines.
However, there are still scenarios where one must use a fountain pen. In the business setting, it is still used extensively for signing of important documents. Politically speaking, international treaties and conventions see the use of fountain pens quite often. Personally, many people still write their New Year cards in fountain pens.
It is not only a practical tool, but one fit for special occasions. Yoshida, the manager in charge of public relations said this when we spoke: “I spoke to a junior high school teacher who insisted on having a fine nib fountain pen. He had hoped to fit more on his notification notes and that was one of the reasons.” [note: this was used to demonstrate the usefulness and large variety of fountain pens available, for practically reasons]
The teacher went on to say, “You only live once, I hope to pass on more individual messages to more people.” From memory, teachers wrote their findings in notification forms and the spaces were small. With this teacher, he probably wished to write more than a few words for every student of his group.
This brings us back to, Yukio Nagahara, who was flying around the world as a second generation craftsman and pen doctor. Demands of ultra-fine pens was not unheard of among the clinic and it was a long planned ‘theme’ to “make pens that can write fine hairlines”. Not long after that, fountain pen nibs with 0.18mm tips (sharp and fine) were released. This is an example of the company’s receptiveness to hints.
The relentless development and study of fountain pens by those who inherited the mindset of the founder continues. On one hand, Sailor has developed the attitudes of “listening to the user” and “sincerity”. For fans of Sailor, this is truly irresistible.
If we thought about what’s been written so far it would make us marvel at the surprising beauty of the pens. The founder knew that the beauty and sophistication of the nib would involve the work and collaboration of many and involve thousands of ideas. I am convinced that there will be many enthusiasts who will be fascinated by fountain pens.
After 100 years, I hope that Sailor will continue to have long-selling capabilities.