I'd like to start with a little background on the small town of Tsubame-Sanjo. This manufacturing town in Niigata Prefecture produces most of Japan's stainless steel items. If you are enjoying a little cake with a tiny fork in Tokyo or stirring a cocktail with a barspoon from Umami Mart, chances are these utensils were made in Tsubame-Sanjo.
After WWII, Tsubame-Sanjo was actually producing much of the U.S.' forks, spoons and knives in addition to servicing its domestic market. Todai started their business in 1953, during the heyday of Japanese manufacturing when airlines from around the world were also requesting high quality utensils from Tsubame-Sanjo. But in the 1970s manufacturing in Japan became too expensive and at that point, most utensils were being made in China. On top of that, after 9/11, most airlines switched from stainless steel utensils to plastic. Tsubame-Sanjo had seen better days.
But they have proved resilient, riding the waves of supply and demand and honing their craft in the process. Luckily for us, they had never stopped making barspoons, cocktail picks and shakers even during the ups and downs. After decades of manufacturing the quality has never been better.
The President of Todai, Aoyama-san, invited us into his factory.
With machines whirring and rows of work stations, the scene reminded me of shots from Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera.
Going onto tech campuses and seeing minds at work feels innovative -- yet stepping into a place that is actually manufacturing products and chugging along with machines makes my blood rush with excitement.
The clicking and clanging of hands at work is mesmerizing to watch.
A fork gets cut from a sheet of steel:
The beginnings of a fork:
Cutting the tines:
Buffing and shining:
Watch spoons being pressed here!
In a land where there are specific tools for everything, it is not surprisingly to see how many items are made for specific purposes. Aoyama-san show us the recent "hot" item: Yakitori prong forks. These forks help you push the meat off the skewer. Very handy.
And like with any business dealing with wares, accurately keeping track of inventory is top priority. After over 60 years of being in business, it was inspiring to see that they were still trying to improve their methods. Aoyama-san was obviously proud of their inventory tracking system (this white board); which is probably way more efficient than any app ever created for inventory management.
I was happy to hear from Aoyama-san that business is growing. But because youngsters in the village usually move to big cities for college, factory workers are disappearing at an alarming rate. The problem is that potential workers think the industry is dying, but it's not.
So Aoyama-san and other manufacturers in Tsubame-Sanjo held a job fair in January. He was pleasantly surprised to find a healthy pool of candidates interested in jobs. He showed me a row of about 10 work stations sitting idle and told me that in a month, these would be filled with new workers in a couple weeks.
I am happy to be a part of the new wave of businesses for Tsubame-Sanjo. Seeing someone in California dressing up their drinks with our cocktail pins ultimately results in more jobs in Tsubame-Sanjo -- reaffirming that this world is closely connected, even without the internet.