Over the course of 2018 we'll be highlighting pencil history from a new country each month. As we endeavor this year to get the best currently available pencils from every country that's still making them we thought we'd share some of the stories that make them special.
When it comes to pencils it's hard to beat those that are made in Japan. I'm supposed to be unbiased about these things but have you tried a Tombow Mono 100?! From the precision of its construction to the paint finish to the ultra smooth core, it's nothing short of fantastic. While the history of pencils in Japan doesn't reach back nearly as far as it does in countries like Germany or the US, it's still full of stories.
In Japan there are two main pencil makers: Mitsubishi Pencil Company and Tombow. Both make many other things now that they are arguably more known for (Mitsubishi makes all of the Uni-ball products and Tombow makes loads of pens and correction tape) but both got their start with the humble wood-cased pencil. But first let's backtrack or second. Pencils have been manufactured in Japan since the late 1800s and were first recognized during the Great Depression when Japan started exporting imitations of American pencils to east coast shores. There was a lot of controversy surrounding this because not only were they not labelled "Made in Japan" but they were disruptive to the already fragile US pencil market, one which was also in its infancy. After the second World War, trade lines were limited and Japanese pencils stayed in Japan for the most part.
Similarly to how US pencils were once regulated based on their characteristics and price, Japanese pencils had to fall under certain very specific categories. In order to be priced a certain way, each pencil model had to be designated for a specific purpose based on quality and physical characteristics. Drafting pencils, writing pencils, drawing pencils, general use pencils and photo retouching pencils all had to be clearly marked with their classification on the back. Even now, most Japanese pencils have their classification printed on the back, even though it's not necessary anymore.
Mitsubishi (founded 1887) and Tombow (founded 1913) started to give Japanese pencils a good name by developing quality pencil under their own brand names. For Mitsubishi it was the 9800 pencil and for Tombow the 8900 pencil, both of which still exist today and look almost he same as they originally did. From the beginning both brands were in clear competition with each other in their design choices and product development. In the 1950s Tombow made the Homo-graph pencil (which was meant to be their new high-tech, fancy pencil) only for Mitsubishi to introduce their competitive Uni very shortly after. In an effort to make something even better, the brands rolled out their respective Mono 100 and Hi-Uni pencils shortly after. If you've even seen either of these beauties, you know what I'm talking about when is say that the attention to detail on every part of the pencil is absolutely impeccable. Tombow's Mono 100 is especially nice--it was designed by renowned graphic designer Takashi Kono and features a graphite core that has 10 billion particles per square millimeter (read: SMOOTH!). The Mono 100 and the Hi-Uni are both, to this day, some of the very nicest pencils money can buy. Buy a dozen of either and you'll find that they even come in carefully designed re-useable plastic boxes.
At the height of Japanese pencil manufacture in the mid 20th century there were 125 individual pencil companies in operation--a far cry from the handful that are still around today. Among them is Kita-boshi Pencil Company, a family business founded by the Sugitani family in the 1940s and Camel Pencil Company which is known for their trademark minimalist, ferrule-less attached eraser. These days the pencil factories remaining in Japan manufacture their own lines but also the pencils of other brands looking for that Japanese quality. Kita-boshi's factory (on the outskirts of Tokyo) regularly hosts public visits where they show how their pencils are made and share their sustainability initiatives. They re-use the cedar dust and wood-chips from making pencils to make paint and clay!
Japanese pencils will always have a reputation for being unbeatably consistent and well designed. Though they make many of the world's most serious pencils, they're also responsible for some of the most fun ones. Eye Ball Pencil Company churns out over 100 novelty styles that are of surprisingly excellent quality. Should you ever find yourself in Japan you must visit Ito-ya, an obligatory department store-esque stationery shop but where I think things are more interesting are in the normal, everyday shops. You'll learn very quickly that the general dedication to good writing tools in Japan in absolutely incomparable to any other place.
One of my all-time favorite quotes about pencils comes from Mr. Sugitani of Kita-boshi: "A pencil sacrifices itself to serve people. Both humans and pencils need cores."
PS. If you're interested in falling down a couple of Japanese pencil rabbit holes, Google Tombow train pencils or kohitsu shosha pencils--you're in for a treat!