The iconic image of a father and son sitting back-to-back, silently working together forging handcrafted tools in their traditional workshop exemplifies the Japanese tradition of passing down, through the generations, technical expertise and reverence for raw materials and the resultant tools their skilled hands and generations of experience can transform those raw materials into. Increasingly the inheritance of a family craft is literally dying out, as the skills honed over generations are lost as older craftsman fade away.
In a quiet corner of Ono City in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, there is a small family-owned business which makes what some people believe to be the finest hand-made copper and steel scissors in the world – and their traditional methods and materials have remained largely unchanged for almost a century.
The scissors which Tajika make, under the Takeji brand, are very sharp, elegant, comfortable to use and very durable. The hand-working of these iconic tools is extremely labour intensive and time-consuming, as the metal has to be tempered by heat and then shaped by hammer. Each tool used in the process tends to be worn into the hand that most often wields it, making the tool itself a work of living art. The finished tool is then meticulously inspected for quality, intrinsic in Japanese tool-making, the finished piece being an object of refined simplicity; its simple lines aesthetic to the eye, ergonomic to the hand and perfectly functional in purpose – the ultimate tool to own, a joy to use, hold and behold. In a market increasingly dominated by the mass-production methods of large corporations, the future for family-owned businesses like Tajika Haruo Scissors Works is far from certain though.
I contacted Daisuke Tajika, a fourth-generation craftsman, to garner an insight into the story behind these superlative traditional tools which truly are an exceptionally conceived and handcrafted combination of aesthetics and practical function.
The following interview with Daisuke Tajika was conducted in Japanese in July 2013. We hope you enjoy reading…
Firstly, for readers that aren’t aware of your company, please could you briefly describe the Tajika Haruo Scissors Works?
While working at a wholesale hardware factory in 1928, Takeji Tajika [Daisuke Takeji’s great-grandfather] decided to start his own scissors-making company in Ono City where his family had lived for many generations.
As a family business, presumably you were an understudy to your father for a long time. How has your role developed over the years and what is your role within the company now?
I share the business with my father, though, now, I am probably undertaking a little more than half of all the production processes, from smelting to end product; in other words, from start to finish. This is my 8th year of full-time employment in the family business and, while my father concentrates solely on the crafting side of the operation, I now have other responsibilities for marketing and selling our products.
I am very enthusiastic about the tools we make – and the Takeji brand in general – especially now that so many people are benefiting from using our products, so I really want to do my utmost to improve our production methods, as well as finding ways to promote them far and wide.
Could you explain some of the history behind your business – do you only make scissors or do you produce other items as well?
Well, we do make shears but I would say that the overwhelming majority of our products are different types and sizes of scissors. We have always employed as many craftsmen as we could afford but my great-grandfather and grandfather were basically making most of the scissors themselves.
This is not a craft which we’ve ever undertaken on the basis of the division of labour so a craftsman must become an expert at every stage of the production process. Though we often use machines to make the scissors it is still very much a hands-on, hand-made operation.
We make scissors for specialist purposes such as for cutting paper or sculpting bonsai trees and we also make left-handed scissors, which are usually hard for south-paws (left-handers) to source. We also custom-make scissors for other specialist purposes and this is a service which we offer that most companies cannot. We have developed these services over time, using our knowledge of not only of technology and specialist equipment but also the needs of the consumer. This is what Tajika is all about.
The products that you make include a range of copper and steel. Could you explain the reasons for your choice of materials?
We make scissors according to their purpose. So, for example, we make steel scissors for cutting paper and copper ones for small tree maintenance. We make products depending on the needs of our customers and, in addition, we’ve always tried to think of new products which will serve a new market potential.
The authenticity and antique image of our products sets us apart, too, I feel. The copper scissors, in particular, provide a uniquely antique experience for customers because of their authentic old-fashioned appearance.
But, while we try to push the envelope in terms of design and aesthetic satisfaction, we are always conscious of making sure that our products provide their primary practical purpose – that is, cutting things well. And, we basically try our best to find out what customers need to cut, and then recommend a product which meets their specific requirements.
What is the ethos behind you and your father’s company, and do you share the same business philosophy?
As we live and work together I think it is only natural that we talk a lot, so I guess we have ended up with the same way of thinking – about business, in particular. We are always sharing ideas about how to improve our products and I think we share the philosophy of trust. What I mean by that is being trusted by our customers to make the best products is always foremost in our minds.
Do you intend to design and produce a wider range of items in the future, and, if so, can you let us know what you have in mind?
We certainly have plenty of ideas but I’m afraid we haven’t decided upon the next generation of designs yet, so I can’t offer you any details right now. It is actually both expensive and time-consuming to design new products so we basically try to tweak old designs, perhaps using old tools with new techniques in order to make already existing products more attractive to our customers. That said, we are actually planning to design and produce some new scissors by the end of the year.
Do you envisage passing down your workshop to the next generation?
That is a really tough question to answer. Taking on new people involves a lot of time and expense and it’s just not possible for us to take on apprentices right now. And, since I’m not married yet, I can only hope that I will have a child one day and I would be so happy to train him or her to take over the business in the future.
Anyway, most companies make cheap mass-produced scissors but we have the skills and determination to keep making high-quality tools using our existing capacity and age-old techniques. I think we need to be strong and brave, and if we can keep focused and continue making great products then the future of our business may not be completely assured but at least it will be more likely.
Could you explain a typical day in the workshop, to give readers a glimpse of your daily routine?
Well, it’s pretty ordinary, really. We work hard in the workshop from morning to night, five days a week. And, when I have finished making scissors, my working day is not over: in the evenings – and also at weekends – I often have to do clerical work such as catching up with website correspondence and other sales and marketing tasks.
Your items are now sold across the world. Do you ever reflect on the fact that the fruits of your work are being enjoyed thousands of miles away from Ono City?
To be honest, when I started promoting our products all over the place I was really nervous. I mean it was hard for me to take in all the opinions and ideas of both domestic and foreign customers, but now I am grateful for the experience I’ve gained in meeting such a wide range of people. And when I hear people saying how nice to use or easy to use our products are it makes me really happy.
Once, I remember seeing a picture of a huge German guy using one of our small scissors and I felt very happy and proud when I saw it. At first, I just couldn’t imagine foreigners using our products, but now, I am very happy to keep increasing our customer base – both here in Japan and abroad.
Given the growing demand for your products, are you tempted to increase production accordingly?
Because our technological capacity has increased, we may be able to make more scissors in time, but I think we might have to decrease the range in order to that. Basically, if we try to increase volume without a corresponding rise in manpower or time spent in the workshop then there would be a theoretical danger of diminished quality – and we would never let that happen.
We always have to think carefully about this aspect of the business because our main concern is satisfying our customers by making scissors to the very best of our ability. It’s not just about volume and sales at the end of the day: it’s about quality and providing the best service for our customers.
Could you describe what it’s like living and working in Ono City, and are workshops like yours typical for the area?
Ono City has a population of about 50,000 so it’s not very big. There is a tradition of soroban (abacus) here – both as a craft and as a scholarly practice, though the craft side is decreasing by the year. But there are also a number of writers living and working in Ono City.
I’d say it’s a ‘happy-go-lucky’ kind of place; a relaxing environment to live and work, so I am hopeful that our city will be a fun and interesting place for people to live for a long time into the future.
That said, there used to be about 200 to 300 family businesses in our city, but now, there are only about 20 in total – and most of them are staffed by middle-aged or old people. Of course this isn’t just a trend which is affecting scissors-makers – or even Ono City small businesses in general: it appears to be a nationwide phenomenon.
Finally, in the UK, many traditional and heritage crafts are dying out through lack of support. Is the same thing happening in Japan?
Yes, we definitely have a similar situation in Japan, too. Though it is, perhaps, a harsh thing to say, I really think that the demise of some traditional handcraft industries is inevitable over time unless, perhaps, we get more support. But, while not all industries can be protected, I still believe that the onus is on traditional craftsmen to keep making products that people all over the world will always want and need.
At the end of the day, we all have to find our own way in business and in life. All I can do is hope that by making high-quality products the way we have always made them, while, at the same time, introducing new product lines, we can keep going for as long as possible. In this way, hopefully we will be able to increase sales and bring our products to a wider audience in the future.
Many thanks to Daisuke Tajika for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions.