Tools for the Japanese Table

Tōjirō Knives: Bringing the Tsubame Brand of Cutting Quality to Global Kitchens

Culture

Tsubame in Niigata Prefecture is a small city of 80,000 people, but it produces some of Japan’s leading metalwork products. Today Tsubame has teamed up with the neighboring city of Sanjō to produce the Tsubame Sanjō brand of products, taking advantage of the area’s advanced techniques and skill. We visited knife maker Tōjirō and the Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum to learn how the local metalworking industry has developed.

Fusing Tradition with the Latest Technologies

The city of Tsubame has flourished since the middle of the Edo period (1603–1868) with its metal industry, making Japanese-style nails, tobacco pipes, and Tsuiki copperware. It remains home to a large number of metalworking companies to this day and is especially famous for the production of metal tableware, boasting a domestic share of more than 90%. Kobayashi Kengyō, which polished the cases for Apple’s first-generation iPod in 2001, is also located here—Tsubame is known by many people around the world as the region with the best metal polishing technology in the world.

Tsubame cutlery used in the formal dinner commemorating the ninetieth anniversary of the Nobel Foundation in 1991, on display at the Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum.

Tōjirō Co. is a knifemaker that combines traditional craftsmanship and innovative metalworking technology at the highest level, a true “Tsubame company.” It has the manufacturing technology to make both uchi-hamono, traditional forged knives and cutting implements, and nuki-hamono, more recently created press-cut knives using stainless steel. Ogawa Masato, the head of the Tōjirō Knife Gallery, explains the company’s strengths.

“With nuki-hamono, blanks are cut from sheet metal with dies, enabling stable quality and efficient production. At Tōjirō, craftsmen who forge our traditional Japanese knives check the fabrication process and finish, adding their skill and input. This results in excellent sharpness, even with nuki-hamono,” he says.

Clockwise from upper left: The exterior view of the Tōjirō Knife Gallery; gallery head Ogawa Masato explains the blades on display; a gallery showroom, with knives starting at ¥3,000 and running up to some ¥160,000. The best-selling blades are in the ¥8,000 range.

Quality Handed Down from the Japanese Sword

Tōjirō’s sells its knives directly in 50 countries around the world and has shipped its products to 90 countries in all. Its professional knives are particularly highly regarded, but the firm also has a wide range of products for home use. Tōjirō currently makes 1,200 products, a number that climbs to around 3,000 when OEM offerings are included. Its technical skill is such that even some of the most famous European knifemakers outsource the manufacture of their highest-end models to Tōjirō. Ogawa notes that while his company deals with many butcher knives and other Western-style knives, as a manufacturer, it is the most scrupulous about the cutting quality of its Japanese knives, which it still makes using a manufacturing method that has been passed on from the making of Japanese swords.

Tōjirō excels at Damascus steel forging, a sophisticated technique in which elegant ripples appear with repeated forging of stainless steel with two differing levels of hardness. These high-end products have a lacquer finish on the handle and sheath.

“Japanese people before the Edo period had small physiques and not a lot of physical strength, and so Japanese swords sought outstanding cutting quality,” explains Ogawa. “In contrast, the swords used by bigger Westerners are said to have emphasized ruggedness so that they would not break even when striking armor. That difference appears in Japanese and Western knives. There are people around the world who need the cutting quality of Japanese knives rather than robustness. To deliver the products such people want, our thinking is to combine the highest technology and a stable production system to support food culture worldwide.”

Clockwise from top: Tōjirō’s traditional forged blades; stainless-steel blades for professional use are a mainstay of the company’s product line; stainless-steel plates from which knife shapes have been punched piled in a corner of the factory.

An Industry Developed for Survival

How has Tsubame’s metalworking industry managed such striking development, fusing traditional craftsmanship and the most recent machine technology? Saitō Yūsuke, the chief curator of the Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum, says that first, “you have to understand the geography of the region.”

Clockwise from upper left: The Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum; chief curator Saitō Yūsuke discusses the region’s history of metalworking; an exhibition room in the museum’s new building.

The industry has its roots in the region’s geography, Saitō explains. “The Shinano River that flows through the Niigata Plain is Japan’s longest river. Its course takes it down an incline until just before it reaches Tsubame, where it suddenly levels out. Tsubame is surrounded by the Shinano River and its tributaries, and because of this it was hit by floods nearly every year until the Ōkōzu diversion channel was built in 1922. That made rice farming difficult, and the hard-pressed farmers had little choice but to take up metalworking as a side business to survive. If you understand this, it’s much easier to understand Tsubame.”

People in Tsubame began making Japanese nails in the first half of the seventeenth century. At the turn of the eighteenth century, they began making rasps and files, and later in that century they began making metal smoking pipes and Tsuiki copperware. As the Japanese nail industry declined with the start of imports of Western-style nails in the Meiji era (1868–1912), those craftsmen were absorbed in other industries. With the outbreak of World War I, an inquiry was received from Russia about making silverware. This was because Germany, which had produced most of their tableware used in Russia until then, was now an enemy state. The basic forms for spoons and other utensils were first made by Tsuiki copperware craftsmen. Smoking pipe craftsmen then applied their chasing techniques, taking charge of the ornamental parts and fabricating dies for mass production. The manufacture of Western-style tableware, begun in this way, thrived and led to the expansion of the region’s stainless-steel processing technology.

“The polishing techniques used in smoking pipes were applied to spoons, and later iPods—and most recently to the Nissan GT-R muffler,” says Saitō. “When an industry declines as a result of changing times, often the entire region suffers. But while Tsubame has carried on its traditional technologies, it has not been overly insistent on tradition. Rather, it has adapted skillfully to the challenges of new industries. I think it is because our metalworking industry began as a means of survival.”

Smoking pipes on exhibit in the Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum. The region’s artisans mastered techniques from metal-forming to chasing and polishing in order to create works like these.

New Value Through Technological Integration

Companies in Tsubame are known for actively cooperating and coordinating with other firms and factories, rather than limiting themselves to their own production techniques and lines of business. In recent years they have also partnered with producers in the neighboring city of Sanjō, delivering high-quality metalwork to both domestic and overseas markets under the “Tsubame-Sanjō brand.”

Saitō points to the cooperation between Tsuiki copperware artisans and smoking pipe craftsmen in making spoons as one example of the local people coming together fluidly to achieve new goals. “People would freely ask whether another shop could produce a part with its particular techniques, bringing in other workers from nearby as needed. This steadily expanded the range of work that Tsubame could do. I call this kind of industrial activity ‘technology curation,’ and I think it may be a key to Japanese small companies’ survival in the world.”

Clockwise from upper left: The Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum displays a selection of Japanese nails, a reproduction of a Tsuiki copperware workshop, and a special exhibition on the history of the local metalworking industry.

Opening the Factory to Preserve Product Value

In recent years, Tōjirō has found its business threatened by inexpensive knives from Asian countries. Japanese products, with their high labor costs, face a disadvantage in terms of price competitiveness. To create stronger ties with its customers, Tōjirō launched regular factory tours in July 2017.

Clockwise from top: A factory worker carefully checks a blade; a female artisan carefully polishes a weld; blade-sharpening work is repeated many times.

Gyokusendō and the globally recognized outdoor brand Snow Peak, produced in Sanjō, have raised their product value by opening their workshops to the public,” says Tōjirō gallery chief Ogawa Masato. “Recently, knives from Asian countries has improved in appearance. The makers of those knives can’t easily copy our highest technology, but it’s difficult for customers to discern that. We therefore opened our plant so that people could see our advanced techniques and careful workmanship for themselves and pass the word along to others.”

This, says Ogawa, is the way for Tōjirō—and Tsubame as a whole—to keep making knives with insistence on the highest cutting quality.

Artisans at work seen from visitors’ walkway (right side).

(Originally written in Japanese by Nippon.com editorial staff and published on July 3, 2017. All photographs by Kodera Kei.)

Information

Tōjirō Knife Gallery
Location:  9-5 Yoshida Higashi Sakae-chō, Tsubame, Niigata Hours:  10:00 to 18:00, Monday–Saturday (check website for details) Tel.:  0256-93-4195 Web:  http://tojiro.net/
Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum
Location:  4330-1 Ōmagari, Tsubame, Niigata Hours: 9:00 to 16:30 (last entry at 16:00); closed Mondays (if Monday is a holiday, closed the following day), the day following holidays, and year-end/new year Admission:  Adults ¥300, children ¥100; group discounts available Web:  http://www.city.tsubame.niigata.jp/shiryou/

craftsmanship metalworking Niigata