Japanese Firm Brightens Work and Study with Adorable Collectable Erasers
Fun at Any Age
The lights are always on at Iwakō, a maker of novelty erasers in Yashio, Saitama Prefecture. On the firm’s production floor 15 machines whir day and night cranking out miniature renderings of zoo animals, pastries, fruits and vegetables, vehicles, sushi, and even Mount Fuji. Selling for around ¥50 each, these adorable items, most of which measure just 2–3 centimeters in height, have won a broad following of both young and mature collectors.
Part of the appeal of the erasers lies in their ingeniously real designs and deceptive complexity. A tiny plate of rolled sushi, for example, is made up of multiple parts in different hues, including nori, rice, and tuna filling, that when put together look almost good enough to eat. Cuteness and appealing colors are also factors that draw devotees and newcomers alike.
A Novel Idea
Iwakō got its start in 1968 producing plastic pencil cases. Company founder Iwasawa Yoshikazu explains that he set up the company in a small apartment in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, after 18 years working at a stationery wholesaler. “Our first product that really sold was a plastic pencil cap,” he recalls. This sustained the company until inexpensive mechanical pencils flooded the market, forcing Iwasawa back to the drawing board.
“I made novelty erasers on something of a whim,” he says. That was back in 1988. Hoping to boost the company’s fortunes with an original product, he poured his energy into creating a vegetable series that included vegetables like carrots and daikon radishes . Stores and wholesalers, however, failed to share his enthusiasm for the novelty erasers. “They wouldn’t even give me the time of day,” he says with a wry smile.
Without buyers, Iwasawa was forced to mothball his vegetable erasers. But five years later a wholesaler saw potential in the series and convinced him to restart the project. The supplier’s instinct proved to be on target and sales took off. Over the years Iwakō has broadened its lineup to include 450 types of erasers.
Starting in 1993, the firm cranked out 100,000 units daily for six years straight. Success spawned competition, but as interest in novelty erasers cooled following an initial uptick, these rivals fell by the wayside, leaving Iwakō to dominate the market. Iwasawa says perseverance has seen the firm through its various dips and curves. “Our hard work really started paying dividends around 15 years ago,” he explains. Currently between 200,000 and 250,000 erasers roll off the factory line each day.
Iwakō has stuck to its business plan: create fun and inexpensive erasers. It does this by keeping things local. Prototypes and metal molds are outsourced, but all other aspects of production, from design to assembly to packing, are done in and around the factory.
Iwasawa explains the initial process: “First we send the specifications for a new eraser to a designer, who creates a wax prototype. After tweaking the design, metal molds are then made. These generally take three to four months to complete and are the heart of the production process.”
Once the molds are in place, rubber-like thermoplastic is sprayed into them to form the various parts of erasers. These are then assembled into finished products by a team of neighborhood women working from home. Iwakō currently relies on residents from 250 homes near its Yashio factory.
Iwasawa insists that keeping production local is key. “Parts get worn and damaged if they have to be shipped from far away, which is why we base everything in the neighborhood,” he explains. “It’s a hard business model to copy, and is probably why we don’t have much competition,” he laughs. Still, he insists that keeping prices down to ¥50 per eraser is no easy task. “Material costs have risen by around 70 percent compared to when we started,” he says. “But we’re determined to keep our prices down so that children can afford to buy our erasers.”
Iwakō boasts a number of high-selling items, but Iwasawa says that the conveyor-belt sushi series tops the list. “We had regular sushi, but my grandchild came up with the idea to put it on a plate,” he chuckles. “They’re popular at souvenir shops.”
Iwakō’s sprawling lineup makes it appear that the firm is willing to turn anything into an eraser. But in reality, it takes a cautious approach to development. One area the company has shied away from is tie-ups featuring popular characters from manga and anime. Iwasawa’s reasoning is simple. “One day they’re all the rage and the next they’re old-hat,” he exclaims. “We expect our products to sell for five or ten years, at least.”
The appeal of the erasers has made them popular promotional items used in safety campaigns run by police and fire departments. Dentists have also been known to hand out Iwakō erasers shaped like toothbrushes or teeth (complete with different-colored cavities) to young patients.
Iwakō has recently seen growing interest in its erasers beyond Japan’s shores. The firm first attended an international toy fair in Germany in 2011, and has since been working to build up its overseas network at stationery-focused events. According to company president Iwasawa Tsutomu, the firm currently has outlets in select locations across Asia and Europe, including Bahrain, Britain, China, Germany, Portugal, South Korea, and Taiwan.
But even as interest in Iwakō’s products spread abroad, the company says it will remain true to its roots of creating cute erasers at an affordable price.