Not by Bread Alone


I went to the seaside to fish last week, passing by many electric signboards on the road saying “Let’s avoid non-essential outings!” I know fishing is definitely thought to be a non-essential activity. As I may sound like trying to justify myself, let me say. What would be left in us if all the non-essential activities are taken away? Only by eating, excreting, and sleeping, we can keep our hearts beating, but I think we will be dead inside. Work seems to be believed to be essential, but actually is essential only for each of us to make a living. As we’ve seen so far, the world kept moving around even when most of us stayed at home. What makes us human is non-essential things, I believe.

IKEA is the biggest furniture company in the world, though it has been struggling in the Japanese market. One of the obstacles for IKEA to enter the Japanese market would be NITORI, the biggest Japanese furniture company, with about 600 directly owned stores, increasing in sales and profits for more than 30 years. We could be said to be competitors in the broad sense that both NITORI and us are furniture suppliers, though I think we are too small and beneath their notice. From a customer’s view point, I can’t help admiring them. When I moved around a lot for work, I always went to their stores where I could get everything I needed to start a new life in a new place.

Focusing only on if it’s essential or not, we have no other choice but to conclude that such discount giants win. They are necessary and sufficient, and our products would be excessive in quality, design, etc., but again, let me tell you. We and our lives consist mainly of non-essential, vague, and emotional factors. I believe people still need our furniture in order to be alive inside as well.


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/20/t-magazine/museums-galleries-open-art.html


The Laws of Nature


The “wood shock” has still cast a big shadow over our industry. As many of you know, it’s one of the social problems caused by the COVID. As more people tend to work remotely at home, the demand of housing and renovation rises abruptly. The trend is so abrupt that the supply of wood can’t keep up, and accordingly, the price of wood is going up sky-high. This knockabout reminds us of a simple and powerful truth: we are still dependent a lot on this old material (wood), even in the time when carbon, rare metals, nanofibers, etc. are hailed as future materials.

Another thing coming up to my mind during the wood shock is the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is the oldest epic prepared in Mesopotamia about 5000 years ago. King Gilgamesh went to the forest of Lebanon cedar to cut down the trees to develop a city. Humbaba, the deity of the forest got furious and attacked the king to protect Lebanon cedar, but was killed in the fight. This epic is thought to be the metaphor that Mesopotamian people chose to conquer and destroy nature for civilization. As a result, most of the beautiful Lebanon cedar were lost, and Mesopotamia finally collapsed.

Crust – Stool, High Stool, Table 80×42 (Japanese Oak)

On the other hand, woodland deities still survive in Japan, in Japanese people’s minds, to be more precise, as evidenced by the fact that illegal dumping in forest is prevented only by making small shrine gates. You can see the fake gates everywhere in hidden places in Japan, such as forest, riverbeds, lonely road side, etc. where illegal dumping is highly likely to occur. In these few years, we’re using, for our furniture, more and more Hokkaido oak and ash cut out from the forest around us, which enables us to survive in the harsh competition for little-remaining wood. Hokkaido oak and ash are strong in character (clearer grains and more knags) and a little thinner, but we hope people will enjoy our furniture made of them as such. We shouldn’t even try to conquer nature but should appreciate the blessings of nature.


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://lithub.com/who-were-the-scribes-who-actually-wrote-down-the-epic-of-gilgamesh/


Japanese Mecca of Wooden Furniture


Did you know Haagen-Dazs was originated in the US? I thought it came from somewhere in North Europe, which, I assume, would be exactly what the brand founder intended. Let me tell you another example. In Japan, canned coffee is one of the profitable items in the canned-drink market. A Japanese beverage company launched a canned coffee named with “WEST” about 20 years ago, but it didn’t sell at all. They just changed the name to “BOSS,” and it became a big hit and still sells very well. The lesson we can learn here is names are important, sometimes more important than the contents.

In that sense, the name of our hometown (ASAHIKAWA) is at a disadvantage outside Japan because it’s not easy for non-Japanese people to pronounce. In fact, even most of our overseas business partners may not remember the name correctly, I guess. Today, I’d like to show some images (related to the furniture industry) to promote ASAHIKAWA, the Japanese mecca of wooden furniture.

Kagu Lounge at Asahikawa Station

Photo Credit: Kagu Lounge at Asahikawa Station

Asahikawa Design Center

Photo Credit: Asahikawa Design Center


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://www.condehouse.co.jp/


Leather VS Alcantara (Ultrasuede)


When the nobility used to use a horse carriage, the coachman seat was upholstered with leather; the passenger seat inside the coach with fabric. In the modern period when the main means of transportation was replaced by cars, the situation changed 180 degrees. Genuine leather is thought to be standard for luxury car seats across the world. I think the only option alternative to genuine leather would be Alcantara. It’s highly coveted by car lovers (especially Ferrari fans), a synonym for luxury artificial leather. Alcantara is a name of a brand and also a company in Italy that is a joint venture with a Japanese major chemical company, TORAY. The artificial leather was invented by a Japanese scientist.

Some people may be likely to avoid it just by hearing the word “artificial,” but Alcantara looks and feels real suede leather. You can see how it looks by googling with words “Ferrari” and “Alcantara.” In fact, whether it is fake or genuine is not the issue at least for car lovers because it has already been a brand. There have been some cars even sold labeled as something like “Alcantara Edition.” Still, some people may have a feeling of dislike only because it’s artificial. Indeed, it’s made of polyester and polyurethane, but most of them have already been produced from renewable biomaterials. Compared with genuine leather of which production (especially in the tanning process) puts a heavy burden on the environment, Alcantara can be said to be more eco-friendly.

TORAY itself produces the same artificial leather in Japan under a different brand, “Ultrasuede” that is one of our fabric collections. We have only 3 colors in our catalog, but that means we always have those three colors in stock. You can choose your favorite color from more than 80 standard colors of Ultrasuede, wider color variation than all of our leather collections. By upholstering our chairs with Ultrasuede, you can get a luxury feeling like being seated in Ferrari, Maserati, etc. in an eco-friendly way.


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://www.condehouse.co.jp/


The Sincerest Form of Flattery?


The structure of a chair consists of a backrest, seat, arm rests, and legs, just simple and easy to copy. It’s so easy that we, every time launching a new product, are concerned if there are any other similar products. I’ve seen some copies of our chairs at furniture exhibitions sometimes. Were we mad? Not really. Of course, we’re not happy at all with such copies but believe it’s almost impossible to copy our products with the same quality in the same price range. Actually, the copies I’ve seen so far were cheaper, and their quality was worth the cheap price.

There are pros and cons on the subject of imitation. It seems difficult to simply condemn that imitation is bad. Even a genius scientist, Einstein said “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” Steve Jobs ordered Frog Design to imitate Sony while blowing up about Windows and Android. In the first place, as far as we think in the languages developed by our ancestors, all of our ideas may not be said to be completely original because our thought is limited by language. Although I think it’s still difficult to clearly define it, fusing existing things (ideas) together to make a new thing (idea) sounds fine. It’s said to be the basic way of innovation, totally different from imitation. 

I have no real answer for this issue like this, but let me go back to the story of copies of our furniture, I don’t think that’s worth a try because it will require not-small expenses anyway to try to re-produce our products to the details. This may be not only because our furniture is technically difficult to produce but because of the characteristics of wooden furniture: not suitable for mass-production, though. If there are copies of our products with the same quality in the same price, I really want to ask the copycat for instructions how to realize it.


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://artuk.org/discover/stories/imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery-an-artists-take-on-the-art-of-copying


Unnoticeable Cultural Binding


I believe many of you have seen the above image. It’s the fortress of Carcassonne, one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites. According to what I learned on the Internet, it is now the second most popular sightseeing spot after Mont Saint-Michel in France. It becomes more popular in Japan nowadays because the fortress city serves as the stage of a big-hit Japanese film. I’m ashamed to say, but I had not seen European fortresses and castles much (including Carcassonne). The film made me interested (though I’ve not watched it), and I found some differences from Japanese castles. Anyone would immediately notice the difference in material: stone in Europe and wood in Japan, which is not what attracted my attention. Different from Japanese castles, the fortress of Carcassonne has a residence area inside and high walls.

As I looked it up on the Internet again, the reason why Japanese castles didn’t have a residence area inside is because it was a kind of civil war or fight between local clans in the samurai age. People other than samurais were basically not the target of attack. The reason of high walls is so easy that I can imagine without the help of Google. It’s difficult to build high structures in an earthquake country like Japan. Instead, most of the Japanese castles have outer moats, much easier in a country with a lot of rivers flowing freely everywhere. Castles were evolving in different ways in Europe and Japan like this, though the era of castles was over in both areas once cannons became a main weapon.

What I found interesting through the above quick search is the impact of cultural components such as a political situation, climate, etc. on concrete matters, as it is seen in the shape of castles totally different in Europe and Japan even though their basic and main purpose is the same (defense against enemies). In that sense, our furniture definitely becomes unique and so Japanese style, no matter how, because it’s made by Japanese craftspeople here in Japan using Japanese wood. The problem is sometimes we can’t tell if it’s uniquely Japanese, like “can’t see the forest for the trees,” and so, I think cross-cultural understanding is important to understand our own culture more deeply.


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://7toucans.com/en/things-to-do-when-traveling/europe/france/carcassonne/918-the-fortress-of-carcassonne/gallery


Samurai Nails


Japan had been governed by samurai for about 700 years (from 1185 to 1867). The age of samurai is divided into some periods, and according to a popular theory, samurais in the first period (the Kamakura period, from 1185 to 1333) are strongest and bravest. It is said that “you look like a Kamakura samurai” was the best praising words for samurais even in the last days of the samurai age. The same as samurais, the quality of nails in the Kamakura period is said to be best. In the age of samurai, the best quality steel (high-carbon steel) was used for sword crafting as I wrote before. In the Kamakura period, nails were made of the second best quality steel.

Many people (even Japanese people) still believe that Japanese old buildings, like temples and shrines built several hundred years ago, didn’t use any nails, but actually nails were used partially in the outer and base structure. The quantity of the nails, however, was limited to a necessary minimum for design, sustainability, and flexibility. Ancient Japanese people tried to hide nails as much as possible for design. When used on a noticeable place, the nails were decorated. The average durable life of the Kamakura nails was designed to be about 1000 years, and so, they can be re-used even now at the time of repair work. The high-carbon nails are hard and brittle. Buildings will become too brittle if such nails are used a lot. Japan is an earthquake country. It’s important to make structure strong yet flexible.

I think the spiritual core is in common with our production philosophy. Of course, Kamakura nails are not used in our furniture, but some high-tech screws and metal ware are, to a necessary minimum. They are stealthily hidden by the latest technology and craftsmanship. I’m sure you’ll have fun just to imagine how the parts of our furniture are joined.


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://www.touropia.com/best-things-to-do-in-kamakura-japan/


Life in a Human Manner


The COVID is sometimes called “a time machine.” Remote work is a good example. I think most of the companies at least in Japan just pretended to take a positive attitude but actually were not so serious about it before the COVID. In the peak season of 2020, however, the proportion of companies adopting remote work exceeded 50%. The time seems to change quickly and greatly. Do you think things will go back to the way we used to be? I don’t think so, especially about this issue, because many people have tasted the comfort to avoid personal relationship problems. Due to the rapid rise of the online communication, we can easily communicate with people who we like and also avoid communication with people who we dislike, which I think would be the most harmful side-effect of this time machine.

In Japan, it was common to drink with colleagues after work. I didn’t personally like it very much but still believe it’s an important chance to communicate with people who aren’t familiar with each other, and people with different beliefs or of different generations. You may think it’s just a waste of time, but I think it’s a necessary cost to maintain public order because lack of communication often creates a social division. For example, there’re growing calls to obligate elderly drivers to give up their licenses, though young drivers like in their 20’s or 30’s have killed much more people in car accidents, according to the stats. I’m worried if the same thing (division) will happen between countries.

On the other hand, in our company, we are free of remote work due to the characteristics of this business (furniture manufacturing), still working on-site together with young and old, regardless of nationality in my division. I don’t mean our work place is an ideal world where everyone gets along well with each other. There are always personal relationship problems, of course. We face and solve them to unite above our conflicts and disputes. Please come and see our factory soon after the COVID is over. You can see not only high-level production but also life in a human manner.


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200331-covid-19-how-will-the-coronavirus-change-the-world


Great Penfield Homunculus


Move your right hand up and down while moving your left hand back and forth. You must be a genius of body control if you can do this smoothly. When surface-finishing a table top board with a wide belt sander, our craftspeople do this movement. A wide belt sander is a machine rotating a sanding belt on a platform that can slide back and forth. The craftspeople press the sanding belt to a table top board with their right hand while moving back and forth with their left hand the platform on which the table top board is placed. The sanding power is strong. If you apply too much pressure or apply appropriate pressure on a wrong point, you can never make a smooth surface. Making matters more difficult, they’re required to judge smoothness by a sense of touch.

Have you ever seen the above image? It’s a Penfield homunculus, a model to show how our brains recognize the world, where the lips, tongue, and hands are designed much bigger than their actual size. When first seeing the grotesque model, I was surprised because I believed we saw the world mainly with the eyes. The importance of information through a sense of hand touch is bigger than many people would think. The homunculus also reminded me of a story in some small mold factory in Japan. The maximum tolerance of their molds is about 1 micron (1/1000 mm), and is detected by a sense of hand touch. Their molds look so smooth to me even if they’re before the final polishing, though. In addition, our hands are excellent not only as a sensor but also as a tool. We can easily hold things different in weight and intensity together, like cream puff and a stone, but this is very difficult for robot hands. They still need many sensors at all the joints, and it’s necessary to pre-enter a lot of data about things to be handled. Our hands perform such difficult missions every day.

The same as the above mold factory, it is a sense of hand touch of our craftspeople that affects the quality of our products. In order for high-quality things to be evaluated as such, however, your keen sense of hand touch is also necessary. Seeing something and wanting to touch it—this is highly likely to happen when things are good in design and quality like our furniture, I guess. Please confirm that with your own hands at a shop near you.


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://www.creativitypost.com/article/my_little_man