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Discovering the Charm of Japanese Stationery




When one mentions the terms "high-quality", "functional" and "stationery" in the same sentence, you may imagine one or more products that have one thing in common. Japanese stationery products have long been regarded as the best writing tools you could buy. Whether you are in the market for a do-it-all multi-function study pen or a stylish signing pen to seal the deal of your professional transaction, there's a high chance that those products are designed and manufactured by Japanese brands. Japan has been at the forefront of design and innovation in the stationery industry, and they continue to create gadgets of all types that elevate your writing experience. In this article, we'll briefly go over what makes Japanese stationery so unique and a few reasons why they are so popular in the global market.


 

Historical Evolution of Japanese Writing Tools

The mechanical pencil was first introduced to the Japanese demographic in 1915, built by Tokuji Hayakawa (later known to be the founder of Sharp Corporation) based on an American invention called the Eversharp by Charles Keeran (Tombow Japan). Since then, Japan has been at the frontline of designing innovative writing tools, attracting academics and creative professionals alike.


In 1972, Pentel released Japan's first multi-function pen "Ball Pentel", a ballpoint pen that would function as a signing pen. In the same year, Zebra released their tri-color pen to compete with their rival brands (Penkoubou Kirita).


As stationery technology continued to develop over time, what used to be premium tools were being produced at a more affordable price range. Tools that were made for professionals or high-class academics were now available for the common people to purchase. This created a new type of demand, where young children and students favored designs that had bright colors or their favorite characters printed on the pens.


In the modern days, stationery enthusiasts followed the modern minimalist design trends and shifted from wanting cute and bubbly designs to a sleeker appearance that resemble motifs from the past. It is apparent that the "trendy kids" in our society like to listen to music on vinyl and incorporate 80's fashion into their wardrobes to revisit what used to be popular back then. The stationery trends could very well be an extension of that wave.


A series of color pencils that, when sharpened, leaves shavings shaped like flowers.
Hanairo Pencil: https://sikito.com/products/hanairo-pencil

 

What makes Japanese stationery so special?

Japanese stationery is widely known to be high quality and is popular among many users outside of Japan. Some might wonder, "What could be so different about a pen?" As mentioned before, Japanese stationery has been in constant development that reflects the popular demands of professional writers, designers, or scholars that seek precision and usability in their tools.


Functionality: One great example of Japanese innovation is the "Frixion Pen", an erasable pen/highlighter. Students who wrote using pens often had issues having to constantly use whiteouts that left ugly traces when they made an error. To avoid disheveling their homework, Pilot engineered a pen containing erasable ink that would disappear when applying heat.


Aesthetics:

To incorporate writing tools into people's everyday lives, Japanese stationery brands spend a ton of resources in designing and developing items that bring a little joy into their study or working process. An elegant pen with an aluminum body and a smooth but tactile slider could elevate your mood when taking notes in a mundane meeting, the same way a sticky note that looks like a brick of tofu could get a good chuckle out of your friend when passing them a memo.


Image of the winners of the Stationery Store Awards 2024. Overall Winner: Pentel MatteHop, Design Award: Mitsubishi UniBall One, Functionality Award: Kokuyo Campus Flat, Idea Award: Sunstar Ukanmuri Clip.
https://hands.net/hintmagazine/stationery/2402-stationery-award.html

 

Japanese Writing Culture and Demands vs. Other Countries

Japan, as a society, values good handwriting because it is understood that proper writing shows high academics, a punctual personality, and the ability to be mindful of the recipient of your message. Having good handwriting means you have practiced your craft as needed during your studies, mastered the standardized method of communication, and shown respect to the person you are trying to communicate with. There is a saying in Japanese that goes 「字は人を表す」, meaning "a person's handwriting is a reflection of their personality". Especially in a country that uses a language that has a compound writing system that uses 3 different types of characters (Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji), it is considered crucial to be able to write with precision and consistency. This very culture is the driving force of the Japanese stationery industry that designs innovative writing tools that range from fine-tip pens and pencils to the paper you write on.


On the contrary, Japanese stationery seems to have a slightly different appeal to those abroad. Foreign markets, especially in North America, seem to gravitate toward elegant designs and gadgets with novelty. The attraction comes from the cute and playful design that isn't too intrusive on the desktop while maintaining the actual usability of each writing tool.


The four seasons, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter, hand written on a square piece of paper with a brush pen.

 

Popular Japanese Stationery Brands


Known for their “Frixion” pens globally, but a very prestigious premium fountain pen maker in Japan as well. Pilot creates a variety of writing tools that fit every user’s needs, and is a popular brand supported by the nation.


The one with the most clever name, has been named Zebra from the traditional kanji 「斑馬」, where the character 斑 consists of 2-parts 王(King) and 1-part 文(Writing), making Zebra the king of writing. The brand is responsible for producing the SARASA pens, which offer a smooth experience without having to apply much pressure when writing. The SARASA is one of the most popular series of Japanese ballpoint pens that are readily available globally.  


Mitsubishi (my personal favorite):

Mitsubishi, known to be a producer of quite literally everything mechanical, has been a producer of high-quality pencils (since 1887, originally under Masaki Pencil Factory) that are still popular to this day among young students.  From the late 90’s and onwards, they have also spent resources manufacturing high-quality pens under the “Uni” brand. Their “Jetstream” pens are highly regarded as the pen that delivers the most silky-smooth writing experience in any scenario, on any surface.  


In contrast to the previous brands, Kanmido is a stationery brand that's been manufacturing office supplies since the late 90s. Their modern product line consists of all things related to sticky notes. From roll up pen-style adjustable sticky notes to binder tab page markers, Kanmido manufactures highly functional study/organizational tools that will brighten up your kit.


The stationery division of Bandai Namco, Sunstar, produces some of the more unique but practical gadgets like the "Clip Jittome", a clip that will hold your textbook open whilst staring down into your soul, making sure that you are 100% focused on the task at hand. Jokes aside, it may be worth your time to check out their products if you're looking for stationery that has a playful but practical design.


A sample image of a cat shaped clip that holds a book open for you.
Sunstar Stationery: Jittome Clip


 

Where to buy them?

With the rise in popularity of Japanese stationery, small local stationery stores and large office supply stores are starting to offer more and more Japanese stationery to the global market. Besides some of the more obvious online retailers like Amazon or Staples, here are some stores that could be worth checking out. 

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