[From September Issue 2013]
Hokuju Co., Ltd.
In 1989, KAN Yoshinori founded Hokuju Co., Ltd. in his home town, Kitami City, Hokkaido. It was in the latter years of the economic bubble and a lot of money was circulating in society. Constructing studios and stereos, Hokuji were specialists in audio equipment made of wood. At this time, there was a person named ITO Eiji, who was promoting the merits of carpentry to children.
Ito, who was once Kan’s junior high school teacher, established his own private workshop and invited children there so they could have an opportunity to get a feel for carpentry. Kan’s children also visited Ito’s workshop. Kan says that in those days, “I believed that wooden toys were not a viable business proposition.” But seeing how dedicated Ito was about getting children to have more opportunities to work with wood, Kan began to think that he would support his efforts.
“I would like it if he was better known in society.” He began to give Ito the backing of his company. Hokuju’s support made it possible for Ito to create some large scale playground equipment, thus widening the scope of Ito’s activities. He began to hold events all around Japan.
The collapse of the bubble economy was a turning point for Hokuju, however Hokuju’s wooden toys had become well known through these events. This perfect timing allowed the company to weather the crisis. One of their most popular products from that period is their “wooden ball pool.” A wooden frame is filled with wooden “kikkoro” balls of a diameter of approximately three centimeters. In March 2013, the product was installed at nursery schools and the like in 121 locations around Japan.
Each of the handmade kikkoro, has a slightly different shape and size and is pleasant to the touch. Lying down on them, your body is buoyed up, giving you a wonderful sense of stability and security. Enchanted by this sensation, some people have specially ordered beds filled with kikkoro.
Most of the toys made at Hokuju are made from broadleaf trees. Although coniferous trees are easier to process, they easily splinter or break. It became clear that they were not suitable as a material for children’s toys. It takes 100 to 200 years for a broadleaf tree to grow thick enough to be used. That means you have to make toys that will last for a hundred years. This is the philosophy that Kan has always held about toys.
Since forestry is one of the main industries in Hokkaido, they are committed to using trees grown in the area, but that means higher prices. Some people are surprised when they see the price of large scale playground equipment and comment, “You can buy an expensive imported car with this money!” Nevertheless, Kan is reluctant to rely on imported material just because it is cheaper. He is worried that the skills of forestry and woodworking, which once thrived in the area, are now being lost because the number of people active in the industry is now decreasing. For this reason he continues to run his business using local resources, thus keeping people employed.
A few years ago, Kan bought a mountain covered with broadleaf trees. He is looking forward to the day he can make products using those trees. “I’ve been part of this industry for 46 years. I have always dealt in wooden items and have been able to live in my local area. Being able to contribute to the development of local industry has given me great satisfaction,” says Kan, looking back on what he has achieved up to now. Although Ito passed away last year, his dedication to carpentry continues to live on in Kan.
Text: ICHIMURA Masayo