Happy Birthday Mommy <3 Another standard breakfast but I was a bit blue because we were missing mum’s birthday. This morning we were headed to Saitama to visit the Iwako factory. A factory you say? Isn’t this a holiday, I hear you wonder… but a factory it is and that’s exactly where we headed. This particular factory is normally not open to the public but they made an exception for our sensei and all we knew before we started off was that this is the home of Japan’s most famous kawaii erasers/rubbers (take your pick) that come in all shapes and sizes.
We passed a baseball practice session and before we knew it we had reached. We were greeted by an elderly gentlemen at the entrance who led us in and started the tour by explaining how rubbers are made. Synthetic rubber pellets when heated are injected as a ball of string into the moulding machine where the rubbers are finally produced. We saw a whale being produced with a cute red water spout. As we watched the process we realized that it’s not the raw material in this case that presents a significant cost rather the moulds which can often costs up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The machine we were shown was manually fed and the rubbers had to be manually removed from their spine.
The company though has also started investing in more efficient automated machines which of course were IP protected so we couldn’t get a look. After understanding how the process works, we were taken up to the store room where we were surrounded by boxes and boxes of the cutest most colourful rubbers ever, fruits, animals, food, toys… they had every shape imaginable.
From there we moved to a small room filled with low tables and tatami mats where we sat comfortably and found out all about our “guide”. It turned out that our elderly guide was in fact the founder of Iwako! He had retired 3 years ago at the age of 79, but then decided to come out of retirement and help out in the company as a regular staff member. Now that is something you won’t find every CEO doing is it…
As he began to discuss his life story, he handed out tiny packets of what were erasers that require assembling (is there anything in Japan that does not come in a DIY model version?) As we sat and built ships and trains and strawberry shortcake, he also explained how assembly normally took place. Assembly does not take place in the factory, instead the parts are loaded in trucks owned by four ladies, who distribute them to hundreds of households where women assemble them (a business model commonly seen in Japan and Korea). Once assembled, the rubbers are taken to another facility where more ladies do quality control.
After the war, his parents had been too poor to afford his upbringing and so sent him to his uncle in the countryside. He lived there with his cousin who would consistently rank high and school while he would place near the bottom. His cousin one day remarked that she was embarrassed to be known as his cousin because of his abysmal grades and it was then that he decided that he would do well in school… and do well he did. In the 9th grade he placed the highest. As he left school to get a job, he was met with ridicule with employees looking down on him and doubting his abilities simply because he came from the countryside. Yet despite their words, he went on to work at the same company, a stationary shop, for 18 years. He eventually became obsessed with the idea pf setting something up by himself and he eventually set up a small 2 room factory a few metres wide at best, which is where he wanted to bring to life his vision of erasers that were not simply plain white blocks of rubber. His initial designs consisted of vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes and the like, vegetables any Japanese person could identify , but not a single company accepted his designs saying that no one would want to buy a pretty rubber that would eventually lose its shape. He was undeterred by the rejection and continued to improve his designs. At the time, telephones were rare so he used to frequent a shop where he would pay to make calls, then ask the storekeeper to take down any messages that came for him. The shopkeeper was so impressed by his dedication that eventually he offered him the free use of his phone whenever he liked on one condition – that he did something with his life. His trust was not misplaced. In 1988. his business finally took off, but by this time he had two competitors. He didn’t worry though and took it as further incentive to exercise his creativity and come up with unique designs on a regular basis. With the space of 5 to 10 years, his competitors had gone bankrupt. Yet instead of getting worried about what would happen to his own company, he looked at their failure as a shortage of erasers in the market that he needed to fill and so he started 24 hours production. This meant additional part-time labour during the night shift. But worried that part timers would not be able to handle emergency situations since they didn’t have enough experience with the machines, he decided to sleep over at the factory…just in case they needed to call someone to help. He began to sleep at the factory and ended up sleeping there in a sleeping bag for 10 years. He doesn’t need to do that any more, but that’s only because he now lives above the factory. His designs proved to be a stunning success, in fact such a success that the Chinese began to produce imitations. He showed us his design and the Chinese equivalent. Let’s just say changing a shade of colour doesn’t absolve you of copying -__- . We were shocked and asked him if he had copyright protection and why he didn’t sue them. He told us, that at first he was quite depressed to see his hard work and his ideas being so blatantly copied, but a colleague of his told him that since there was copyright violation meant nothing in China, there was no use getting worked up because it would lead nowhere. He decided that imitation was indeed the best form of flattery and worked even harder to consistently produce better and unique designs at the highest quality.
What was even more inspirational than an already inspiring life so far, was the fact that at the age of 81 he was setting himself goals to accomplish. He’ll write down on a big piece of paper, the heading “My Goals” followed by “I will definitely succeed” and then a very SMART objective complete with expected date of completion below. He’ll then laminate the sheet and put it on his table at every meal time to go over. What with sleeping in the factory for 10 years and staring at his goals at every meal, his wife has had a rough time of it and always tells him that after she’s put so much effort into cooking a nice meal for him, the least he can do is look at it. ^^ His goal as of this year is to produce 100 more new designs. The design department, so to speak, is made up of him and his eldest son who is now CEO and while it is a collaborative effort it is also very much of a competition, he said, to see who would come up with the best designs. There is really nothing quite like healthy competition to bring out the best in a person.
His inspirational life story and his dedication to his work meant that he is wanted as a speaker at many events, even schools. However, with age, attending to many events has become difficult and at one point he had even asked his secretary who was constantly answering calls requesting visits, to tell everyone that he had died… just so he wouldn’t have to go. Of course that wasn’t really a practical suggestion since he’s seen outside everyday in the neighbourhood ^^ We were really fortunate to have met him and I can only hope that we can live our lives with at least half as much passion and dedication as him.
There was no end to his niceness either. After taking a group picture with him, he explained that this factory was not really geared for visitors and so there was no souvenir shop, but we were welcome to keep the models we had assembled and also to go to the second floor and buy whatever we liked at half-price. But as we bought our goodies, we realized that apart from that he had also set aside goody bags for all of us! As we headed to the bus, he even came all the way outside just to wave goodbye. <3
It’s important to dream, he had said, but it’s better to dream when you’re awake than when you’re sleeping so you could work hard to achieve those dreams.
I kept away
A thousand dreams
I kept awake
A thousand more
Stay Tuned for Day 8 Part 2