"... a classic Japanese business success story that can be summed up in three words: imitate, innovate, annihilate." -- Graham Dwyer, The Daily Yomiuri
From the Author
PART 1 OF AN EXCERPT
From Chapter 1 -- A Happy Encounter with the World of Wooden Models
My First Experience of Modeling
These days when people talk about models, the natural assumption is that they are talking about models made of plastic. But in fact the history of plastic models is surprisingly short. They were first produced in Japan as recently as the late 1950s.
Before the advent of plastic, models were made out of woods such as Japanese cypress, magnolia and katsura. These types of wood had originally been used to make the engraving blocks for wood-block prints because they were easy to carve and to work with.
In Japan warships were the most popular kind of wooden model, and rather than assembling them to enjoy looking at the finished vessel, the majority of people would put in a motor and a propeller and run the ships in ponds and lakes.
The description "model kit" is hardly appropriate, because unlike the later plastic ones, the old wooden models were not made with any degree of precision. You would open the box, and inside there was the hull of the ship, roughly shaped using a milling machine, and some blocks of wood of various sizes. Of course, you did not just assemble the thing as it was when you bought it; as you can imagine, it took a great deal of time and effort to finish one of these models.
First of all, you used a chisel and a pocket knife or whatever tools were necessary to carefully whittle down each part into the proper shape. You then had to use sandpaper to smooth all the surfaces. After that it was time for the undercoat. If you did not apply that properly, you would have reason to be sorry later: If the undercoat had been carelessly applied, when the boat was finally put into water the glue would dissolve and all the parts would come loose.
You would then dry the various parts -- each with their carefully applied undercoat -- on newspaper. But it was not that simple: You had to make a kind of stand out of chopsticks so that the painted surfaces did not actually touch the paper. The smaller parts you would dry on the end of a pin stuck into a pin-cushion. It took about a week for all the parts to dry thoroughly. Once they were dry you would smooth them down again with moist sandpaper. The final step was to add a topcoat of lacquer paint. Once the topcoat was dry, only then was the model finished.
I think that even for adults it was quite a struggle to make the finished model actually look good. So for pre-teen children, it was almost an impossibility. If by some miracle they managed to complete an entire model, it just looked like a grotesque jumble of ill-carved bits and pieces. They were such bizarre objects that, unless you were the person who had actually made the thing, you could not tell if your model was a battleship or a cruiser!
The assembly instructions were also extremely unspecific and halfhearted. I remember how the explanation would always end with some vague, careless exhortation like, "Let's do our very best to assemble this model successfully."
It was, however, an age without much to choose from in the way of hobbies, so people were quite satisfied even with these rather drab and unexciting kits. It was certainly hard work to transform materials into components with your own two hands; but it was also one of the pleasures of the whole model-making experience. Briskly sharpening your pen knife, feeling the wood under the blade as you whittled it down -- these were sensations to be relished.
Unfortunately, as soon as plastic models came onto the scene, wooden models went into decline. Models made from plastic could express detail with a degree of precision far beyond wood. But above all, they were much easier to assemble. You just snipped the parts out and then used glue to put them all together. Anyone could make a plastic model, with the result that people who had never dared attempt a wooden model were able to enjoy model making for the first time.
Paradoxically though, as the plastic model industry developed and matured, plastic models themselves eventually became as much -- or even more -- trouble to make than the old wooden models had been. First you had to use a pair of pliers to carefully cut out the various parts from the runners to which they were attached. Then you had to trim the joints with a cutter before buffing them with sandpaper to tidy them up. Basically, the more careful the work you perform, the better the final model. It really does not matter if the material is wood or plastic; the pleasure derived from craftsmanship is always the same.
"Japanese model manufacturers are concentrated in Shizuoka City, to the southwest of Tokyo. This pattern was established back in the days of wooden models. Shizuoka was originally a center for the collection and distribution of timber. As a result, its woodworking industries were highly evolved, and the city produced great quantities of furniture, pianos, traditional dolls and clogs. Even now, when the wooden model business has declined almost to extinction, Shizuoka is still home not just to Tamiya but to Fujimi, Hasegawa, Aoshima and Imai. In fact, plastic model manufacturing is one of Shizuoka's main specialty industries and Shizuoka-based firms currently have a seventy percent market share in Japan."
My first experience of model making was building a model airplane in class. It was the summer of 1942. I was eight years old and in my second year of elementary school. Since it was wartime, the Ministry of Education had made assembling aircraft and warship models a part of the handicrafts curriculum. This experience of making educational models at school served to introduce the children of that time to the world of model making.
I used the phrase "model airplane," but in fact it was no more than a very easy-to-assemble glider. It was certainly not a top-drawer product, but coming from a generation without a large range of toys to choose from, we were all thrilled at the chance to make something. First of all paper bags containing the components were distributed around the class. The eyes of my classmates shone with anticipation as they eagerly opened them up. It goes without saying that I was on cloud nine too.
"When I get into elementary school, I can build a model airplane."
I had loved planes ever since kindergarten. It seemed to me I had been waiting all my life for this day to come. I was ecstatic, as if I had just got my hands on some priceless treasure. The model, which was designed for the lower years of elementary school, was not very difficult to assemble.
The fuselage was a stick of white cedar. You then stuck a bit of wood on the front of this as a counterweight. This was shaped like a shallot cut in half. Before sticking it on, you had to whittle off the angles and then round it off with a penknife. The wing frame was made of a thin piece of bamboo onto which you had to stick fine paper using wood glue.
About the Author
Shunsaku Tamiya is president of Tamiya, the world's foremost model manufacturer. Now in his late sixties, he started working in the world of models almost fifty years ago. He has set new standards of quality for plastic models and personally invented several entirely new genres. Endlessly curious, full of boundless energy, and a straight-speaker with a wonderfully down-to-earth sense of humor, the author completely capsizes the idea that a successful businessman has to be a bore: but then he is not a businessman, but a craftsman and an artist.