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Passions of Artisans We ask Rin crossing participant manufacturers about their wishes regarding manufacturing.

Home > Passions of Artisans #038 K. Asakawa Metal Works Co., Ltd.

#038 K. Asakawa Metal Works Co., Ltd.2015/09/30

江戸型紙とメタルの融合で現代に新たな伝統の美を伝える〈KATAGAMI METAL®〉

Die cast manufacturers that got their start of development in the local industry of Katsushika

Traditional Japanese patterns rise to the surface of polished metal film

The KATAGAMI METAL® series is a result of a collaboration between the Yada Katagami-Ten (Yada Pattern Shop), specializing in traditional patterns handed down from Edo-period of Japan, and K. Asakawa Metal Works, experts in crafting a diverse range of metal products.

In the 57 years since it was established, K. Asakawa Metal Works Co., Ltd. has been manufacturing die casts out of its headquarters in the Katsushika ward of Tokyo. The company was founded in 1953 by the older brother of its current president, Hiroto Asakawa, getting its start in manufacturing antimony products, which was the local industry of Katsushika ward at the time.

Antimony is an alloy material with a specific gravity similar to that of silver. During the company’s early years, casting, plating, coating, and other processes were all done by hand before shipping the products exported overseas. As Japan entered a period of rapid economic growth, the industry prospered to the point that production could not keep up with demand, but the company was forced into a desperate struggle to survive.

“Our company got a late start,” Asakawa explained. “It was very difficult to find and keep the most talented craftsmen. We were focused on the fact that the auto industry was manufacturing components using die-casting machines, and our ambition was to be the first in Japan to shift to die cast tableware products. The fact that we succeeded was to be a critical turning point for our company. “

“We’ve got around 90 employees now, but we want to get to the point where about half of them can make a living crafting original pieces.”

Die casting is a kind of metal casting process that forces molten metal under high pressure into a molding die, making it possible to produce large volumes of cast metal items in a short period of time. Asakawa also developed a zinc alloy soldering technique that was thought to be impossible for many years.

Dramatic fluctuations in exchange rates from the 1970s onward eventually caused the export-focused metalworking industry to flounder. With the competition also shutting its doors, however, Asakawa Metal Works was able to leverage its unique, sophisticated technologies to build on its successes, operating as a one-stop metalworking shop offering everything from planning and design to final manufacturing. The company eventually secured a steady stream of orders for auto parts, gradually expanding its portfolio to include metal products for a wide variety of industries—including tabletop mirrors for big-name cosmetics manufacturers, original toys, building components, and more.

Striving to be an original brand known for its distinctive designs.

Showroom at the Asakawa headquarters. The rows and rows of products offer a glimpse of the company’s long history

Today, Asakawa’s prime business is original equipment manufacturing for the auto industry and more. Its ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 certified Saku Plant in Nagano Prefecture is using top-quality production to secure steady stream of manufacturing orders, while President Asakawa has some rather extraordinary ideas about the company’s original brand—a product of his own imagination.

“We got our start with tableware,” he explained. “We painstakingly worked with US buyers to produce plated alloy products whose quality was on par with that of British-made silverware. It was tough going, but it was such a worthwhile goal—we wanted to breath fresh life into the Japanese monozukuri craftsmanship traditions.”

He then told us that the future of the industry was in design.

“We’ve come to a point where we can make virtually anything,” he said. “When it comes to technology, too, countries all over the world are making all kinds of things. The only way to set yourself apart these days is through design.”

This perspective carries a lot of weight coming from a man who has been personally involved in technological development for so long. This is identified in KATAGAMI METAL® which is the future face of the company, an original brand developed by Asakawa on the eve of his company’s 50th anniversary.

A collaboration built on community relationships and trust

Hiroshi Ijima is a designer at Asakawa. “The number of overseas travelers visiting Japan continues to increase,” he told us. “We want to tap into that demand by crafting Japanese products that stir the emotions and make people feel enriched by owning them.”

Brand development started in November 2011. After some discussion, it was decided that the company would go after cosmetics products—an area where it had enjoyed some success in the past. At the time, however, business was so sluggish that the company was asking some of its members to volunteer for early retirement—and was struggling to come up with the funds to develop its new products.

Hiroshi Ijima, who was working as a designer for Asakawa, had an idea. He proposed that the company use its old metal dies and add customized patterns to them. The result would be “common base” products that could be used as-is for OEM products as well.

“Our biggest concern was that in an era where so much is being made, we wouldn’t be able to sell even a well-crafted product,” Ijima explained. “We knew we were going to offer a good product. What we were so passionate about was crafting something that was also fresh and new. By creating products that could also be used as OEM parts, we figured that we could not only mitigate some of that risk, but also end up with new products that incorporated traditional craftsmanship.”

When it came down to what they would actually make, one man flashed across Ijima’s mind. If anyone can do it, he can, the designer thought. That man was Kozo Yada, a traditional craftsman also living in Katsushika and specializing in Edo-period patterns. He was heavily involved with making patterns for the kimono dyer Yasutaka Komia, a living national treasure and for the long-established kimono-making company Chikusen.

Edo-period pattern specialist Kozo Yada is certified as a traditional craftsman by Katsushika ward and has been awarded the Tokyo Meister Governor’s Prize for outstanding craftspeople in the Tokyo area. Asakawa is using an etching process to reproduce his patterns in metal.

“I first met Master Yada on the steering committee for the Katsushika Industrial Fair,” Ijima said. “I had never spoken with him before, but we ended up being on the same wavelength when we were reviewing drawings for a poster competition--actually, we were the only two people who seemed to really understand each other. When I went right out and asked him for his help with the patterns, he generously consented without hesitation.”

Kozo Yada has built a reputation for turning down all kinds of offers from major manufacturers, so apparently his wife was surprised enough by his accepting our offer to ask him why he did it. He told her that it went back his experience on the steering committee two years earlier—he had faith in Ijima’s artistic sense and his workmanship. And with that, a delightful merger of modern technology and traditional craftsmanship was born. In October 2012, the company released its first hand mirrors and keepsake boxes, each featuring five different patterns.

Bringing authentic Japanese culture to the world

KATAGAMI METAL® products are made by masking all of the parts of the pattern that will not be recessed, and then using a technique called “etching,” which involves dipping the metal into an acid solution to bring the pattern to the surface. The combination between lustrous metal plating and exquisitely detailed Edo patterns has been hailed for its beauty; Asakawa’s hand mirrors won the Excellence Award at the Eighth Tokyo Traditional Crafts Challenge, while the seventh edition of TASK awarded its precious boxes an Honorable Mention in its Craftsmanship Awards. The entire series was recognized under the Seventh Katsushika Brand Certification.

 

KATAGAMI METAL® hand mirror in silver
Silver plating brings out the vibrance of a classic kimono pattern

 

KATAGAMI METAL® precious box in black
This tiny box has a mirror on the inside of the lid. Black plating creates a winsome combination of edginess and charm.

KATAGAMI METAL® small hand mirrors were designed in response to customer requests for a product they could take with them on the go. The market response was so positive that Asakawa ended up making a new die to produce them.

Asakawa set up its first exhibition in February 2013 at the Rin Crossing booth for the Tokyo International Gift Show, and its products are now being sold not only at department stores like Mitsukoshi, but in museum gift shops and other outlets as well. The company’s desire to bring authentic Japanese culture to the world led them to set up an exhibit in February of 2014 at the Ambiente show in Frankfurt, Germany, and they are currently working to establish working relationships with exclusive French brands.

The acclaimed third-generation KATAGAMI METAL® small hand mirror is currently on the market. Asakawa is also putting effort into its original OEM plan, and is already manufacturing small original boxes for Wako Ginza and Toray.

“We’re only in our third year, so we’re really focusing on cultivating our products—along with their sales channels,” Ijima said. “Having Rin Crossing enthusiastically seek us out for exhibitions and sales meetings has made them the most instrumental in making sure our products have a chance. We are looking forward to receiving more administrative proposals that would be impossible for a typical company to offer.”

K. Asakawa Metal Works Co., Ltd.

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