Japan’s top manufacturer

Himeji City, Land of Kuroda Kanbee (1546-1604), an outstanding samurai strategist in the age of warring provincial lords, boasts Himeji Castle, Japan’s national treasure and first World Heritage Site. In addition to this beautiful White Heron Castle, Himeji is proud of a variety of indigenous industries ranking first in Japan with the largest output. Among them are the steer hide, chain, and match industries. Here we would like to focus on the history of Himeji-made matches that have not been publicized legitimately enough.

Japan’s match industry and Himeji

Toward business diversification

Japanese-made matches are renowned for their good quality and variety together with considerate after-sales services. Many orders have been placed for advertisement matches from all over the world. Even today many of all matches manufactured in Japan are exported to overseas markets including Europe and the United States.
   In recent years, demand for matches has been on the decrease. Facing the new trend, however, industry-wide initiatives have long been on the way to business diversification by leveraging the industry’s accumulated assets. They include effective utilization of unused land for parking lots, tennis courts, etc.; label printing technology for advancing into the printing market; sales channels of advertising matches for delivering moist towelettes and tissue paper as supply materials of promotion products. The match industry is ready to blaze trails for new products that meet the needs of consumers.

Development in Himeji area
Majority of Japan’s total

Soon after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the new government established numerous match factories in many parts of Japan in its efforts to promote new domestic industries to modernize the country and relieve the misery of former samurais who had lost their means of income with the abolition of their former feudal lords’ domains. 
    In Hyogo Prefecture, match factories were founded in Himeji and Amagasaki, but they could not survive the economic depression of the 1880s.
    Factory staff then started to set up their own match factories in Kobe and Osaka. Their products began to be exported from Kobe Port, Japan’s leading international trade port.
    As time passed, production sites gradually moved westward from Kobe. Today matches produced in the Himeji area account for the great majority of Japan’s total output.

Why in Himeji?

Let’s look at why the match industry came to be an indigenous industry here in western areas of Hyogo Prefecture.
1. Because Himeji is located close to Kobe, Japan’s major international port. Match makers had advantages in importing raw materials and exporting their products;
2. Because Himeji is located in the mild climate zone of Seto Inland Sea. The warm and low-rainfall climate is suited to match manufacture with drying processes;
3. Because people of Himeji areaincluding Himeji were noted for their challenging spirit. Full of traditional craftsmanship, they tackled something new and innovative; and
4. Because it was easy to secure motivated workers in the area. Many industries had overlooked these merits and failed to locate factories.

History of Japanese matches

Leadership of Makoto Shimizu

Whenever we talk about Japanese matches, which began to be produced and used after the Meiji Restoration, we should remember the name of Makoto Shimizu (1845~1899).
   Born into a samurai family of the Kanazawa domain, present day Ishikawa Prefecture, he was dispatched to France in 1869 to study Western technologies and education. While in France, he met Tomozane Yoshii, one of the key contributors to the Meiji Restoration and later Vice Imperial Minister, who advised him to study match manufacturing technologies.
   On his return from France, Shimizu established a match company Shinsuisha in Tokyo in 1876, launching match manufacture on a full scale. (The name of Shinsuisha literally means a new fire maker.)   Instead of monopolizing match technologies, he made them available to those who requested him to teach them in a courteous manner. Since the Meiji government encouraged match production to help unemployed former samurais find a means of income, match factories were established in many parts of Japan.
   However, the economic depression of the 1880s hit the new industry started by former samurais who had had no experience of business management. They went bankrupt one after another. The spirit of entrepreneurship was a must for the future of the match industry.

Post-WW I depression

The production of matches started in Osaka one year earlier than Shimizu started his business in Tokyo. Since then the output continued to increase favorably.
   In 1879, Shimizu called on import match agencies to set up an association named Kaiko Shosha and urged them to sell and use Japanese-made matches instead of imported ones. By the summer of 1880, there were no match imports recorded.
   Along with the development of the match industry, Japanese-made matches gradually and steadily advanced into overseas markets and grew to be one of Japan’s key export products. However, some newcomers to the buoyant market began to be involved in the production of poor-quality matches for exports.
   Such unscrupulous makers severely damaged the fame of Japanese-made matches with superb quality. In 1883 to 1884, match exports nosedived and many factories were forced to close down. Under these circumstances, conscientious manufacturers inaugurated a match manufacturer association in Hyogo in 1887 to rebuild their good reputation.

From controlled economy to free business activities

As a key export item, the production of matches had been regulated since the early 1930s. Even before the start of the Pacific War (December 1941), the match rationing system was in force. The match business was under government control.
   Under deteriorated war conditions, imports of raw materials for matches became scarce such as wood, paper, glue, potassium chlorate and so forth. In addition, small- and medium-sized companies became targets of rationalization and were pushed out. Edicts were issued for their mergers and acquisition. Many were forced to quit business. Many factories were burned down by air raids. Match production capacities continued to drop drastically until the end of the war in August 1945.
   After the war, regulations to control match production were abolished but the monopoly of the purchases and sales of matches continued for some time. Production rose steadily during this period.
   Finally in 1948, regulations to control the match industry were abolished completely. Thanks to the arrival of the free business era, total production of matches marked a post-war record of 800,000 match tons in 1972. (Note: A match ton is equal to 7,200 match boxes in terms of the ordinary size of 56x36x16 millimeters.)

Match trivia

Match Day and Makoto Shimizu

Makoto Shimizu sailed for France from Yokohama on May 12, 1869 to study machinery, naval architecture and other Western technologies. Who could have imagined at that time, including Shimizu himself, that this brilliant youth with a burning desire to learn the state-of-the-art technologies would later be the pioneer of Japanese matches? In memory of his departure from Yokohama, the day was designated as Match Day.
   Shimizu, a 20-year-old samurai of the Kanazawa domain, had been dispatched to Nagasaki and Yokohama in 1865 to study Western studies. In 1868, he began to study machinery and naval architecture under F. L. Verny, a French engineer who had been in Japan since 1865 as a foreign advisor.
   In 1869, Shimizu was sent to France by the Meiji government and studied at a tutoring school under Verny, who was on temporary home leave. In 1873, Shimizu advanced to Ecole Centrale Paris, a prestigious college for elites in technology and manufacturing. The knowledge and skills he learned then led to the start and development of the match industry in Japan.

Gallery of match label designs

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