Tokyo's Sumida Ward has long been home to artisans and small factories producing wares with a distinctive "made in Sumida" touch.
About 10,000 small factories were operating in Sumida Ward in the second half of the 1960s. But by 2008, that number had plunged to about 3,400, according to the ward's industry and economy section. Some project that less than 3,000 establishments will be operational next year.
In an effort to preserve the tradition of local craft and manufacturing industries, the ward has opened the Sumida Industry and Tourism Information Center Sumida City Point on the fifth floor of Tokyo Solamachi, a large commercial complex at the foot of the newly opened Tokyo Skytree tower.
Sumida City Point displays items that are proudly touted as "made in Sumida," including goods certified by the ward government under the "Sumida Modern" label.
They include hand-carved chopsticks, drip-resistant soy sauce pots that use the same design since the manufacturer was founded 60 years ago and all-black "furoshiki" wrapping cloths made of leather. While drawing extensively on traditional craftsmanship, the items do not only look retro but they also have a bit of a modern flair.
"Sumida has always been a town of manufacturing with lots of craftspeople and factories," says a ward office official. "We have been facing the challenge of how best to roll out end products by drawing on the technologies they have nurtured as subcontractors."
The ward government began touting the name Sumida in 1985. It has pushed for the creation of shops that integrate both manufacturing and sales functions, and has advertised craft technologies by certifying craftspeople as "Sumida Meisters."
In recent years, the ward government has been assisting the development of new products under a "Sumida Area Brand Strategy," which includes collaboration between local craftspeople and outside designers and certification of outstanding products under the "Sumida Modern" label.
Masako Shiozawa, 68, of Shiozawa Seisakusho YK, manufactures card cases made of brass, available at the Sumida City Point, by applying technologies for ornamental metal fittings used in Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and portable festival shrines. She uses a chisel to carve regular patterns on brass plates and bends them with a wooden mold into card cases.
She works with Kane, her 93-year-old mother, but she says it takes the pair a full week to manufacture a single card case.
"I make them because it's fun," Masako says. "It's more fun to make something different from time to time than just to be rolling out fixtures, such as portable shrine parts, all the time."
Osamu Negishi of Negishi Industry Co. manufactures copper watering cans with surfaces so lustrous that they show your face in a reflected image.
Negishi, 68, began producing high-end copper watering cans for bonsai more than 40 years ago. He makes the spout longer than those found on traditional bonsai watering cans and adjusts sizes of the individual holes in the spout. This development enables his watering cans to pour more evenly and gently.
"There are more bonsai fans overseas than ever before," Negishi says. "Our watering cans are being exported to Europe and the United States."
With many foreign tourists visiting Tokyo Skytree, Sumida City Point has set an annual sales goal of 280 million yen ($3.5 million).
"Our scope remains limited as long as we are just looking inside Japan," says a ward office official. "If we can send our message abroad, we will well have been rewarded for setting up Sumida City Point."
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