At Ecole de la Plaine, a public elementary school in eastern Paris, we asked the equivalent of a fourth-grade class in Japan, "How many of you own a Frixion?"
Fourteen hands shot up, which was exactly half the class.
In France, this water-based pen utilizing Japanese technology is widely used: the erasable Frixion, made by Tokyo-based Pilot Corp., a major writing implement manufacturer.
Its ink turns invisible when heated, and when writing is rubbed with the eraser on the end of the pen, the friction-induced heat causes the ink to disappear, allowing writers to correct their mistakes.
At la Plaine, apart from blue pens that are commonly used for taking notes, students also had black pens, red pens and yellow highlighters. There were even some children who owned every color available.
The school does not recommend the use of the pen to the students. So what is so good about the Frixion?
"With a fountain pen, you can only erase your writing once. But with this, you can do it as many times as you like," one boy explained.
Not only in France, but in the rest of Europe also, ballpoint pens and fountain pens are commonly used in classrooms. Pencils tend to come out only when it's time to draw a picture. If students mistakenly write something with a fountain pen, they'll need a special pen that erases the color of the ink with a chemical reaction and another special pen to write on top of it. A correction pen that has both of these functions on either end is a must-have item for French children, but once they've erased and corrected a mistake once, they can't make further changes.
Two years before the Frixion went on sale, Pilot Corp. of Europe CEO Marcel Ringeard, 58, made a business trip to Japan and learned of a new pen in development that would use a new kind of ink. When he recalled his classroom habits during his student years, he became confident that it would become a big seller.
"Write, erase and rewrite, you can do that as many times as you want," he says. "It was a fantstic tool to replace a fountain pen."
Ringeard asked the company's head office to put it on the market as soon as possible.
His confidence was proved correct. Since the Frixion went on sale in France ahead of Japan in January 2006, approximately 43 million units have been sold in this country of around 65 million people. Global sales amount to 300 million.
France is also the home turf of BIC, which boasts the largest share of the world's ballpoint pen market. In terms of changing the classroom environment, BIC was the pioneer.
In 1950, it launched a ballpoint pen named the Cristal. Its transparent shaft is engraved with the company's "BIC Boy" mascot, which was created in 1961 with the aim of making its pens widely popular with children.
In the past in France, fountain pens were thought to be the most suitable implement for attractively drawing lines of different thicknesses by applying pressure, and the use of ballpoint pens in the classroom was not permitted. As the Cristal became commonly used, the classroom ban on ballpoint pens was finally lifted in 1965.
In the stationery corner of the Virgin Megastore on the Champs-Elysees, numerous Pilot and BIC products vie for space. According to staff, the blue 0.7-millimeter Frixion may be pricy at 2.69 euros (280 yen, or $3.62), but this year it has just outsold the Cristal, which retails at only 0.49 euros.
The ink used in the Frixion was developed over 30 years by Nagoya-based Pilot subsidiary The Pilot Ink Co.
"We never imagined that it would become so popular in France," says chief developer Kuniyuki Senga, 48.
Ringeard looks back. "We were able to avoid the 'Galapagos Syndrome' (where technological development proceeds without considering foreign demand) thanks to cross-border cooperation," he says.
* * *
A growing international market: how far can Japan's high-functionality products go?
In 1975, The Pilot Ink Co. invented an ink that changes color when heated. However, for quite some time its use was limited to niche products other than stationery, such as drinking glasses that indicate when beer is best to drink.
Current head of development Kuniyuki Senga majored in organic chemistry at his university. He joined the company in 1986 after learning it was carrying out research into a new kind of ink, and has been involved in its development ever since.
He knew that it would be used in pens someday, but faced many obstacles along the way. For example, even if the ink's color changed when the temperature increased, it would return to its original color as soon as it cooled. Around 1,000 chemical substances were synthesized until one was discovered that was suitable for use in pens. As a result, it was further refined so that the ink became invisible at 65 degrees, but wouldn't become visible again until the temperature dropped to minus 20 degrees. Pens using the ink finally went on sale in 2006.
Such innovations are not limited to the Frixion. Japanese writing implement manufacturers continue to utilize their technological know-how to develop new products with advanced features.
Mitsubishi Pencil launched its Jetstream oil-based ballpoint pen overseas in 2003 and in Japan in 2006. It gave the chemical components used in its ink a complete overhaul and reduced its viscosity, achieving a smoothness similar to a water-based ballpoint pen. Around 100 million have been sold worldwide in the past year.
Its Kuru Toga mechanical pencil, which went on sale in 2008, rotates its tip by nine degrees each time it is pressed against paper. The pencil lead is sharpened at an angle to form a point, overcoming the drawback common to mechanical pens of variable thickness when writing.
"We've been honed by the exacting eyes of Japanese consumers," says Mitsubishi Pencil president Eiichiro Suhara, 63. "Even from a global perspective, Japanese manufacturers are the only ones who are truly competitive in terms of developing new products."
How do European manufacturers view the strategies of their Japanese rivals? I sought a comment from France's BIC, which has gone on the offensive against the Frixion in its domestic market.
At BIC's head office in the suburbs of Paris, CEO Mario Guevara, 52, began by praising the Frixion.
"It's a very ingenious technology. Our friendly competitor Pilot did a very good job," he says.
However, he also emphasized BIC's strong presence in developing countries.
The company sells around 24 million ballpoint pens and other writing materials around the world every day, and has the number one market share not only in Europe, but also in Africa and South America. Its core products remain the Cristal, and also the Orange, which first went on sale in 1961 and is also famous in Japan for its yellow body. It does not pursue new product development as avidly as Japanese manufacturers. However, developing countries now account for approximately one-third of its sales volume, thanks to its simple and cheap products.
"We've never pulled out of South America, even in the face of revolutions and inflation," says Guevara. "This is the result of four decades of effort. In the future, the literacy rate in developing nations will improve, and people will receive a better education. This should lead to greater demand for stationery products."
Of course, Japanese manufacturers aren't focusing only on the domestic market either. Over 60 percent of Pilot's sales volume and over 40 percent of Mitsubishi Pencil's is already derived from overseas sales. Even so, Pilot is strongest in Europe, and Mitsubishi Pencil in North America, which shows that they are still most competitive in developed nations.
Mitsubishi Pencil modified its Jetstream pens and sells them in India at a reasonable price of 30 rupees (45 yen, or 60 cents), but cheaper products are in surplus. Shifting from developed countries where digitalization is shrinking the market, to developing countries with burgeoning populations; for Japanese manufacturers, the greatest challenge is to find ways of utilizing their advantage in creating high-functionality products in the global marketplace.
- « Prev
- Next »