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Nissan Chuzousho President Shunichiro Tsuji

by Judit Kawaguchi

Shunichiro Tsuji, 62, is president of Nissan Chuzousho Ltd., Japan’s last surviving beigoma maker, located in Kawaguchi City, Saitama Prefecture. Beigoma are small cast-iron spinning tops that are spun in a game that has been a favorite with kids and grown-ups in Japan for many generations. Tsuji has been playing with beigoma since he was a toddler and even now, not a day goes by that he doesn’t spin a few rounds with friends. To play the game, a 110-cm-long cotton cord is wrapped around a beigoma, which is then thrown on to a piece of canvas spread over a plastic bucket, while the cord is released. Beigoma are the predecessors of beyblades, the plastic spinning tops that took the world by storm in the late 1990s. Back then, when the popularity of beyblades span out of control and beigoma sales dropped, Tsuji kept his cool, and his factory busy. As a fourth-generation monozukuri craftsman, meaning one dedicated to manufacturing excellence, he has also been producing car parts and motors for Japan’s top makers. Car parts or beigoma, Tsuji knows how to make things spin faster and for longer.

If you want to know what’s happening in the world, play beigoma! Beigoma is a city game, perfect for the asphalt jungle. In the countryside there are other fun things to do, but downtown, where space is limited, beigoma rules. You see the world from street level, from where people walk and where alley cats and dogs wander. The game is down-to-earth and so are the people who play it.

Even high-tech robots are born in small family-owned factories. In my city, Kawaguchi, within just a one- or two-km radius, we can make the parts for, and put together, anything: a truck, a plane, or a robot. There are hundreds of tiny factories like mine that manufacture the most important parts for any product you can think of. Even a space rocket!

Culture can’t feed a family: It can fill our hearts but not our bellies. Sure, beigoma and the art of monozukuri are important aspects of Japanese culture, but unless we find a way to keep paying salaries, we will not be able to continue production for much longer. Top manufacturers are struggling, too. Our workers work two days less a week than normal, collecting government assistance for the hours that they have to stay at home. We can only operate three days a week, but we are surviving. That, at least, is a success.

A little ceremony goes a long way. Oinari-san is the guardian deity of blacksmiths and fire prevention, so factories always have a small shrine dedicated to it. Every morning we pray for a day without accidents and fire. Once we have done that, we can feel relaxed and do our day’s work well.

If you love your work, you never want to retire. I am the youngest person in our company. Others are between 65 and 73 years old, and they all want to continue working. Most began when they were just 12 years old. They enjoy the smell of cast iron, and can’t get enough of pouring the hot lava into spinning-top forms.

Craftsmen just love to build and then keep on building and building. But by the time they notice what they have done, there’s sometimes a risk that their businesses will collapse on top of them. Most shokunin (master craftsmen) take pleasure in making things, but don’t especially like the business of running a factory. This attitude wasn’t a problem for many generations. Now, however, the economic downturn requires us to take more initiatives and reinvent our businesses. Frankly speaking, most of us just can’t figure out how to do this.

Don’t forget your parents, even if they forget you! My mom is 86 years old and has Alzheimer’s disease. She forgets things and often confuses day and night. She goes to daycare once a week and the other six days she stays at home with my wife. Our situation is not unique: most of our friends and workers also have parents to take care of.

Using your hands and fingers develops the brain and calms the heart. Scientific studies have shown that the brain responds well to using your fingers. I see this firsthand when I visit elderly people’s homes. Even those in wheelchairs can throw beigoma, and the more they play, the better they throw. They also feel happier and so their overall condition improves.

Adults should sometimes see things from the eye-level of children. Crouch down to kids’ height whenever you talk to them, don’t look down on them.

When children and adults play beigoma as equals, the games are serious fun. Beigoma is unique as it doesn’t discriminate by age, gender or size. Our club members range from 3 year olds to 75 year olds, and in tournaments, when they are paired into partners, the little ones often end up in the top 10.

If you look at balance sheets too much, you’ll obsess about profits and others won’t want to listen to you. When I began working in our factory, I only cared about our profit margin. I realized back then that we should have been producing car parts only, as that was good money. I argued with my uncle, who was the president, and implored him to stop making beigoma. He refused. He told me that he had promised toy shops that he would supply them with beigoma forever. He felt he had an emotional obligation to the children who played with them. He wouldn’t budge! I was frustrated, but when it was my time to take over the business, I turned into him. I guess I chose emotion over logic, and I still feel good about it. It’s fun.

Analog games are still important in the digital age. After all, human life is analog: We perceive the world through our senses and our main activities are analog — eating, sleeping, talking and just being alive.

If you’re good, you’ll be spinning with good people and the bad ones will bounce off you. Whether times are good or bad, it shouldn’t affect our relationships with others. We have had economic booms and now we are in a recession, but in our small world of little factories, we are still a family. In the past, we enjoyed others’ and our own successes, so now we help each other to prevent bankruptcies. This year I moved production to my friend’s factory to save on costs. In the past, others have used my premises for their manufacturing. Our goal is not just to survive, it is to survive together.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “Out & About.” Learn more at: http://juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/