Adjusting to stay in the frame game

Tying up with a film is one way makers get by

Kyodo

In Sabae, Fukui Prefecture, the nation’s center of eyeglass frame production, manufacturers are trying new business avenues to survive, such as tying merchandise to an animated film or producing medical equipment.

With its share of domestic production in excess of 90 percent, Sabae has led the industry in Japan for more than a hundred years. But a recent flow of low-priced eyeglass frames from China has caused firms in Sabae to suffer declining shipments.

According to Fukui Optical Industrial Association, production of eyeglasses began in Sabae around 1905 to provide jobs to Fukui farmers unable to work in winter because of the deep snow. After World War II, a vast site used as an army garrison became home to eyeglass frame manufacturing plants. Over the years, manufacturers have innovated by introducing machinery to improve productivity and trying new materials, including celluloid and titanium. In 1992, eyeglass frame shipments from Fukui topped ¥110 billion.

Although the region still boasts the nation’s top share in both production and shipment, the amount of shipments in 2010 dropped to less than half of the peak year to ¥52.6 billion, due to low-price imports, especially from China.

As more major eyeglass retail chains began entrusting production overseas, many of the manufacturers in Sabae have been forced to close or reduce the number of employees.

Amid growing concern about the ability to survive the global competition, Nova Optics Inc., a Sabae-based eyewear firm, developed eyeglasses that look like those worn by the main character in “Kaze Tachinu,” (“The Wind Rises”), an animated film by director Hayao Miyazaki released in July.

Nova Optics replicated the design of the eyeglasses by researching the designs and materials used for eyeglasses in the Taisho Era, when the film takes place, and used the kind of glass lenses that are rarely used in eyeglasses nowadays.

To make the product fit the film’s image, the firm adjusted the design by 0.1 mm in cooperation with Studio Ghibli, the film’s creator, and the eyeglasses were put on sale at Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo, for ¥15,750, to coincide with the film’s release.

The 30 eyeglasses have already sold out, and the firm has been asked to produce more. Yasuyuki Kobayashi, 42, who designed the glasses, said it was a great experience for a small company like Nova Optics to participate in a project with a world-famous Ghibli film.

Meanwhile, another Sabae-based frame manufacturer, Charmant, entered the medical equipment manufacturing business by utilizing its high-level technology of processing light, rustproof titanium.

Charmant developed scissors and tweezers used in surgery, receiving advice from doctors. Although the medical equipment market is mainly occupied by overseas firms, Charmant’s equipment is highly evaluated by Japanese doctors. Doctors also appreciate the fact that they can make orders in Japanese and products arrive quickly, according to Charmant.

Satoshi Watanabe, 44, an official at the Sabae Municipal Government’s commercial policy division, said he hopes younger generations will become more interested in Sabae’s eyeglasses industry and work to develop it further.