In the competition for writing ever sharper lines, pen makers have been jostling for the title of the world’s smallest ball points.
The effort isn’t merely an attempt to satisfy engineers’ egos; it is a critical part of the stationery industry’s latest trend: ball point pens that can draw razor-sharp lines for writing microscopic kanji.
The field was pioneered by Pilot Corp., a leader in the industry, which released a pen with a ball diameter of 0.3 mm in June 1994. Before that, 0.5-mm balls had been the smallest.
“Initially, I thought it wouldn’t sell,” said Toshio Yamauchi, general manager of the writing instrument division of Pilot Ink Co., the firm’s production unit. “The common sense in the industry is that a ball point pen should be priced at no more than 100 yen, and that pens with such sharp tips would only form a niche market anyway.”
Yet, despite its 200 yen price tag, the 0.3-mm ball point pen became an instant and long-lived hit. In the past 10 years, the firm has sold 200 million of the pens in Japan.
Pilot’s engineers had to make a technological leap to produce the sharper pens. One of the biggest challenges was friction.
Since a smaller ball rotates more often, friction between the ball and the holder increases, causing the holder to break. Pilot solved the problem by designing a completely new holder structure.
In an unexpected development, the new pens started attracting schoolgirls who were in the habit of jotting tiny notes in between the lines of text in their textbooks.
The introduction of numerous ink colors also helped power the craze, which was adopted by young women and others who wanted to express themselves in different ways.
The colors used for writing itty-bitty characters in diaries or personal day planners change according to the mood of the day, company officials said. Some girls will even use more than 10 colors in one letter.
“Their feeling is not writing text, but rather drawing text, I think,” Yamauchi said.
The market suddenly turned lively in March 2003 when Mitsubishi Pencil Co. released a 0.28-mm diameter ball pen, kicking Pilot off the throne of the world’s smallest.
Fourteen months later, Pilot struck back with 0.25-mm ball pens, claiming them “the world’s smallest.” One of the company’s pitch lines was that the pen could be used to write 36 kanji in a 1-sq.-cm space, a leap from the 25 characters allowed by the 0.3-mm pen.
But in less than a year, Pilot had lost the title to rival Mitsubishi, which released 0.18-mm ball point pens in January. The company is not related to the Mitsubishi conglomerate.
Mitsubishi had already been working on the 0.18-mm ball pen when it released the 0.28-mm model, company officials said.
“We were relieved that they did not introduce the 0.15 mm after we launched the 0.28 mm. If they’d done that, we might not have been able to release the 0.18 mm,” said Daisuke Shimauchi, assistant manager of the product development department at Mitsubishi Pencil.
Shimauchi said 0.18-mm pens have been selling briskly and production hasn’t been able to catch up with demand. “It is beyond our expectations,” he said. “For some schoolgirls, the sharper the letters, the prettier.”
Mitsubishi officials refused to disclose sales figures for the new pens, but said nearly 80 percent of their initial target of 1 billion yen for the first year had been achieved by the end of May.
Shimauchi said Mitsubishi aggressively pursues the title of the world’s smallest ball pen because it can be used to convince stores to give shelf space to its products.
“If the ball size of the new product is the same as the rival’s, the stores may ask ‘Why shouldn’t we keep the existing ones?’ ” he said.
Officials of both companies admit they have pretty much reached the limit of pen technology in the quest for ever-smaller balls, and said they have no firm plans for a new offering.
But Yumiko Minagawa, a floor clerk in the stationary department at Tokyu Hands in Shibuya, thinks the competition will continue.
“Avid users of stationary goods are keenly watching for product releases. They buy and try out new stuff out of curiosity,” she said, adding that sharp ball point pens are one of the department’s main items.
The sharp pen fad among schoolgirls has been around for five years, according to the store. And the girls like to own dozens of pens in a wide variety of colors.
“They carry around a lot of pens. We can tell because we are also seeing strong sales of pouchlike big pen cases,” she said.
The popularity of ultrasharp ball point pens is not limited to Japan. While Pilot sells roughly 20 million of them annually, it also exports about 30 million to other parts of Asia, with Taiwan accounting for 10 million alone.
“A similar fad can be seen among girls in Taiwan and Hong Kong,” Yamauchi said.
The company officials said preference for sharper pens is found in regions that use kanji, which are generally more complex than Roman characters and take more strokes to write. Pilot said it plans to start exporting its pens to areas of the U.S. that have markets for users of Chinese characters.
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