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Imitation swords made of wood — Byakko Swords from Fukushima Prefecture, Nara Swords from Nara Prefecture and other similar items from around the country — are a popular souvenir for students going on school trips.

But it is not well known that a small Fukushima company called Takahashi Industry Co., which produces wooden products in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, used to dominate the domestic market. In recent years, many of the swords have been imported from China.

The firm first mass-produced the wooden swords in the 1970s using machinery it developed and started selling the items to souvenir stores in popular tourism spots nationwide.

Nobuo Takahashi, founder of Takahashi Industry Co., shows off a wooden sword his company made.
 | FUKUSHIMA MINPO
Nobuo Takahashi, founder of Takahashi Industry Co., shows off a wooden sword his company made. | FUKUSHIMA MINPO

Takahashi Industry started manufacturing wooden swords soon after it was founded in 1972. At the time, wooden swords were rarely sold at souvenir shops, with only a handful of craftsmen in the Aizu area in Fukushima Prefecture manufacturing them in their spare time.

Nobuo Takahashi, 74, founder and chairman of Takahashi Industry, saw potential in the business.

“I made it our core business. They were only manufactured in Aizu and there was practically no competition,” he said. “I was confident they would be a hit.”

Takahashi targeted souvenir shops outside the prefecture rather than those in the local area, where there was already a certain amount of the product being made and sold.

He visited stores in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture; Asakusa in Tokyo; Odawara in Kanagawa Prefecture; and the prefectures of Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kochi and Fukuoka, which were popular destinations for school trips. Those sales promotion trips mostly ended successfully, and the list of retailers around Japan expanded quickly.

In its heyday during the bubble economy in the 1980s, the company produced 160,000 wooden swords a year, shipping them stamped with the name of the city where they would be sold. Takahashi Industry had more than 200 city name stamps at its factory.

The key was to keep the price affordable for students — below ¥1,000. The machinery used for mass production, which cut planks of cherry wood into several swords and sheaths, allowed them to be sold at a low price tag.

It was not exactly state-of-the-art machinery, but the company made improvements here and there from the start.

With Japan’s aging population, it now ships 34,000 swords annually, a fifth of what it was in its heyday, and Takahashi Industry’s core business has shifted to other products.

“The company will go bankrupt if we only manufacture wooden swords, which have a slim profit margin,” said Yukihito Takahashi, 44, Nobuo’s son who is now the company president. “We can continue producing them because we are making profit from other products.”

With schools canceling school trips due to the pandemic, orders for the swords temporarily stalled. But after they resumed in autumn last year, the amount shipped increased year on year.

This may also be because of the popularity of the anime “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train,” a story that revolves around a young swordsman fighting demons in the Taisho Era (1912-1926).

Children have always been fascinated by swords, said Nobuo Takahashi.

“When you think about the most popular thing kids play, that’s chanbara (sword play),” he said. “Swords are a treasure for children.”

The firm ships swords with four different lengths — 75 centimeters, 60 cm, 45 cm and 30 cm.

But in recent years, some teachers have banned students from purchasing them during the trip, as they may hurt themselves or others with it, something that breaks Nobuo Takahashi’s heart.

“Children learn how to use them by playing with them,” he said.

This section features topics and issues covered by Fukushima Minpo, the prefecture’s largest newspaper. The original article was published May 10.

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