Sapporo – A small furniture company in rural Hokkaido was tasked with making the protective wooden cases used to store medals won by athletes at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Each is a delicate work of craftsmanship, yet the craftspeople faced many challenges during the process and one-year postponement of the Games due to the pandemic.
Made of wood from locally sourced Japanese “tamo” ash trees, the circular cases are made by Yamagami Mokko, a company with only 19 employees in the town of Tsubetsu on Japan’s northernmost main island.
The cases are dyed indigo blue — considered “the color of victory” — and measure 12 centimeters wide and 6 centimeters thick, according to Yuichiro Yamagami, the company’s 37-year-old senior managing director.
Around 5,000 of the medal cases were created for the Paralympics and the Olympics, which saw a medal rush for Japan. According to Yamagami, this is a great source of pride for a firm located in a remote corner of Japan.
The company was able to create “something world-class and representative of Japan, despite coming from such a provincial area,” Yamagami said.
Built without nails or screws, the lid and case are both embedded with magnets to fit snugly together when closed, and the top slides to the side when opened. Workers at Yamagami Mokko adjusted the position and depth of the magnets to be fitted in 0.1-millimeter increments so that the lid and case slide smoothly. Fine details, such as polishing the case to highlight the wood grain, were primarily done by hand.
Fencer Masaru Yamada, a member of the Japanese men’s epee team that won the country’s first-ever fencing gold medal in the Olympics, posted an image of the medal case on Twitter while praising its “fine and sturdy” craftsmanship.
Founded in 1950, Yamagami Mokko manufactures its own brand of chairs for the domestic market and has also exported its products to Hong Kong and France, among other places.
The company obtained the medal-case order in March 2019 in a public offering, winning accolades for its technical capabilities.
Although it immediately began work on the cases, there were early production difficulties, including problems with dyeing the cases evenly. Because of limited staffing, there were days when employees toiled late into the night.
There was even concern that they might not finish in time for the games, but according to Yamagami, they were extremely motivated to produce a case that could represent the country as a high-quality product “made in Japan.”
With the work completed around March 2020, Yamagami recalled sleeping next to the cardboard boxes containing the medal cases for about a week before shipment because of his fondness for them.
Then, with the one-year postponement of the Olympics and Paralympics due to the coronavirus outbreak, Yamagami and others began to worry about whether temperature, humidity and other factors might affect the quality of the cases they had worked so hard on.
Fortunately, they found a solution. Working with the Tokyo Organising Committee, Yamagami Mokko was able to obtain the kind of preservative agents used in museums. When applied to the medal cases, the quality was maintained.
With the cases secure, Yamagami Mokko waited as debate continued to rage on whether or not to hold the Games with the pandemic raging and the public deeply concerned about safety. Then at last, “We finally saw the light of day,” Yamagami recalled. After a yearlong delay, the Olympics finally kicked off on July 23.
“We understood why people called for canceling the games, but we also didn’t want to think about all our efforts being for nothing,” Yamagami said.
Yamagami still remembers seeing the footage of medal winners holding his cases during the Games. “I felt as if I were giving my daughter’s hand away in marriage,” he said. Yamagami doesn’t have a daughter.
Tsubetsu, in the eastern part of Hokkaido, has a population of roughly 4,400 — fewer than the number of medal cases Yamagami Mokko produced for the games.
“We will be happy if lots of people learn that even a tiny company in a small town can make things worth showing off to the world,” Yamagami said.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.