The struggles of the Japanese ceramics industry
Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 25, 2008
THE JAPANESE HAVE BEEN making things out of clay for 12,000 years, so the use of ceramics for use in daily life and as art objects is an inseparable part of the national culture. Indeed, their ceramic tableware is an inspired example of how utility can be combined with esthetics.
One aspect of their approach toward ceramics is that while enthusiastically adopting the latest innovations and technology over the millenia, usually from China, the Japanese still produced earthenware with characteristics that can be traced directly back to antecedents from the Neolithic era.
A major ceramics production region is Arita in Saga, where the Korean ceramist Li Sam-pyung discovered in Izumiyama large deposits of the kaolin required to make porcelain of the highest quality. Enormous volumes of Arita ware have been shipped throughout the world, and the customer base once included the royal houses of Europe and the Ottoman Empire.
How big is the industry in Arita? The combined sales of the two largest companies and three cooperatives with a sales system shared by 370 other companies amounted to 7.2 billion yen in 2007, or almost US$70 million.
And that’s what has them worried. Those are the lowest aggregate annual sales since the local industry began keeping official records in 1985. Not only was this a 6.2% drop from the previous year, it was the 11th straight downturn in sales and 30% off the record high set in 1991.
According to the local officials who conducted the survey, orders from the commercial sector keep falling as more ryokan (Japanese inns) and hotels switch to inexpensive imported ceramics. Sales also have been poor to individual consumers, for whom changing lifestyles means fewer traditional Japanese meals. That’s a problem because in the traditional style of dining, individual foods are served on separate plates or dishes, each with a distinctive shape, rather than on a single plate on which everything other than the salad has been dumped, as in the West. For example, the simple lunch my wife and I had in a Japanese restaurant yesterday required four different plates or bowls, in addition to which were the teapot, tea cups, and ceramic chopstick rests.
In contrast, the survey found that demand continues to grow from Japanese power companies for ceramic insulators and other devices used in the power industry for high voltage power lines. Exports to African nations of parts and products used in power facilities also continue to be brisk, buoyed by Japanese government ODA.
Left unmentioned, but sitting in the middle of the room like the proverbial 800-pound elephant, are other social changes. More women work, which means they have less time or inclination to do all the dishwashing that Japanese cuisine requires. And because people marry later or not at all–and have fewer children when they do marry–the purchase of a full set of ceramic tableware is no longer the priority it once was.
The officials suggest the industry has been slow to respond to these changes. In its report on the story, the Nishinippon Shimbun cited one example as a successful response to consumer preferences: the “supreme shochu glass” for individual consumers. (To get up to speed on shochu, a distilled beverage that resembles gin or vodka and outsells sake, try this previous post.)
The glass (actually a ceramic cup) was developed by local kilns and put on the market in November 2005. The two photographs accompanying this post show examples of the supreme shochu glass—the first incorporating different patterns, and the second sporting the logo of the Kansai area-based Hanshin Tigers baseball team, which has one of the most rabid fan bases of any sports franchise in the world.
Before the supreme glass was created to add elegance to their drinking experience, most shochu drinkers used glassware for the beverage, served either warm or cold. But the designers at Arita came up with a new product that makes everybody happy—the kilns sell more merchandise, the drinkers can savor the taste and bouquet better than before, and the members of the prototype testing team enjoyed the heck out of themselves putting the product through trials.
A single supremo sells for about 2,300 yen ($US 22.25), is 97 millimeters in diameter at the rim (about 3.8 inches), and 95 millimeters high.
Here are the improvements that the manufacturers tout for the product:
- The glass mouth has been widened to improve both the bite of the shochu as well as its taste.
- The sides slope upward at a 75º angle. Making the glass progressively wider allows the shochu to evaporate faster, creating a more full-bodied flavor.
- There’s a small protuberance at the bottom of the glass to improve the internal crosscurrents. The manufacturers say this leads to a more balanced flavor, and I see no reason to doubt their word.
- A knurl has been added outside the glass near the base to make it easier to grip, which I’m sure becomes more important as the night wears on.
- Finally, the base of the glass under the knurl is hollowed out underneath, creating a platform effect. This helps the beverage remain hot or cold regardless of the air temperature.
What conclusion can we draw? Between the insulators for power lines and the supreme glasses for shochu drinkers, the Japanese ceramics industry may yet find a way to overcome demographic trends and the disappearance of trade barriers and traditional dietary habits.
N.B.: Those who still think the Japanese have a bad attitude about their neighbors on the other side of the Sea of Japan might be surprised to know that the Korean Li Sam-pyung is the tutelary deity at a Shinto shrine in Arita, and a festival is held in his honor there every May.
This entry was posted on Sunday, May 25, 2008 at 7:59 pm and is filed under Business, finance and the economy, Demography, Food, New products, Social trends, Traditions. Tagged: Japan, Liquor, Saga. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.