January 14, 2005


Sashimono Joinery Gives Rise to Plastic Model Making

* This article is under copyright protection.

Manabu Akaike
Universal Design Intelligence Inc.

Plastic model kits are one of the premier indigenous industries of Shizuoka Prefecture, and Shizuoka model makers own roughly 70% of the market. How did it happen that plastic models developed in Shizuoka? In the part of the prefecture where wood was cut from the famed Kiso trees including hinoki cypress, woodworking crafts have flourished for hundreds of years, basically starting about 460 years ago when lacquer bowls brought the lacquer-making industry to the fore. How lacquer-making came to form the solid foundation of other woodworking industries owes much to the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu who unified Japan to set up the Tokugawa Shogunate. Ieyasu's Sumpu Castle and the Sengen Shrine built by the third Tokugawa shogun Iemitsu were massive undertakings that drew the best woodworkers, carvers and lacquer artisans from all over Japan, many of whom remained in Sumpu (today known as Shizuoka City) for the rest of their lives. The ones that stayed in Sumpu did not try to keep the arts and techniques of woodworking to themselves, but let their secrets range wide. This is what stimulated the sashimono joinery craft that is the special pride of Sumpu, which in turn gave rise to a variety of crafts and industries including furniture, butsudan altars, built-in furniture, geta wooden sandals and even pianos.

In fact, one of the crafts borne of the sashimono woodworking joinery techniques was the making of wooden model toys, which are of course the precursor of today's plastic model kits. In the late 1920s, production of model airplanes using hinoki cypress began. These were originally used as educational materials in schools. Next, makers began to use balsa and other lighter woods to make the gliders instead of hinoki cypress, which gave the models additional functionality.

Tamiya Models which today is known worldwide for its hugely popu1ar mini four-wheel drive model cars was also founded by a woodworker in 1946. The company started out building money boxes and bookends using leftover blocks and chips of local wood. Tamiya is the company that first commercialized a motorized moving military tank model. In pursuit of excellence in terms of real-looking models, Tamiya developed its own automated mold processor for building model ships more than one meter in length, thus attaining a peak in the technology of manufacturing wood models.

Model Making Is at the Root of Manufacturing

The difficulty of making miniature models of battleships lies in building the curve into the body of the ship as symbolized in the processing of the ship's bow. At the time, this was a job for a seasoned artisan who could draw a curve using a carpenter's square and then carve it out with a long carving blade like a stiletto. Tamiya thought of utilizing the milling machine then in use to cut the corners off geta wooden sandals. This automated technology was what made it possible to mass-produce wooden model kits and resulted in a new product making concept, namely that of building identical models on different scales.

Then plastic model kits and plastic models began pouring in from America. At first they were expensive, but the accuracy compared to wood models was very high, close to the real thing. The ease of using plastic models meant that in Japan too, plastic model kits became the norm as they are today.

Tamiya's main model products today are the radio controlled car series and the famed 4WD models, but Tamiya is also making efforts to create a space for children to experience the joy of making models back in the analog age. Let's think about the significance of mechanical models that teach the fundamentals of hand-crafting today, in the age of digital TV.

JAPAN CLOSE-UP, December 2002, published by PHP

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