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Digital Age and Booming Personalized Stationary


When was the last time you wrote letters and words with pen and paper?  Maybe not your big essay or report, but what about personal notes?  Or small jotting down of your ideas, or conversations?

The Month of New Start

April in Japan is a special month.  It is a start of school year, and fiscal year.  So children start new school, meet new friends and teachers.  Young adults start working, and also a lot of business people get assigned to new workplaces.

So April is usually big months for stationary sales.  But why stationary when everyone has a smartphone?

The big shift came in 2008.  After Lehman Brothers shock, the companies stopped purchasing and supplying standard quality pens and stationeries to the employees.  Dull black ink, plastic handle pens that just does the job were no more.  It is one thing to be supplied and uses faceless items at work, but if you were to buy your own, why not look for something you like?

Introducing the Fountain Pen to Japan

First fountain pen was introduced in Japan in 1884, imported from the USA.  Traditional means of writing in Japan has always been a brush, not exactly handy when out and about, as it was necessary to carry a bottle and a brush, just like pen and ink in Europe.  So the introduction of clean and easy to carry pen was very welcomed and spread to Japanese intellectuals and beyond, who has always been high literacy.  (The average literacy rate in Japan was 50%, where England was 30%, France 10%, in around 1850s.)

The excitement and obsession could be seen in the promotion material called “Diagrams and Impression of Fountain Pens”.  The contributors included top authors such as Soseki Natsume, Rohan Koda, Hakushu Kitahara.  Some people embraced the new technology, and some loathed it – that the formal letters should be written with a brush, not a pen, just like some people disregarded typed letters as rude in the 70s.  But it is pretty safe to say that having the fountain pen was seen prestigious and being forward thinker.  So, it was also a statement.

What followed is the flourishing of Japanese manufacturers to produce pens that are suitable for rather complicated letterings with quite a few more strokes than alphabets.  At the same time, papers needed to be resilient to smudging to retain the clarity after writing.  It was necessary to improve on the imported products to make them suitable for Japanese needs.

Since the 1880s on, Japanese stationery manufacturers never stopped producing new products.  The qualities of innovations are high, and the major Japanese manufacturer’s income now relies hugely on the export market.  Within very short time after the first introduction, Japanese turned the imported product into the premium export product.

New Products Keep Coming

Since then, they never stopped.  They are not in it for cost reduction but quality and innovation.  The stationary manufacturers kept on churning out new products, such as Airpen in 2004, which transferred handwritten texts to digital format, Friction pen in 2007.  But now, after 2008, it is now imperative to make them not only functional but also good looking, for the consumers looking for their statement stationary, once again.

This trend energised the manufacturers to receive feedback and improve and expand the market.

As the atmosphere in the workplaces continues to become relatively casual, there is no longer a fixed image that diaries had to be black with the company logo.  Colour, layout, and functionality have all become important.  Stationary industry tends to see the products to be one style fits all, but it is no longer the case.

One of the feedback was the importance of gender balance in the workplace.  Women workers tend to have more disposable income and keen to spend a bit more money and attention for daily items, and there are more of them in the workplace compared to 30 years ago.  This trend leads to colourful and fashionable products, in some cases branding collaboration with fashion brands, Manga characters, Classical literature, the traditional potteries (this one costs nearly $1000 per pen).  Good old stationary marketing is now full of beautiful products in very different price ranges.

Thin Line Between Marketing Success and Disaster

BUT, one of the recent, well-publicised marketing blunder come from this very market.  It is for “Crystal for Her” – same old ballpoint pens, slightly smaller, lighter, and in pastel colours.  This has prompted some interesting online reviews, such as a man asking if it is safe for him to use it, or a woman writing a long sarcastic piece on how she used this “for Her” pen to convince her family that girls can learn to write…  Take these reactions seriously or not depends, and how much, on the nature of the products and messages, though serious learnings can be had here too.  It needs fine balancing of the view when crossing the borders of every kind.


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