HIMEJI, Japan — Matches are more than just matches at century-old Nittosha.
The small but proud maker is nestled in the sleepy Japanese town of Himeji, famous for nothing but an ancient castle, gourmet saltwater eels and matches.
Nittosha, which employs 130 people, is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the small and medium-sized businesses that are the backbone of major economies, including the United States and Japan.
Matches is also the story of a family, the firstborn of the Onishi sons, who have inherited the company for four generations.
Nittosha talks about a time when quaint and colorful “book matches” served as fashionable yet subtle advertisements, handed out for free in bars, restaurants and hotels. Those days are long gone, as disposable lighters became more widespread and the number of smokers declined. Advertising has gone digital.
But when the company recently announced that it would stop taking orders for matchbooks at the end of June, the news sparked a flurry of emotions, especially on Japanese social media. Some people said they associate matchstick lighting with cool scenes in movies, while others shared images from their matchstick collections.
“I was really surprised by the reaction,” Kenji Kobayashi, who runs the plant, told The Associated Press.
Kobayashi, who has never smoked, believes matches serve the same function as postcards, as visual souvenirs of travel.
“The main purpose of matchbooks was advertising. And so if people don’t smoke, it’s not very effective advertising,” he said.
Nittosha is still making matches. Wooden sticks with flammable tips go in boxes. Some are exported to the United States
Matchbooks – the kind that Nittosha discontinues – have matches with hard-to-burn paper stems stuck together in a comb shape at the bottom. They are enclosed in a paper cover, much like a book, with a strip for knocking.
They are easier to carry than a box of matches and, for aficionados, much more fashionable. And they were free.
In recent years, book match production has fallen to less than 1% of Nittosha’s overall production.
In his factory, machines hum and rattle on three floors, making boxes, paper liners and matches. A machine has a giant rotating brush to paint a special chemical to roughen the surface to strike matches to light them.
At each stage, people are busy sorting the matches by hand, as the boxes go by. Some stack the boxes as they go, one after the other, then put them in larger cartons.
Matches are everywhere.
Himeji dominated match production in Japan. It is close to the port of Kobe and the moderately dry climate of the city is conducive to meetings. Today, Nittosha is one of a handful of remaining matchmakers in Japan, accounting for about 70% of total production, according to the company.
Takahiro Ono has a huge collection of matches and believes matches should last forever. He says their use should be seen as a ritual, a bit like a prayer, that reminds people to handle fire with care and treat it with respect.
“Lighting a match is harder to do than flipping a switch,” he said, noting the smell of a match and the smoke that rolled up as it burned.
“And there are things you have to do to clean up after a fire is out.”
Matches are still used on Buddhist altars in Japanese homes, for lighting incense and candles, at barbecues, fireplaces and campfires.
Nittosha still has over 1,000 customers. It also manufactures other products used for marketing such as miniature packets of tissue paper, called “pocket tissues” in Japan, which are handed out for free on street corners and in stores, similar to matchbooks in the past.
Even this practice is giving way to online marketing, as a labor shortage makes it expensive to pay people to distribute pocket squares.
Nittosha has expanded into manufacturing individually wrapped disposable wet wipes and wet tissue packs. It faces competition from bigger rivals, but such changes are necessary to face an uncertain future, said Jun Onishi, the first-born of the fifth generation – great-grandson of Nittosha founder and son of the current CEO.
It’s unclear what the next blockbuster might be.
“As long as we remain a company that is outsourced for production, our sales are always at risk. It was like that with matchbooks, then pocket squares, and maybe one day restaurants will stop using wet tissues too,” Onishi said.
Raising an Onishi firstborn was a heavy responsibility.
“People have told me that I often look like I’m trying to hide from it,” he said.
He gave his firstborn son the Japanese word for “light”. He is 3 years old.