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Vibrant SMEs of JAPAN

Targeting World-Class Production with Kendama [Yamagata Koubou]

Secret to Robustness
  • "Ozora" brand trusted in competition.
  • High quality production by skilled craftsmen.
  • Increasing sense of presence in nations around the world.

"Competitive kendama [Japanese cup-and-ball game] players in Japan are increasing year by year, and the game is even gaining acceptance overseas." Yuji Umetsu, president of Yamagata Koubou, a company specializing in the production of kendama for competition, is focusing the company's efforts on promoting the spread of kendama. Competition type kendama produced by Yamagata Koubou are certified by the Japan Kendama Association, and in 1990, the company received certification from its local Nagai City for being the "best competitive type kendama manufacturer in Japan," proof that the company is diligently engaged in world-class production from Yamagata.

Nothing Better Than Human Hands

The company was founded in October 1973. Initially it manufactured wooden toys and traditional crafts, but in 1977, it began producing competition type kendama. Today, competition type kendama account for over half of the company's overall sales. In addition to kendama, Yamagata Koubou also produces drumsticks for Japanese drums and parts for agricultural machinery. President Umetsu emphasized the company's technical capabilities and stated, "We pride ourselves in creating high quality kendama made by the hands of skilled craftsmen."

"Ozora" is the company's brand of competition type kendama. The "stick" and "cup" parts that make up the kendama are made of beech wood, and the "ball" is made of cherry wood. There are said to be several tens of thousands of kendama techniques, and as the techniques become more advanced, higher precision product is required. Meeting the demands of users who repetitively utilize advanced techniques requires handcrafting processes such as polishing. The company carefully examines its materials and machines each part while meticulously understanding conditions such as the age of the raw wood and the growing environment. According to President Umetsu, "There is no tool that is better than human hands," and this includes the finish files.

In the manufacturing process, first the raw wood is cut into square logs, and then it is milled from square logs into round logs. From there, the balls, cups, and sticks are all machined. Even the painting is done in-house, and this start to finish production system is Yamagata Koubou's specialty. The issue that the company is tackling next is recycling. The company is said to generate up to one ton of wood chips per day in the production process, and rather than disposing of those wood chips, it is focusing its efforts on making proposals for use in areas such as fuel and compost through collaboration with agricultural related companies.

Permeation as a Pop Culture

The number of competitive kendama players in Japan is said to be around several million, and kendama is enjoyed by people of every generation from elementary school children to coaches. In recent years, young people enjoying kendama in the streets have become a common sight. President Umetsu commented, "Kendama is permeating society even as a pop culture." In addition to competitive type kendama, Yamagata Koubou also handles a variety of product designs, and kendama is even playing a role in Japan's culture gaining acceptance as a cool culture overseas.

To support the growing popularity of kendama abroad, Yamagata Koubou began selling its products overseas in 2008, and in 2011, its products passed CPSIA testing, the U.S. safety standard for export of product to the United States. Then in 2012, the ST certification mark, the safety standard of the Japan Toy Association, was added to the company's Ozora brand of competition type kendama. By passing the U.S. safety standard, the company also gained an increase in consumer trust in the North American market. According to President Umetsu, kendama is used overseas as "a sporting good and juggling equipment." In fact, kendama appears to be growing as a youth culture amongst young people in their 20s and 30s overseas. Interest is also increasing in kendama competitions, and the company is receiving a steady amount of inquiries regarding its Ozora brand of products. President Umetsu is targeting world-class production and stated, "Japan is our main market, but we also need to markedly improve awareness overseas in order to promote widespread enjoyment of kendama."

As part of its overseas expansion, Yamagata Koubou is also searching for ways to cultivate the Chinese market, and is now in the stage of examining the marketplace through exhibits at trade shows and such. However, as it expands overseas, intellectual property control including dealing with counterfeit products is becoming an issue, and the company intends to rigidly deal with the issue through collaborations in all parts of the world.

In efforts to grow the domestic market, which is its main market, grass-roots activities to enlighten the public on how to use competition type kendama and such are essential. Opportunities for players to learn "Moshi Kame [a combination of a big cup and base cup trick]", "Tomeken [jump to spike]", "Nihon Isshu [Around Japan]", and other basic tricks and competition methods of kendama must be increased. Another unique aspect of kendama is that it can be enjoyed regardless of age, and because of this, communication through kendama is spreading worldwide. Looking to the future, President Umetsu stated, "We want to respond to the needs of users from the perspective of production."

Competition type kendama finished by skilled craftsmen.

Competition type kendama finished by skilled craftsmen.


Market Cultivation in a Niche Field

Based on old records, kendama is said to get its roots from bilboquet in France, and then it underwent a unique evolution in Japan to reach its current form. Kendama may have a certain sense of presence in every generation, and because it is a niche field, the cultivation of new markets through originality and ingenuity is expected. In fact, even in the primary market of Japan, there is still room to grow. With the image of a "cool Japan" beginning to spread, it will be interesting to see how kendama helps to grow that image. Market growth is expected on a global scale.

Company Data

President:Yuji Umetsu

President:Yuji Umetsu

Company name Yamagata Koubou Co., Ltd.
President Yuji Umetsu
Industry Type Manufacturing of wooden products
Address 6493-2 Teraizumi, Nagai-shi, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan
Phone 0238-84-6062

Printing day:August 7, 2014

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