A Japanese reporter interviewed me recently for a story on stationery products. He told me that the Japanese love new and innovative writing implements -- things that many Americans consider commodities. He was talking about mechanical pencils, ballpoint pens, highlighters, and the like. Since I had written a history of the pencil, he wanted my take on some of the latest in Japanese writing products.
In anticipation of our appointment, he mailed me a few things that are hot items in Japan: a new kind of mechanical pencil, a popular ballpoint pen, and a pencil case package containing two other ballpoint pens and two highlighters. I agreed to try them in advance of the interview, so that I could respond to his questions about them.
The Uni-ball Kuru Toga (Japanese for “twist and turn”) pencil came in a blister package with a cardboard insert that was printed in Japanese. However, I could tell from the pictures touting the pencil’s innovative feature what distinguished it. The cartoons made it clear that, instead of the lead wearing down to a single inclined plane, it rotated automatically as it was used, and so it wore down in a conical form, thereby maintaining a sharper point. This was something I immediately appreciated. When I was learning mechanical drawing, I was taught to rotate my pencil as I dragged it along a T-square or triangle edge, so that the width of the line would remain nearly uniform. Rotating my wooden pencils as I write with them is a habit I have to this day.
I appreciated the ingenuity of the pencil with the automatically rotating lead, but I told my interviewer that it was a feature that might be more a marketing than a selling point in the US. After all, the thickness of the lead was 0.5mm, and in the course of writing, it hardly mattered how such a thin lead wore down. Furthermore, I told him, in order to achieve the feature of self-rotating lead, the pencil body had to have the thickness of a fountain pen. I was used to my pencils, whether mechanical or not, having a more slender look and feel.
I believe I may have disappointed him with my answer, but I went on to explain that all design involves compromise, and to fit the rotation mechanism into the implement’s barrel, it had to be thicker than an ordinary pencil.