As a pencil & pen geek myself and one who's fortunate to go to Japan once in a while, the big Japanese office supply stores are always on my agenda during a visit. The Japanese enthusiasm for small things and their focus on perfecting the details is evidenced in the quality of their writing instruments. I will agree that some of the things are gimmicky (30 years of R&D to perfect a self-rotating lead? I would've killed that project in the first year!). But on the whole, their offerings are very practical and priced well. I really enjoy their "fude pens" which are like calligraphy brushes and their disposable fountain pens, neither of which can be found in the U.S. (well, I just found a website called JetPens.com that sells the good Japanese stuff!)
I too, appreciate the technique of rotating the pencil –comes from years on the drafting boards back in the 70’s – its how I was taught by the Mechanical Drafting instructor in high school, but its clearly a lost art today; what’s the point? (good pun,,,).But your article took my mind somewhere else; contemplating why Japan would be so intrigued with pens & pencils.It reminded me of the story told when NASA put forth an R&D effort for Zero-Gravity pens so astronauts could write mission notes. Development ensued of a tiny, complex hydraulic system in a pen to always keep the ink flowing;The story goes, that NASA was so proud of the invention that when they shared it with the Russian Space Agency, they were told that Russia also solved the same problem by using a #2 pencil. That anecdote always made me laugh.
Because I spent two years working as a draftsman in a bridge department, I can fully appreciate the value of a self-rotating lead. In my two years, I never quite got the hang of rotating my pencil and creating the uniform thicknesses that so many of our elder draftsman did so well. By comparison, my drawings always looked messy. I would have appreciated having such an item in the late '70s. The big problem, though, is that the idea is 30 years too late. Few engineers would even care about about self-rotating lead these days.
Yes, this might be a cultural thing. But there is also a practical aspect to it. In the choices we have in writing tools, I haven't seen any advances that really improve on the cheap handful you buy at the dollar store. The mechanical pencils I've tried in recent years break fairly quickly. As for ballpoint pens, the expensive ones come with cartridges that run or dry up as quickly as the cheap ones -- even Cross.
I use pencils. The quality of pencils seems to be holding up. If we saw innovation in writing tools, and if those tools didn't fail so quickly, we might feel the same way the Japanese do.
@Beth: As Professor Petroski alludes to, it's a cultural thing. In general, writing implements are not highly valued in the U.S. - we buy them by the bag at the dollar store. The cheaper the better, as long as they write. There is a small circle of people who like fancy pens, but generally they are interested in ornate old-fashioned fountain pens, and are not interested in technical innovation.
Apparently, in Japan, writing implements are more prized. As you mention, writing with pen and paper may be something of an anachronism in this day of mobile devices. A fascination with anachronisms - combined with a fascination with technological innovation - fits with what I know about Japanese culture.
People in the U.S. like old things (as evidenced by this article by Charles Murray), and we also like new things, but we tend to keep them separate. The Japanese have a talent for bringing the two together.
Interesting that a reporter was so heavily immersed in trying to spread the cause of Japanese innovation. Somehow the rotating pencil design leaves me flat (and I suspect also the legions of consumers going gaga over tablets) given its relatively low-tech appeal. The erasable pencil is another story. Low tech, but high utility. Somehow, however, both don't seem in keeping with Japan's status as an innovative consumer products leader.
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