Tsubame-Sanjo: Survival Through Malleability

The area of Tsubame-Sanjo in Niigata prefecture has an illustrious history of adapting to unexpected changes in the world. Though well-known for its rice production, natural disasters like typhoons, floods, and droughts have made the cultivation of rice in Niigata an often unreliable practice.

When the Edo period began in 1600, farmers who had struggled with sustaining their way of life shifted their focus from agriculture to metalwork. They transformed themselves into pioneers of the area, creating nails to be sold for use in temples and shrines across the country. Undertaking this new craft served them well throughout the Edo period, and bolstered by their success, they diversified into agricultural and carpentry tools, pipes, and copperware.

The next swing of the pendulum came at the end of the 1800s, when Japan’s long period of isolation ended with the West shouldering its way onto their shores. The sudden acceleration of modernization in Japan meant a steadily increasing demand for Western products. Tsubame-Sanjo once again saw an opportunity in this new situation and smoothly pivoted into the manufacturing of top-quality knives, forks, teapots, etc.

During World War I, the UK and France learned of Tsubame-Sanjo’s advanced metalworking skill and began to import their products en masse. This proved profitable until China swiftly moved in and cornered the market with faster production and lower-cost labor. Not to be outdone, however, the people of Tsubame-Sanjo changed focus once again and began to concentrate on evolving their techniques as artisans. Craftsmen formed a guild to unite their individual strengths, and at the peak of Apple’s incline, Steve Jobs took notice of their skill and commissioned them to polish the cases for his new product: the iPod.

Tsubame-Sanjo, an area named for the cities of Tsubame and Sanjo respectively, has weathered numerous obstacles in its history, and continues to flourish by approaching each challenge with a spirit of determination and flexibility.

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Ciara Blount / ブラント•キラ

Travel Designer & Tour Guide


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