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From Value One, Autumn 2013 No.42  

The FriXion ballpoint pen, a global hit product from Pilot Corporation.

Up to 800 million ballpoint pens are sold every year in Japan, and the technology for manufacturing this everyday item embodies the essence of Japanese craftsmanship.

The ball at the tip of a ballpoint pen—made of an ultra-hard alloy also used for producing cutting tools—rotates to transfer the ink inside the pen onto a surface. The smallest ball used in Japan in commercially available ballpoint pens is just 0.18 millimeter in diameter, which also makes it the world's smallest. Moreover, the ball's "sphericalness" is accurate to 0.3, a level of accuracy close to a perfect sphere. The holder that keeps the ball in place is crafted by cutting a thin stainless steel wire and hollowing it out, a process that requires a level of precision comparable to watch making. A ballpoint pen's smooth writing feel and durability are determined by the precision of these two components.

A Hungarian named László Bíró developed the world's first ballpoint pen for practical use in 1943. The new product was an immediate hit, winning wide popularity in Europe and America. In Japan it was introduced by the Occupation forces soon after the end of World War II and caught on here as well. Some Japanese companies interested in this revolutionary writing tool attempted to manufacture pens, but produced only a series of faulty products whose balls would not rotate properly and exhibited several other problems.

That changed in 1949 when Mr. Tozaburo Nakata and OHTO—a manufacturing company in Tokyo's Nakano district—produced the first successful ballpoint pens in Japan, and gave them a beveled pencil shape. Almost every ballpoint manufacturer still active in Japan started their operations in Tokyo.

Successive quality improvements and functional expansions followed that achievement, and "the competition among multiple manufacturers stimulated frequent introductions of high-quality products," reports OHTO's Kenichi Mori.

Today, Japanese-made ballpoint pens are reputed to have the world's highest technical standards, and they continue to improve. Pilot Corporation's epochal FriXion ballpoint pen, for example, features easy erasability of what the pen has written. More than 500 million units of this product have been sold in a hundred countries since its debut in 2007.

Seven decades have passed since the first ballpoint pen came to Japan, which now represents the kind of distinguished craftsmanship that the country has achieved, and in which it continues to lead the world.
Models of chip embody the know-how of different makers in a concentrated way.



Ultra-hard balls require an extreme high level of precision machining.



A replica of the pencil-shaped ballpoint pen developed by AUTO in 1951.


Pilot Pen Station
2-6-21 Kyobashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Tel: +81-3-3538-3840
Hours: Monday through Friday: 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; Saturday: 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; closed on Sundays, national holidays, year-end/New Year holidays, summer holidays, and on some special occasions
Admission: Free

Many other types of Japanese-made writing tools are world renowned for having by far the highest technical levels in their respective product categories. Japanese craftspeople excel in precision machining skills, and the background of Japan's "culture of writing"—beginning with brushes—has helped them achieve great process in this respect.
Pilot Corporation's Pen Station museum conveys the rich history of these writing tools. In addition to the fountain pens, ballpoint pens and mechanical pencils that Pilot has produced over the years, the museum displays instruments from Japan and abroad—including a stylus that dates back to the BC epoch—to illustrate the history and manufacturing processes of writing tools in an easy-to-understand way.

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