Continuing on the path of innovation to light the fire of tradition
Fireworks are loved by people of all ages as an intrinsic part of summer life in Japan. They vary from a wide range of sizes, types, and colors of sparks. The fragile sparks of sparklers, in particular, seem to symbolize the wabi-sabi of the Japanese. However, even in Japan, the domestic production of fireworks has decreased nowadays, many of them are imported from overseas. Tsutsui Tokimasa Toy Fireworks Factory, based in Miyama City, is now the only one company that continues to produce sparklers in Japan. How do they keep on weaving the fire of history and continue to take on new challenges while passing on the tradition?
In a minimalist-style building with a Scandinavian feel, surrounded by a grape garden in a peaceful green area, you will find the Tsutsui Tokimasa Toy Fireworks Factory shop. Ryota Tsutsui, the third generation of the founding family, manufactures fireworks in the factory next to the shop. Kyoko Tsutsui is in charge of design and planning. Although they got their start in different ways, both have been familiar with fireworks from childhood.
“My grandfather, Tokimasa Tsutsui, was the founder, so I grew up watching fireworks all the time since I was a kid. I knew from the time I was born that I was expected to take over the family business because I’m the eldest son. However, I wanted to experience the outside world at least once, so after graduating from high school, I left Fukuoka and worked in a completely different industry for about three years.”
Kyoko says “I always loved fireworks ever since I was a little girl and played with them every day. I thought that it was the same for everyone, but when I grew up and talked about it with people around me, their reactions were different and I realized how much I loved it (laughs).”
Ryota returned to Miyama City at the age of 21 to take over the family business, and has been devoting himself to fireworks production for the past 27 years. As soon as he returned home, he heard that his uncle’s sparkler factory was going to close.
Ryota says “Sparklers are synonymous with fireworks, aren’t they? I decided to take over not only the factory, but also the employees because I didn’t want to let that history die out. The techniques and materials used to make sparklers are completely different from other handheld fireworks, so I needed specialized training.”
Kyoko continues “When I saw the sparklers he made for the first time, they were so beautiful that I thought I had never seen such wonderful sparks. I thought they should be sold with pride as a Japan-made product instead of competing with foreign products in price.”
They originally were making fireworks for other companies without their brand name. Even if they made high quality products, they were often compared with lower priced fireworks, which made them feel frustrated. So they decided to take advantage of Fukuoka’s prefectural incubation project and started making their own original fireworks. Since they weren’t able to see where the fireworks were being sold, they developed a network of stockists on their own with their branding in mind rather than depending on the wholesalers. They also went to design workshops and started to develop their original products by working with a designer, who has now been working with them for 11 years.
Kyoko explains: “When I was little, I used to choose my favorite fireworks one by one. I still remember everything: the colors and smells of them, from the moment I chose them to the last one went off. I want to provide that exciting feeling to children and adults alike.”
Their fireworks are different from so-called “ordinary” fireworks in every aspect. In particular, their designs, which seem to reflect their philosophy and beliefs, are brightly colored and are sure to catch the eye no matter what kind of store they are displayed in.
“Fireworks are not an essential thing for people in their daily lives. That’s why it’s important to create ways to offer information and show our products in a way that makes people pick them up. Visual and design thinking are indispensable. I think it’s important to keep a balance between continuing to make good products while preserving old techniques. While there are some things that we shouldn’t change from tradition, there is no way forward if we continue to do the same thing as the times change.”
“Another thing we always keep in mind is that we don’t show any pictures of how the fireworks are lit on the package. Nowadays, you can find out most of these things online, but you can’t see our fireworks until you actually light them. We are sometimes asked to provide pictures of our fireworks from our stockists, but we consistently refuse to do so because we value nurturing children’s imagination through play.”
There is no doubt that it is important to pass on tradition, but it is also essential to adopt new ideas with the changing times, and the fireworks industry is no exception.
“We’ve been thinking about how to present our technology and launching new products every year, but now that we’ve passed the 10 years mark, we’re ready to take the next step. People’s tastes are changing, and there are fewer and fewer places to play with fireworks. If you play with fireworks in a park or on a beach, you will be reported to police. In fact, about 30% of the children in the Tokyo area have never played with fireworks. In the future, we will cherish what we have created so far, but also convey fireworks as time and memories. We want to bring happiness, fun and community together.”
In response to this reality, they opened a guesthouse, “River House”, in August 2020. The house was renovated from the home of a grandmother who was originally a fireworks maker, and fireworks are provided as an amenity. The most attractive feature of the guesthouse is that it is a private house, so you can enjoy fireworks without worrying about your neighbours. In addition, you can harvest vegetables and wild plants with the local grandmother, and then enjoy the experience of cooking them together.
Their wide range of activities does not stop there: they have also started a fireworks lab specializing in material development, a rice farm to produce straw in-house for their sparklers, and even installed a food truck bakery next to the shop.
All of this is coming from a sense of mission and determination to pass on the baton of 400 years of sparkler history to the next generation, as well as a desire to contribute to the local community and return the favor.
“We’ve been running the business for a long time, and we finally realized that we can’t grow unless the local community is revitalized. Many people from the city have told me how relaxing it is to come here, and I was able to rediscover the beauty of this place. I’m trying to keep it local now, and I would love to give back to my hometown by making full use of the community that I’ve built up in the past.”
Ryota said this at the end: “The culture of playing with handheld fireworks during the Bon Festival, the time of year when the sprits of ancestors come back their home, is very unique to Japan, and I hope to pass on the sense of healing and wabi-sabi that I feel there to people from abroad in the future. If children don’t play with fireworks, they won’t be able to pass them down to future generations, they won’t be able to keep their nostalgic feelings, whether it’s the smell or anything else, and the culture will disappear.”
It seems their challenges of continuing to pass on that nostalgic smell and dazzling light to the next generation will continue.
*All safety measures against the new coronavirus were taken during the interview
- Ryota Tsutsui (President, Tsutsui Tokimasa Toy Fireworks Factory)
- Kyoko Tsutsui (Planning and management, Tsutsui Tokimasa Toy Fireworks Factory)
They are the third generation of the Tsutsui Tokimasa Toy Fireworks Factory, which has been manufacturing fireworks for about 90 years since Ryota’s grandfather invented the “mouse fireworks”. In addition to their “Subote Peony,” the only sparkler still produced in Japan, they have developed a series of unique fireworks with animal motifs and transparent elements. Along with manufacturing fireworks, they also collaborate and hold an event with the restaurant “Serara Baad” in Yoyogi Uehara, Tokyo ; grow rice to secure raw materials, bake and sell bread, plan the development of wine using grapes from the local area around the factory and run a guesthouse where guests can play with fireworks.
Tsutsui Tokimasa Toy Fireworks Factory
Interview and text：Takaaki Miyake
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