Awaiting me at the exit of the Shizuoka train station, Takuya welcomes me with a slight bow of the head and a firm handshake. He was able to pick me out of a crowd of more than fifty people getting off the Shinkansen (bullet train), so immediately I felt a bit out of place, as if everyone knew I was not from there. His first question was whether I had eaten, which I later learned is a common courtesy bestowed upon your guests in Japan. I usually only have coffee for breakfast, but nonetheless the gesture made me feel very welcomed.
Shortly afterwards, we proceed to drive approximately 30mins outside the city center to visit the Saito Wood production factory. Located in a painted green warehouse, I am greeted by a small entourage, amongst them Noboru Saito, Takuya’s uncle and the factory manager. I was expecting a much larger operation considering their presence in Japanese society, but obviously what lacks in size was more than compensated in an efficient enterprise. Touring the factory was a real delight, as Takuya would later explain to me that his grandfather built many of the first plywood presses at the inception of the company. They have since modernized their machinery, but what remains is a dedication to the highest quality of molded plywood products in Japan.
Along the way back to Shizuoka, we take a slight detour to view Mt. Fuji from its southwestern perspective before I am afforded the opportunity to meet Takuya’s parents and the rest of the Saito Wood staff in their offices and showroom. The community aspect surrounding the brand was evident throughout my visit, and a big reason why I felt each and every product produced is crafted with such attention and care. I am honored to be able to call Takuya and his family my friends, and I hope you enjoy our interview illustrating the three generations of the Saito Wood brand.
The interview was conducted in English and Japanese. Both languages are published so as to not lose any meaning in translation for native readers.
TS: The company was founded by my grandfather, Isamu Saito. In 1948, after the war, the company established a woodworking factory at a place called Kawane in Shizuoka prefecture, about fifty miles west of Tokyo. They manufactured everything from made-to-order furniture to baseball bats, but at this time, they were not working with molded plywood. However, operating an ordinary wood shop was a struggle, and my grandfather knew they would need to try something new, and remembered the molded plywood he had worked with during the war.
TS: During the Second World War, he was employed at a factory for the Japanese army in the city of Takayama in the Hida district in central Japan. Because iron was in short supply in those days, they were researching ways to manufacture various necessary items from other raw materials. My grandfather was working on how to make fuel tanks out of wood, and learned about techniques for molding plywood. At that time he was producing items about the size of wine casks. Initially, he only made some round accessory cases from it, stacked them up in a trailer for his bicycle, and went around selling them.
TS: Yes, we are. As the face of management I am involved in sales, marketing, long-term planning, design – everything, really. My younger brother Yoshiaki is in charge of material procurement and oversees production planning at our factory.
“When we think about new products, we have to design them in a way that takes twisting and warping into account, which is the biggest challenge” – Takuya Saito
TS: Our company employs fifteen people – ten in the factory, and five in the management division of the company.
TS: You can produce unique curves that are striking and beautiful, of the sort that aren’t possible when working with solid wood. It’s also light, strong, and easy to work with.
TS: When molded plywood is pressed, it warps and twists, and controlling that during production is difficult. When we think about new products, we have to design them in a way that takes twisting and warping into account, which is the biggest challenge.
TS: I like our small, medium, and large-sized Ayous waste paper baskets. These products are “Saito Wood” to me.
TS: The production of this item begins with the raw wood being cut into a fan-shape 0.6 mm thick. Next, glue is applied and the wood is inserted into a metal mold. The mold is then inserted into a large kiln and heated for about 20 minutes at 100 degrees centigrade. After that, the wood is taken out of the metal mold, and trimmed along both edges. Finally, the bottom plate is fitted in, and the basket is finished.
TS: We intend to continue making paper baskets and trays. It is a simple goal, but in this day and age, achieving a simple goal is not a simple matter.
Backstory Credits: Photos and Words by Stevenson Aung, Translation by Greg Lekich, Special Thanks to Noboru