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A Japanese Frame Designing Odyssey

Murray O’Brien | 27 August 2011
With a population of around 126 million people and about 80 per cent of the population requiring an optical correction, it is little wonder that Japan has created a unique optical culture of its own. Murray O'Brien visited the unique city of Sabae where 95 per cent of the country's glasses manufacturing takes place.

While Japan's optical industry is different from Australia's, in many ways it is also similar. When I first visited the country some 23 years ago, retail prices were sky high - up to 40 per cent higher than prices in Australia. However, just like Australia, the discounters have moved in. Prices are now as low as 4000 yen (AUD$47) for single vision glasses and there are package deals galore. Unlike the old model of the professional optician in private practice, these discount stores are usually run by young staff with little experience.

Japanese optics differs from Australia in that there is no optometry. Opticians and shop staff perform a refraction once the desired spectacles have been chosen. Those who want a full ocular examination must consult an ophthalmologist. One young staff member of a discount chain told me that he learnt to do a refraction from the company manual. He said his manager was also taking a course!

In general, store size is huge. Many such as Paris Miki are free standing buildings with large parking lots like optical supermarkets!

Sabae Japan, Optical City!

A town like Sabae in Fukui prefecture is almost unimaginable from an Australian perspective; a whole major regional city with an economy built almost entirely on the optical industry! They make everything here - frames, lenses, frame hardware and optical machinery. Almost everybody in this town of 66,000 people has some contact either directly or indirectly with the optical industry.

In total there are around 5,000 people directly employed by the 250 odd optical manufacturing companies in the town, and it all came about thanks to one forward looking individual way back in 1905. His name was Gozaemon Masunaga.

It was the area's harsh climate that inspired Masunaga, then a young city councilor, to develop the optical industry. Sabae is almost entirely surrounded by mountains and sits near the Sea of Japan (the cold and snowy side of Japan), some 150 kilometres from the major city of Nagoya on Japan's main island of Honshu. Masunaga could see that the local farming population needed an industry through which it could benefit during the long cold bitter winters when agriculture was not possible.

Beginnings of a New Industry

Frame manufacturing was already well established in Osaka and Tokyo so Masunaga managed to import some of the knowledge and equipment necessary to start a whole new industry for a town that, until then, was primarily agricultural.

The industry was difficult to break into in those early years because spectacles were not widely used. However, Masunaga knew that with increasing levels of education around the country, a large market for spectacles would develop.

Despite stating from the start that his aim was to produce quality product, the first lot of frames didn't sell well due to their inferior quality. However, little by little, the people in Subai learnt their craft. With dedication and hard work - in the early days workers regularly laboured for 14 hours a day and had just one day off each month - an industry developed.

By 1965 the manufacturers in Sabae set a goal so that, within ten years, they would be producing the highest quality frames in the world. Impressively, they achieved that goal, taking the crown from the Europeans in just five years. Today 95 per cent of frame manufacturing in Japan is centred in Fukui prefecture. The quality ethos of that prefecture appears to run deeply throughout the whole of the Japanese manufacturing culture.

Craftsmanship Still Alive and Well

Japan has a history steeped in fine craftsmanship and the optical industry is no different. I was lucky enough to take a tour of a smaller Sabae frame manufacturer called Sanko Kogaku. We were welcomed and guided with a typically high level of Japanese hospitality and shown many areas of the production process.

One of the most fascinating areas to me was the 'prototype department'. In a smallish room there were three very diligent young men producing metal prototype frames completely by hand. This was amazing.

They have the ability to make perfect 3D frame parts from 2D drawings, using only files, saws and sandpaper from rough cut chunks of metal! One part alone, such as a bridge or temple, can take a full eight hours or more to make. A whole frame could take more than a week! Needless to say high myopia is the norm for these workers who operate at very close range (15cm or less).

I found another fine example of craftsmanship when I visited Mr. Nishino (pictured), a veteran of the optical industry in Sabae who has been handcrafting acetate and celluloid frames for the better part of 50 years. Mr. Nishino is contracted by a team of younger designers to hand-finish a range of frames for them.

On entering his workshop he can be seen sitting cross-legged on the floor working his file along the backs, fronts and edges of the pre-cut celluloid frames.

Mr. Katsuhiro Mohri of Opt Duo Inc. says "Many of the designs we create have angles on them that can't be done properly by Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machinery. We need Mr. Nishino's hand skills to be able to create the designs we want".

Mr. Nishino says he can only make four frames per hour. He has worked up from three for this model, but sees four as the limit. These results, with only his hand tools, are truly remarkable. Close inspection of a finished frame reveals no hints of them being handcrafted; they are truly machine quality in their perfection.

On the subject of obtaining a great result on doing rivet joints by hand, Mr. Nishino says that after about 25 years of practice he finally got it right! Now that's dedication!

Proudly Made in Japan

When you enter any Japanese manufacturing plant you feel a strong sense of their pride and dedication in the way in which the Japanese workers apply themselves to their craft. Craftsmanship goes into each and every piece, from the designers, to the tumbler operators and packing staff. In particular, the Japanese have perfected the art and science of titanium frame manufacturing to an extremely advanced level.  

At the moment Japan's frame manufacturing output is approximately 1/100th that of China's and production costs run up to five times that of the Chinese made product, but the difference in quality truly is stark. When the big manufacturers (European included) decide that quality is the priority then invariably Japan is the choice for manufacturing, and most likely Sabae in Fukui prefecture will be the place of production.

I'm sure that if Gozaemon Masunaga, the father of optics in Sabae could come back and see the industry and the standard it has reached today, he would be extremely proud and pleased.

Murray O'Brien is the president of ADOA Victoria and the Company Principal of Designed Eyes, an optical fitting laboratory based in Rosebud, Victoria.

Fukui Optical Association and Glasses Museum

As you enter the township of Sabae via the motorway, one of the very first buildings to come into view is that of the Fukui Optical Association's headquarters. It is identified by its logo - a large spectacle frame atop the building.

The Headquarters also houses the 'Megane' or glasses museum which has many of the frame making machines set up from the early part of the 1900's as well as many fine examples of spectacle frames from the early part of last century.

It's a great way to find out about the history of glasses manufacturing in Sabai and to really appreciate the impact that this industry has had on the people of the Fukui prefecture. 

 

' Close inspection of a finished frame reveals no hints of them being handcrafted; they are truly machine quality in their perfection '