Behind the Scenes at IWAKO
One of the fastest selling products on our shelves today is the line of IWAKO pull-apart erasers, imported from Japan. People (including me) are going crazy over these things, especially now that school is back in session. IWAKO seems to have struck gold and it’s no wonder when you look at how they’ve satisfied my three criteria of toy innovation—form, function, and fun.
Each eraser is a perfect miniature version of an everyday object; there are motorcycles, hamburgers, soccer balls, cupcakes, scotch tape dispensers, toothbrushes (complete with matching drinking cup), frying pans, and penguins (just to name a few). They’re a little reminiscent of the dollhouse accessories I played with as a kid, but they’re modernized and appeal to both boys and girls with some major cool-factor. The IWAKO products also serve their function as erasers, and even surpass some of the competition. I performed some "intensive" product testing and didn’t produce any of those unfortunate smudge marks that plagued many a quiz in elementary school. As far as the fun part (the reason why IWAKO erasers are classified as toys) they could entertain me for hours with the taking apart and putting back together. If you ever need a distraction, try out the soccer ball, which has no less than ten removable pieces.
Very little information (in English, at least) exists about the IWAKO company, and I was curious about what goes on behind the scenes nearly 9,760 miles* from our Learning Express home office in Massachusetts. (* This mileage is according to Google Maps. Someone over there must have a sense of humor because Google gave me driving directions that included, “Kayak across the Pacific Ocean 3,879 mi, Entering Japan.” I guess my sea kayak is cargo-capable since the next direction was, “Turn right toward 県道263号線, drive 0.2 mi.”)
I tracked down IWAKO’s USA rep, the lovely Ako Kato, who (miraculously) agreed to translate my questions into Japanese, send them to the Managing Director at the factory in Yashio city, and translate the answers back to me. Our international/digital game of telephone yielded some interesting insights about this particular sector of the toy industry.
IWAKO was founded in 1968 as an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) that sold point protectors for pencils. The product line was expanded to plastic pen cases, rulers, and clips, which IWAKO continues to make today. As an OEM, IWAKO’s products were purchased by other companies and retailed under the distributor’s name.
Then, in 1985, IWAKO produced its very first pull-apart erasers—a series of vegetable shapes—that were marketed under their own brand. The Managing Director gave most of the credit for the idea to the company’s president Yoshikazu Iwasawa (pictured left) and chalked the rest up to chance. He said that the idea began when President Iwasawa questioned why erasers were always rectangular. It was a twist of fate that brought about the rest.
“At that time, some manufacturers were making shaped erasers, using the blow-molding method. Their blow-molded erasers had a cavity in them, and were spray painted on the surface,” says Tsutomu Iwasawa. “Since IWAKO was incapable of spray painting, President Iwasawa decided to differentiate our products by putting together erasers with more than one part.” Ah ha! An explanation for why every color on an IWAKO eraser is a separate piece that can be taken apart—something I’ve wondered about for quite a while.
With such an ingenious design, I figured pirating might be an issue. We hear a lot of talk about copyright violation in Asia (there is a huge black market of American books, for example) and Iwasawa acknowledges that IWAKO’s design has been stolen by a number of companies worldwide. If a copycat product is sold in Japan IWAKO can issue a cease-and-desist of sorts, but unfortunately there’s not much they can do to control the overseas markets. It seems the copyright problem goes both ways, which was news to me.
When asked why people, especially children, like the product so much, the Managing Director was very candid. “It’s not just about the cute appearance and the fun of putting the parts together,” he says. “Children like our erasers because they represent real things. We spare no effort in making them as real as possible because kids only accept products that are good enough for adults as well.”
Iwasawa’s favorite part of his job is giving shape to new ideas. It’s rather remarkable when you think about how his decisions affect us and our kids here in America. Those ideas can change what our Learning Express storeowners choose to stock and what will end up in your kid’s backpack this year. IWAKO produces 20 new eraser styles each year and looks forward to the day when the products will be available to children all over the world. “Every day, we think about erasers,” says Iwasawa. “When we eat, when we shop, in everything we do, we look and think: ‘Can this be an eraser?’ The ideas must come from somewhere.”
Iwasawa’s favorite eraser is the triangle shortcake, but IWAKO’s president prefers the pancake-shaped one. Men after my own heart. We may be 9,670 miles apart, but we share a fondness for the sweets. I’m quite partial to the frosted donut variety myself.
And what about you? Got IWAKO? Got a favorite?