On Wednesday, June 6th I had the privilege of accompanying members of Igune Club on their annual trip touring innovative firms in the Tohoku region. In Tohoku igune (居久根) refers to a forest or grove of trees planted around a residence. In the rugged Tohoku region igune were planted for wind protection, firewood and food. The Igune Club is a group of local businessmen and professionals dedicated to passing down the wisdom of their predecessors as well as promoting innovation in the Tohoku region.

This year's tour visited two unique firms in Yamagata, a prefecture best known for its agricultural products, especially cherries.

The second stop on the tour was Tendo Mokko, a furniture manufacturer based in Tendo, a city of 60,000 people known for producing 95% of Japan's chess pieces. Although I had never heard of Tendo Mokko before my visit, upon entering the showroom I was surprised to find I recognized several familiar pieces.

My father taught me how to drive in his old, dinged-up first-generation Lexus GX, an SUV which has reliably served my family for over 15 years. When my father first purchased the Lexus I was impressed by the elegant wood grain of the steering wheel and loved the feel as I gripped the smooth, cool carving in my hands. Imagine my pleasure to see that same steering wheel in the Tendo Mokko showroom!

Another surprise was the iconic Butterfly Stool, designed by Sori Yanagi and which is part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City. As a college student I often visited the MoMA and had often dreamed about being rich enough to have my own collection of fine art. I was gratified to learn that I may be able to actually make that dream come true, for the Butterfly Stool retails for ?50,760, around $460.

I was startled to learn Tendo Mokko's handsome products are made of softwood plywood, a material made from wood veneers bonded together to produce a flat sheet. Softwood plywood is usually associated with cheap, mass-produced furniture, but Tendo Mokko takes advantage of plywood's lightweight qualities, pressing together and molding multiple layers to create complicated curved lines impossible with natural wood. The softwood plywood used in Tendo Mokko furniture is made from conifers, such as cedars and Japanese cypress, and harvested from Japanese forests, a process far more sustainable than importing tropical hardwoods.

Like Oriental Carpets, Tendo Mokko has successfully navigated treacherous terrain through openness and flexibility. In addition to passing down traditional woodworking technologies the eagerly pursued innovation, becoming an early pioneer of molded plywood technology. Established in 1940 by a group of local artisans, the company went from manufacturing ammunition boxes for use by the Imperial Army during World War II to furniture for American forces during the occupation period to luxury wooden panels for automobiles during the Bubble Economy of the 1980s. Tendo Mokko is another excellent example of a small Japanese company nimble enough to carve out a niche in an increasingly competitive, globalized world.


About the Author

Hello! My name is Terasa Younker and I am a graduate student at Harvard University. This summer I will be working as an intern in the Disaster Prevention & Education Section of the Kahoku Shimpo. As a second‐year student in the Regional Studies ‐ East Asia program I study gender, material culture and consumption, social stratification and popular culture, globalization and cultural diffusion in contemporary Japanese society. I received my undergraduate education at New York University (’10), where I studied East Asian language, literature, art history, philosophy, history, and film theory. My study abroad experience includes Columbia University in Beijing, Princeton University in Ishikawa, and the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies.
After graduating from NYU, I spent a year as a translator, a year studying advanced Japanese at the Inter‐University Center for Japanese Study in Yokohama, and three years as an account manager at Rakuten, a Japanese firm in Tokyo. At Rakuten, I was a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Sales group and worked with hotels in central Tokyo as well as the Tokyo Islands.
Although I lived in Japan for a total of five years I never had the opportunity to visit Tohoku. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to explore of an area of Japan not well known in the United States and hope to promote understanding of the region upon my return.