Björn Heiberg’s fascination with Japanese kitchen knives has helped to create a whole new market for the products overseas.
[First published TJJ Nov/Dec 2017]
The number of foreign visitors to Japan in 2017 is expected to reach 29 million by the end of this year.
Inbound tourism is increasing at a fast rate due to national measures such as the easing of entry visa requirements. However, many challenges remain to achieve the government’s goal of 40 million in 2020 and 60 million in 2030.
In order to succeed as a “tourism-oriented country,” Japan needs to have adequate appeal from the perspective of foreign visitors. Foreigners living in Japan provide hints on how to do this. They see the archipelago in new and different ways from people who have lived in the country for a long time. Indeed, among the foreign residents of Japan there are many who work toward regional revitalization, bringing a breath of fresh air and challenging set ways of thinking.
Björn Heiberg is one example. Heiberg runs a kitchen knife specialty shop called Tower Knives Osaka. Located at the foot of Tsutenkaku Tower in the Shinsekai shopping area of Osaka, a place which retains the atmosphere of the Showa period (1926–1989), the shop is filled with Japanese kitchen knives of various sizes and prices. The glass displays immediately demonstrate the owner’s fascination with the charm of Japanese kitchen knives.
Japan’s culture of high-quality kitchen knife manufacturing reaches back to its history of hand-crafting swords. The artisanal knife-making culture has, however, declined in recent years due to the popularization of mass-produced inexpensive knives.
Heiberg has raised the alarm about this situation. From Osaka to the world, he sells and shares the stories behind cutlery made in cities famous for the production of kitchen knives, including Sakai in Osaka Prefecture, Seki in Gifu Prefecture and Sanjo in Niigata Prefecture.
What on earth is the appeal of Japanese knives to Heiberg, a man born in Canada and raised in Denmark?
Heiberg enjoyed traveling during his youth and came to Japan in 1992 at the age of 23. After traveling around the country, he settled in Osaka, being attracted by a local population that is full of humanity, and found work as a bartender, English teacher and various other jobs. While working at a local trading company, he came across a grindstone made in Switzerland and visited a company which handles knives to try to sell the product. The company official said, “We don’t need your product, but why don’t you work with us? Could you help us to export our products?”
The company in question handled kitchen knives produced in the port city of Sakai near Osaka. To demonstrate the knives’ cutting powers, the official picked up a knife on the table before him and shaved a sheet of paper laterally across its surface. With his second cut, he removed a thin slice of paper without leaving a hole in the original sheet of paper.
“I was completely in awe,” remembers Heiberg. “It was astounding. I had never seen such amazing sharpness. I felt right away I should share the allure of Japanese knives with people overseas.”
Heiberg decided to work for the company. He soon became hooked on the depth of kitchen knives and wanted to set up a showroom to provide detailed explanations about the company’s products to potential clients. No matter how hard he tried to make his colleagues understand the necessity of a showroom, they would not accept his idea, so he set up his own private showroom instead.
A few years later, many foreign tourists started visiting Heiberg’s showroom. This trend was sparked through social media, as photos of the showroom were posted online by the foreign travelers who dropped by.
Heiberg became independent in 2012 and established Tower Knives Osaka. More than 80% of his customers today are from overseas.
“There is high-quality steel in Japan. Smiths and sharpening craftsmen manufacture kitchen knives with fastidious care, which surprised me a lot. The skills, persistence and perfectionism of Japanese craftsmen are unbelievable. Their artisanal skills are world-class,” says Heiberg.
In the past, western chefs tended to avoid using Japanese kitchen knives due to their extreme sharpness. In recent years, however, an increasing number of foreigners are seeking sharper kitchen knives.
One reason is because of the worldwide Japanese food boom. It has attracted global attention partly because washoku was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013. Purchases of Japanese kitchen knives have been on the rise.
Japanese people have hardly noticed that Japanese kitchen knives are so attractive from a global perspective. Heiberg found them appealing probably because he is a foreigner.
In the summer of 2015, Heiberg set up a second shop, Tower Knives Tokyo, in the Solamachi shopping and dining arcade in Tokyo Sky Tree.
In addition to sales at his stores in Osaka and Tokyo, Heiberg also travels overseas carrying dozens of kitchen knives for sale.
It is safe to say that having a flexible attitude by which we can accept the viewpoints of outsiders can be the first step to attracting inbound tourists and revitalizing a region.
Note: The author visited Tower Knives Osaka in May 2016.
KATAYAMA Osamu is an economics journalist and representative of K-Office. He has published extensively, including Sumato kakumei de seicho suru Nihon keizai (Growing the Japanese Economy with the Smart Revolution), and Naze Za Puremiamu Morutsu ha uretsuzukeru noka? (Why does The Premium Malt’s beer sell so well?). Recent publications include Samsun kuraishisu (The Samsung Crisis).