Lights out on Nittosha matchbooks prompts nostalgia in Japan

Jul 7, 2022, 7:07 PM | Updated: 7:15 pm
A worker makes sure matches are placed properly in the boxes of matches on an assembly line at a Ni...

A worker makes sure matches are placed properly in the boxes of matches on an assembly line at a Nittosha factory in Himeji, Japan, Wednesday, June 29, 2022. Nittosha, a small Japanese manufacturer, is stopping the production of matchbooks. The company, which employs 130 people, is a testament to the hard work and dedication at small and medium-size companies that are the backbones of large economies, including the U.S. and Japan. (AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)

(AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)

HIMEJI, Japan (AP) — Matches are more than just matches at century-old Nittosha.

The tiny but proud manufacturer is tucked away in the sleepy Japanese city of Himeji, famous for little other than an ancient castle, gourmet seawater eels and the matches.

Nittosha, which employs 130 people, is a testament to the hard work and dedication at small and medium-size companies that are the backbones of large economies, including the U.S. and Japan.

The matches are also a story of a family, the firstborn Onishi sons, who have inherited the business, in accordance with this nation’s tradition, now for four generations.

Nittosha Co. speaks of an era when quaint, colorful “book matches” served as fashionable yet subtle advertisements, given out free at bars, restaurants and hotels.

That era has long gone, as disposable lighters became widespread and the number of smokers dwindled. Advertising has become digital.

But when the company recently announced it would stop taking orders for matchbooks at the end of June, the news drew an outpouring of emotions, especially on Japanese social media.

Some people said they associated lighting book matches with cool scenes in movies, while others shared images of their matchbook collections.

“I was really surprised by the reaction,” Kenji Kobayashi, who heads the factory, told The Associated Press.

Kobayashi, who has never smoked, believes matches serve the same function as postcards, as visual mementos of travel.

“The main purpose for matchbooks was advertising. And so if people aren’t smoking, it’s not very effective advertising,” he said.

Nittosha still makes matches. The wooden sticks with flammable tips go into boxes. Some are exported to the U.S.

Matchbooks — the kind Nittosha is discontinuing — have matches with stems made of hard-to-burn paper, stuck together comb-like at the bottom. They’re encased in a paper cover, much like a book, with a strip for striking.

They’re easier to carry around than a box of matches and, to aficionados, far more fashionable. And they were free.

In recent years, production of book matches fell to less than 1% of Nittosha’s overall production.

In its factory, machines hum and clank on three floors, making boxes, paper coverings and matches. One machine has a giant rotating brush to paint a special chemical to make the rough surface for striking the matches to light them.

At each step, people busily sort matches by hand, as box after box streams by. Some are stacking the boxes as they come, one after the after, then putting them into bigger cartons.

Matches are everywhere.

Himeji has dominated match production in Japan. It’s close to Kobe port, and the city’s moderately dry climate is good for match-making.

Now, Nittosha is one of a handful of match makers left in Japan, accounting for about 70% of total output, according to the company.

Takahiro Ono has an extensive match collection and believes matches should live on forever. He says using them should be seen as a ritual, a bit like a prayer, that reminds people to handle fire carefully and treat it with respect.

“Lighting a match is more difficult to do than turning a switch,” he said, noting the scent of striking a match and the curling smoke as it burns.

“And there are things one must do to clean up after a fire is extinguished.”

Matches are still used at the Buddhist altars in Japanese homes, to light incense and candles, at barbecues, fireplaces and campfires.

Nittosha still has more than 1,000 customers. It also makes other products used for marketing such as miniature packets of tissue paper, known as “pocket tissue” in Japan, that are handed out for free on street corners and at stores, much like matchbooks in the past.

Even that practice is giving way to online marketing, as a labor shortage makes it costly to pay people to hand out pocket tissues.

Nittosha has expanded into making individually wrapped disposable wet towels and wet tissue packets. It faces competition from bigger rivals with such products, but such shifts are needed to tackle an uncertain future, said Jun Onishi, the fifth-generation firstborn — great, great grandson of Nittosha’s founder and the current chief executive’s son.

It’s unclear what the next hit product might be.

“As long as we just stay a business that gets contracted out for production, our sales are always at risk. That was the way it was with matchbooks, then pocket tissues. And so maybe restaurants will one day stop using wet tissues, too,” Onishi said.

Now a senior executive at the company, he quit smoking when he started working at a tennis school, which became a Nittosha group company after the site of a shuttered match factory was turned into a tennis court.

Growing up an Onishi firstborn was a heavy responsibility.

“People told me I often looked as though I was trying to hide from that,” he said.

He named his firstborn son the Japanese word for “light.” He is 3 years old.

___

Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter https://twitter.com/yurikageyama

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

FILE - Miss America 2018 Cara Mund poses for photographers on the 86th Floor Observation Deck of th...
Associated Press

Former Miss America Cara Mund plans to run for Congress

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Cara Mund, a former Miss America who gained attention by criticizing the organization near the end of her reign in 2018, plans to run for Congress in North Dakota as an independent. Mund announced her candidacy Saturday and said she would start gathering the 1,000 signatures she needs to get on […]
13 hours ago
Jan Longone, Curator of American Culinary History, holds up a book from the exhibit titled "The Old...
Associated Press

Janice Longone, chronicler of US culinary history, dies

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Janice Bluestein Longone, who is credited with collecting thousands of items chronicling the culinary history of the United States, including cookbooks, menus, advertisements and diaries, has died at age 89. Longone died Wednesday, according to Nie Family Funeral Home in Ann Arbor. The cause and location of death weren’t announced. […]
13 hours ago
Associated Press

Coroner: Smoke inhalation killed at least 5 of 10 in fire

NESCOPECK, Pa. (AP) — Authorities say at least half of the 10 people found dead after an early morning fire in northeastern Pennsylvania died of smoke inhalation. The Luzerne County coroner’s office said autopsies on the victims of the early Friday blaze in Nescopeck began Saturday. Examinations by Dr. Gary Ross were completed on three […]
13 hours ago
Associated Press

Negotiators optimistic about progress on Iran nuclear deal

VIENNA (AP) — Top negotiators in renewed talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal indicated Sunday that they are optimistic about the possibility of reaching an agreement to impose limits on Tehran’s uranium enrichment. “We stand 5 minutes or 5 seconds from the finish line,” Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov told reporters outside Vienna’s Palais […]
13 hours ago
This combination of Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022 photos shows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and Hillsb...
Associated Press

Florida prosecutor vows to fight Gov. DeSantis suspension

ST. PETERSURG, Fla. (AP) — A Florida prosecutor vowed Sunday to fight his suspension from office by Gov. Ron DeSantis over his promise not to enforce the state’s 15-week abortion ban and support for gender transition treatments for minors. Andrew Warren, a Democrat suspended last week from his twice-elected post as state attorney in Hillsborough […]
13 hours ago
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, center, talks with residents that have been displaced by floodwater...
Associated Press

More storms forecasted for flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The National Weather Service extended a flood watch through Sunday evening for areas of eastern Kentucky ravaged by high water more than a week ago and said there’s a threat of thunderstorms in the region for much of the coming week. There’s a “persistent threat of thunderstorms” through Thursday that could […]
13 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Ways to prevent clogged drains and what to do if you’re too late

While there are a variety of ways to prevent clogged drains, it's equally as important to know what to do when you're already too late.
...
Sanderson Ford

Don’t let rising fuel prices stop you from traveling Arizona this summer

There's no better time to get out on the open road and see what the beautiful state of Arizona has to offer. But if the cost of gas is putting a cloud over your summer vacation plans, let Sanderson Ford help with their wide-range selection of electric vehicles.
...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Most plumbing problems can be fixed with regular maintenance

Instead of waiting for a problem to happen, experts suggest getting a head start on your plumbing maintenance.
Lights out on Nittosha matchbooks prompts nostalgia in Japan