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Kamata Hakensha’s owner, Seiichi Kamata

Kamata Hakensha’s owner, Seiichi Kamata

If there is one person in Japan who can claim that his skills have been and will always be cutting edge, it’s Kamata Hakensha’s owner, Seiichi Kamata. And, since his profession is the art of knife-sharpening, who’s going to argue that point?

I find Kamata himself, 62 years old and soft-spoken, in a baby-blue apron at his Kappabashi store in Taito Ward, Tokyo, handling customers who resemble a gathering of the United Nations. As French, Indonesian, and German conversations fill the air, I ask him how he attracts his clientele.

“We’ve been here since 1923, for 92 years,” Kamata says, “so, Japanese customers know of us—word gets around if you’re any good—but we try to reach out to foreign customers by placing ads in local magazines.” Furthermore, Kamata employs bilingual staff and offers explanatory pamphlets on knife care in English and Japanese. “Our location is also key,” Kamata says of his shop on Kappabashi’s main shopping street.

The third generation in his family’s knife-sharpening profession, Kamata expanded the scope of his business when he realized that Kappabashi street was becoming renown for culinary goods. “I wanted chefs to have the very best knives available, so I went looking for them,” he says.

Kamata’s glimmering inventory today is a battalion of some of the world’s most perfectly honed blades. To source them, Kamata travels to major knife-producing forges across Japan. “For Japanese cleavers, it’s Sakai in Osaka,” he says, “and for foreign knife styles, Niigata and Gifu.”

Working with individual blacksmiths, Kamata produces, orders, and selects specific knives to sell. Next, he engages in strict quality control.

“Knife-makers make knives,” he says, with a wry grin, “but their finishing skills are not very good, so one by one, I check each knife, calibrate it by hand, and make sure it is perfect before I acquire it.”

Kamata’s offerings range in price from ¥6,000 to ¥160,000. “We do have cheaper knives,” Kamata admits, “but they do not carry our brand name.”

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Aside from specialized knives, some in gorgeous layered Damascus steel, Kamata has also personally designed a series of blades featuring etched Japanese patterns of cherry blossoms, maple leaves, and dragons. “That doesn’t add to their usefulness or anything,” he says, “but they make a useful souvenir of Japan.”

Furthermore, Kamata will engrave the owner’s name (in Japanese or Chinese characters) on any purchased knife’s bolster or blade, a service popular with his foreign customers.

While I know it’s a provocative question, I ask Kamata how he can compete with the local “blade-runners” who drive around the neighborhood, offering knife-sharpening services. “Skill separates us!” he says.

“Those guys, in their little trucks? They’ll take your kitchen knife to the level where it will cut for a month or so. That’s okay for housewives, and the cost is less. But if I sharpen the same knife, it will stay that way for three months. Master chefs send their students to me before their certification tests, to get their knives in perfect condition. It makes a difference.”

Among Kamata’s skills is the ability to observe needs and react accordingly. “I began to realize that, over the course of years, many pro chefs who naturally sharpen their own knives daily, can eventually destroy the shape of the knife,” he says. “But I am able to bring it back to its original utility.”

The workshop area of his store—a glassed-in room designed to allow people to watch—is scattered with “patients” awaiting rejuvenation.

I am allowed into the workshop area, where I ask Kamata about the sharpening process. He outlines the knife’s journey from arado (giant rough circular grinder), to belt sander, and finally to a series of whetstones. “But the process is actually kind of secret,” he says, rubbing his hands and laughing.

So, were I to study the art, how long would it take, I inquire. “For a household knife, if you’ve got the knack, about three years,” he answers, “but for pro knives, at least ten years.” I must appear glum at that, because he pipes up with good news.

“I really want people to know how to choose, use, and maintain superb tools, so I teach classes,” he says. “But I can’t consider that a business success story exactly, because the class costs ¥5,000, and the whetstone that we present as a take-home gift costs ¥5,400. All we gain in that deal is a trustworthy reputation.” Priceless, I think.

Classes are held the first Tuesday of each month, in Japanese. “I accepted a group of French women once, who chatted up a storm. They had a good time, but I doubt they got much out of it,” he says.

Kamata’s most serious and successful student, his son Yosuke (31), dodges between us as we roam the store. “He wanted to join the business early on,” Kamata says, watching him affectionately.

“While in college, he had some free time it seems,” he says, laughing, “and I taught him all I knew.” But subsequently, Kamata required his son to know the ways of the working world, by signing him up to work in a supermarket.

“He wanted to quit after two years, but I insisted on three,” Kamata says, “and then I brought him on board.” But Yosuke’s study had barely begun. He was sent to work at a forge in Osaka for a year, then returned to Tokyo to study as the last deshi (apprentice) of another sharpening artisan.

“Now he knows techniques that even I don’t know,” Kamata says, rightfully proud of the sharp new blade he has honed.

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Kit Nagamura is a photojournalist with 25 years’ experience in publishing. She writes the monthly Backstreet Stories column for The Japan Times and hosts regular programs on NHK.

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Master chefs send their students to me to get their knives in perfect condition.