Brand Focus: Tombow

Japan & the Art of Creativity

Tombow began its life as a purveyor of art and office supplies and designer writing equipment in 1913. Started by entrepreneur Harunosuke Ogawa when he was just 28 years old, he had worked as a wholesaler in Nihonbasi, Tokyo. During his time as a wholesaler, Ogawa became an expert in the four cornerstones of writing equipment - Namely: Inks, brushes, inkstone and paper. Known locally as the foremost expert in Japanese stationery and Western pencils, Ogawa had an idea….an idea which would launch over a century of success for his family business. 

Image source: Tombow Europe - Harunosuke Ogawa (center) with (from left to right) his wife Towa, the eldest son Hachiro, the eldest daughter Ayako and his mother-in-law Suzu.

Education as a Catalyst 

Japan was rapidly modernising throughout the early 20th Century and as such the demand for quality writing equipment began to grow especially once compulsory schooling was introduced beyond kindergarten level. Before the turn of the century, schooling beyond kindergarten level was elitist and highly selective meaning that most did not attend. This meant that there would be a significant increase in the number of Japanese students therefore the need for pencils, brushes and ink was set to explode.

Taisho era politics and global events led to the controversial move to make the English Language a compulsory part of the Japanese curriculum (as a side note this would continue to be debated even to this day). The introduction of compulsory English lessons added to the demand for pencils as traditional brushes were not suited to forming Latin characters as required in the English Language. 

Image source: Tombow Europe Advertisement with Choi Seung-hee 

The Birth of a Brand

Being the entrepreneur that Ogawa was, he decided that it wasn't enough to import pencils from the USA and Europe, particularly due to strained relations in the 1920’s with anti-japanese immigration laws in effect in the US and the subsequent occupation by US increased sentiments of national pride. In 1919, Ogawa had begun designing and producing his own pencils and in 1927 the brand Tombow was formed. The name derives from the japanese word  "Tonbō" meaning Dragonfly, which lends itself to the logo which was created in 1927 in time for the product registration. 

The ancient name for Japan is Aketushima which roughly translates to dragonfly island due to the grouping of Japans islands appearing as a dragonfly body. The Dragonfly has always been of importance to Japanese culture, Samurai leaders would wear helmets shaped like dragonflies on the battlefield to be identified and because the dragonfly is said to bring luck and stand for courage, bravery and success. Modern Japan heavily values nature and the dragonfly is representative of a healthy habitat, for Tombow it is therefore a symbol of its traditions and values and its commitment to the future, both of its industry and of the environment.

A Brief History of Tombow

Initially, the components of the pencils were supplied by a variety of manufacturers however, by the time the Tombow brand was registered, integrated production had begun. 

A new factory was built in Toshima to allow for an increase in the production of pencils and to expand the ranges available. In 1929, Tombow were commissioned by the Japanese government to create a pencil designed for technical drawing. The ability of Tombow to produce the shafts and refills for pencils as well as painting and embossing them in-house meant that Tombow retained control over the quality of the pencils.

Image source: Tombow Europe

Tombow remained at the forefront of innovation and in the 1940s they created their own pencil sharpening machine followed by mechanical pencils in the 1950s. 

In 1958, Tombow began producing ballpoint pens which were instantly successful because the Tombow brand was already associated with quality due to the reputation of the pencil range. 

Tombow continued to diversify their product range with the introduction of art supplies in the 1960s and their particularly popular felt tip pens which although incredibly popular in Japan, were mostly shipped to the USA and Europe

The 1970s saw Tombow become the first Japanese manufacturer to produce glue sticks and the Mono glue sticks were an instant hit because unlike the liquid adhesives popular at the time, the new glue sticks were easy to work with and were less likely to make a mess of your hands and workspace. As Tombow’s international popularity grew,  a subsidiary was opened in Cologne to allow for the growing market for its products to the European market. The company continued to grow and by the 1980s they had subsidiaries in North America and produced their first Designer writing pieces through their Zoom series of rollerball and ballpoint pens. 

Image source: Tombow Europe

The Zoom Series was a direct response to the changing nature of office work, with hand written work becoming overlooked for computer based work meaning that writing became more of a conscious act. The creative minds at Tombow designed the Zoom series to be aesthetically pleasing as well as highly engineered for function -  pens were beginning to be about expression, individuality and style rather than just practicality. 

Tombow is perhaps best known in its European markets for its creative applications. In its earliest days supplying products to Europe, scented pencils by Tombow were incredibly popular particularly in France. In 1982, the Tombow Prograph Sketchmaker was launched in Japan and Germany which was a huge success because it combined the feel of a technical pencil with an affordable price point which was unbeaten against its quality at the time. 

Tombow is very much a product of its environment in that it holds the core traditions of craftsmanship, quality, precision and perfection at its core. Not only with the products it creates but also with its corporate culture. The level of care which goes into creating a Tombow product has played a major part in the success of the brand, especially among professionals requiring technical tools and artists and creatives seeking innovation and quality products. 

Tombow: Keeping up with the Trends

Tombow has, throughout its history, kept-up with the latest trends without compromising on classics and favourites. The innovation seen at Tombow can be summed up by the attention to detail of the development teams. For example, the Mono eraser (which is something of a cult classic) features small recesses cut into the corners of the cardboard cover, this allows for the eraser to flex whilst in use without damaging the cover.  Tombow aims to inspire with its products and does this through every product it creates...whether a humble ballpoint or artists markers designed for professional use. 

Image source: Tombow Europe

The Art of Writing

Writing by hand has always been a special part of Japanese culture, Calligraphy is part of the very fabric which makes up Japan and has been an art-form as well as a method of communication for centuries. Writing by hand is so important to the Japanese that there is even a separate term for it, Shodō - or the way of writing. Shodō encapsulates the purposeful almost meditative process of writing with the juxtaposed aims of experiencing peace and concentration, discipline and freedom, and harmony and suspense. The custom of Calligraphy is truly a part of everyday life in Japan and its beauty and discipline has long travelled the world finding new hands, minds and hearts to treasure its form and practice. 

Current trends of brush and handlettering are also supported by the creative minds at Tombow with their Dual brush pens and the growth of Tombows presence in the creative sector with writing equipment designed for the art of writing not just the everyday process of pen to paper (which has its own charm). Tombow is particularly popular for Bullet journalling !

Since its beginnings in 1913, Tombow has been synonymous with quality and innovation. There are many classics which remain popular across the globe and the innovation and high-quality products available for professionals, students,  artists and creatives attest to the brilliance of the company. 

The Hamilton Pen Company stocks a broad range of Tombow Products, explore the range in our online shop!





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