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