Buying Japanese Tennen Toishi
Every once in a while the different wholesales and miners will sell old stock from other mines, stone that they or
their fathers bought or traded for years ago within the stone community in Kyoto. For the past 2 years, beginning
in 2012 the gentlemen’s agreement regarding assigning and stamping specific designations of the stones origin
was relaxed in regards to if a particular mine has been closed down and boarded up and abandoned by members
of The Kyoto Stone Miners Association. Ink stamps for Shoudani, Narutaki and Nakayama are the most frequently
seen stamps. These mines are no longer in existence so a No Foul-No Harm attitude has been in place. The
president of the Association Hitomi-san of Kamioka and Imanishi-san of Kyoto are stamping their stones, those
that they have identified as to have been mined from the Nakayama Mine with a kanji stamp that reads, “Naka
yama“. These ink stamps are generic and newly made for them by one of the many craft stamp shops seen
throughout Japan. These new stamps are not issued from the Nakayama mine (because there is not an actual
mine at this date) have little to do and are separate from the copyrighted and registered ink stamps that the
miners or wholesalers may have used in the past decades. The stamps are simply attributes. Here is the stamp
that Imanishi Toishi Company of Kyoto is using.
Click photo to enlarge
In the past generations the stone miners who worked the mines sold their daily diggings directly to the
wholesalers from the flatlands by weight. Buyers from Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka and all of the major cities vied for
access to the best quality stones. The majoirity of the actual wholesale action was conducted directly with the
regular and faithful wholesalers of Kyoto, they would drive their trucks to the various mines and pick out stone by
the lot. Relationships between miners and wholesalers went back several generations in most cases, and some
access to particular stone was restricted by miners like Kato-san of the Nakayama Mine to a chosen few
Yanamoto-san of Gifu, a retired miner told me that Kato-san would have a one day a month event where the
eight major Kyoto wholesalers would come up to buy stone at a staging site below the mine. On a “Take It or
Leave It” basis Kato would have 8 piles of stones, each one designate to a company with a set price for each pile,
the wholesalers had just this one chance to buy that month from Kato. What they did after the purchase, trading
around or whatever was their business, but Kato-san had this method that he followed, everyone knew his system
and evidently felt that it was an honor to have an invitation to be one of the eight.
The Nakayama mine was the gold standard in the field, and they could dictate their system that involved just
these 8 wholesalers. The other miners in general were forced to be more creative and open, and to look beyond
prestige Kyoto stone market to move their stock in quantity to cities like Osaka, Tokyo, Hiroshima and beyond.
These wholesalers in the 20th century had salesmen with territorial routes that they traveled on a regular or bi-
monthly that included retail stores like tool shops and specialty stores. Some routes were covered by motorcycle
or salesmen traveling by train. The retail stores in turn sold to the general public. This layered system held up
pretty well into the late 1970s, each participant respected the boundaries and clients of the multi tiered
arrangement all based on the honor system.
Right up until the infant phase of the western style stick and frame 2x4 building trend of the 1960s, which was
fueled by the introduction of light weight power tools, there was still an active trade in sharpening stones for
carpenters, those heavy users of beefy stones. The traditional crafts continued to be in need of quality stones as
well as those trades like barbers and sword polishers, but the power tool building boom of the 60s and 70s
slowed down the stone trade almost to a halt.
The 1980s saw the traditional lines that separated wholesaler and retailer become fuzzy, those ancient lines in
the sand where the wholesaler or miner never sold piece by piece as retail to the general public began to fade. It
had always been the retailer who took orders from the public, and the wholesaler filled them at his end by
supplying the retailer. Of course the miners were always totally out of the retail picture, but this too would soon
began to change. Into the mid 1980s most of the wholesalers in Kyoto had showrooms, formally workrooms where
tourists found their old fashioned and off the beaten path locations with authentic goods refreshing. Now that the
wholesalers were selling retail from their shops, those traditional retailers with their prime retail locations in Kyoto
and Tokyo began to suffer. Their tools and now their stones now looked too high at their retail price point as the
wholesalers undercut them.
In the 1990s the “show scene” with flea markets, the Kezuourkai woodworking expo along with building seminars
open to the public began to draw large crowds of enthusiasts and for the first time those few old time miners still
alive got a chance to directly sell to the public. Mine owners like the Ohira mine's Ishihara-san was one of the first
to do these shows, his mine was still open and producing good uchigumori suita stone. There were other miners
also who did the shows if they were local to Kyoto but eventually several of them would begin to travel up and
down Honshu following the circuit of shows as interest grew in the "hobby" of tool and knife use and collecting.
There also popped-up a new breed of younger miners. These week-end part time miners who roamed the old
sites picking up left over stone and processing it using newer cutting and lapping tools. By the year 2000 the
distinction between the miners, wholesalers and retailer was eliminated, old fashion and a thing of the past.
The early days, the dawn of the internet spurned stone tourists traveling the world with their computers. This new
breed of buyers at first found websites in the English language hard to come by, and vast empty spaces of
firsthand stone information were evident. International stone buyers were forced to learn some basic Japanese,
while at the same time a few savvy, mostly younger Japanese entrepreneurs began to build small side business
websites featuring stones and tools. The serious hobbyist phenomenon in Japan took over the old school
traditionalists wholesalers and retailers in Japan who were too slow to build English speaking websites, the tide
The traditional hierarchy of miner-wholesaler-retailer system had became very, very muddy. It seemed to be
better for the consumer price wise, but tough for the old timers as the new totally open market developed that
had no boarders or restrictions. As it turned out, it became apparent that the new trend had compromised here
and there in its rush to expand, the old school had one thing in common that lacked in the new internet world, self
I am not suggesting that all or the old timers were honest and or knowledgeable to a fault, or that the new comers
are all dishonest and or stupid. What I am suggesting is that the old time system of hierarchy in Japan with its
divisions allowed a certain amount of success to be achieved by some of those who lacked knowledge of the
whole picture by the use of a shield. This shield created by the system to restrict or restrain vertical movement
within the trades was a refuge for workers. Retailers were not expected to know all about mining and wholesalers
where not expected to know all about advertising or running a store, and beyond casual conversation a lot of
workmen simply could care less after working 6 days a week, 10 hour days from the time of their apprentice years
of 12 to 14 years old to what others within the trade knew or were learning.
Miners were really just that, guys who dug holes. They knew everything that was important to their own diggings,
but mostly lacked a greater specific knowledge of the science of geology, marketing or use of the stones they
mined. Miners were not carpenters or furniture makers who specialized in sharpening, or barbers who knew what
sharp really was. A good many of the mine owners of the late 20th century were late comers themselves who had
left the families mine to become educated enter outside careers in other fields, only later to return to the family
fold in order pick it up as adults what their fathers had left behind. Some miners did take college courses
regarding mining and geology, but because of the nature of their mines geology, following the random nature of
the seam of the stone bearing layers, most miner relied on sheer instinct and test holes to proceed.
The wholesalers were probably the most creative of the group. They covered moving large amounts of heavy
stock, storage and maintenance of long term stock, processing, quality grading and sorting, final cutting and
finishing, shipping, marketing, supporting by advise if needed to retailers and the miners, maintaining expensive
urban shops and related commercial associations, down turns and up turns in the demand due to wars and such.
Retailers of sharpening stones, those who traditionally sold directly to the end user would by their very nature
reside their business in cities and towns often some distance to Kyoto, they would most likely have never met a
miner of the stones or visited a mine as these were not open for inspection. Most of their stone knowledge would
come via the wholesales agent as to the exact origin of the stones and of their marketing qualities, although some
of their perspective of the stones they sell might be garned in the form of feedback from the purchasers of their
stones as anecdotal information. Retailers were usually professional sellers, some of them may have been crafts
persons in the past, but that transition would have been in the old days a transgression to a lower social position.
Retailers or shop keepers of stones would have stones as only a portion of their merchandise, there were
abrasive speciality shops in major cities but in general stones would have been one of the items in a tool store.
The above handlers of tennen toishi natural sharpening stones all maintained their place in the chain of the
harvesting and distribution scheme, and as said before most knew what they needed to know in order to perform
and within the social context. Each handler maintained a certain amount of integrity deemed necessary within a
society who's base fabric prescribes that honor and family reputations are paramount, and regards Shame as
loss of face, the first step towards self destruction often of the entire family unit. This social structure, based on
shame however does allow the populace in general including the miners, wholesalers and retailers a certain
amount of wiggle room so that an acceptable amount of fudging the truth, or the clever use of vague answers do
not lead directly to the realization that the person being asked does not really does not know really know or even
have a clue as to what he is being asked about.
In the west we might call it "being polite" not to ask specific questions that demand specific answers.
This leads us back now to the ink stamped stones that are now on the market.
For experienced users the sharpening qualities of any give stone can be judged in just a few moments if you
have a test piece of steel, it could be a razor or knife or a tool that you know well. Stone buyers in the old days in
Japan were allowed to test stones before purchasing, all of the trades expected this privilege to test the stones
before buying. This helped to eliminate the need by the sellers to be experts in stone mining and stone
sharpening qualities. After all the buyers knew the qualities they were looking for. Up until the 20th century, 700
years after their discovery, tennen toishi were not labeled or ink stamped. Throughout the last 100 years only a
very few stones were ink stamped in regards to quality, and most ink stamps were at best only innuendos as to
their historic pedigree or their sharpening characteristics. The names of the actual mines from which they were
dug were considered far too specific for the average consumer. After all, these were just sharpening stones and
the ink stamps would be quickly worn off and the sharpening speed was ultimately the most important factor. It
was not until stone tourists (foreign buyers) became aware of the history of the mines that provenance became
the focus of stone buying. The internet buyers of these stones have made the origin of the prospective stone in
mind the often the number one question and the thread to follow in their quest of that perfect stone. This is not a
fault per sae, but more of an attempt to make some sense of the source of these stones as well as a substitute
for the way (if they knew it or not) that they were originally sold, on a Try It Before You Buy It basis.
The below photos show old boxes with lots of writing that contains very little specific applicable information but
lots of innuendo regarding the contents sharpening qualities.
click to enlarge
Frankly speaking, many first time users of traditional tennen toishi, also called awase-do have had any hands on
experience in using these types of stones, and no way of testing the specific stone they desire, so ink stamps
have given them a handle to hold onto so they could converse with others about their experience. These ink
stamps have opened vast new possibilities for the retailers of tennen toishi in the international markets. Without
misleading but with enormous ambiguity all stones are now freshly stamped for market these days with ancient
kanji. The kanji is often hard to translate because of their poetic syntax, or with attributes linking them to mines
closed up long ago. Stamping stones and placing them in colorful boxes is obviously not new, but outside Japan
those kanji stamps can be misleading to those who attempt of translate them literally.
In closing I would like to express that the wholesale and retail stone markets in Japan are generally honest in that
they try to provide positive value for every dollar spent, and that ink stamps are used in most cases with a certain
amount of restraint and honesty, and that the sellers in Japan do value repeated customers and will attend to
their needs as best that they can. My current perception is that the consumers into their second, third, forth stone
purchase here in the U.S. and in Europe are learning to judge stones on a one by one basis as to their
sharpening qualities and characteristics versus the retail cost, that the consumers & users reliance of Name or
Name Brand only marketing has begun to take second place behind the inherent stone quality that they see
offered, and that the prevalence of member driven internet forum discussions have helped to provide support for
the users of these sharpening stones.
I also understand first hand that the stone grading system in Japan that provides the base line starting point
regarding values at the wholesale level for tennen toishi has shifted to a younger generation. This is a
specialized component craft of the mining industry that is subject to manipulation or misuse or even flat out
mistakes. Japanese culture in the traditional crafts is in the best sense based on a foundation of honor and
shame, multi generational participation and the continuance of a family business helps to perpetuate these
values in ways that we in the west have little to compare to on a daily basis. Any trust, that thread of faith that is
necessary to instigate and culminate international trade, is tenuous and fragile. Knowing this and learning to
grade your own stones will hopefully provide you with quality stones that are appropriate for your work.
copyright © 2014 Alexander Gilmore all rights reserved