Book matches lose their flame in Japan amid rise in lighters, e-cigarettes and smoking bans

Takahiro Ono, who heads the Tarumi Match Museum, holds up a matchbook in Kobe City on June 2, 2022. (Mainichi/Tsuyoshi Kosaka)

TOKYO — Matchbooks, small cardboard packets containing paper matches, will soon cease to be made in Japan. Although restaurants, traditional inns and other establishments gave them away for free, there was little demand for them in the face of rising smoking bans.

Nittosha Co., based in Hyogo Prefecture, the only matchbook manufacturer in the country that oversees the entire manufacturing process, including paper cutting and matchbox filling, has decided to put end of production with orders placed for June. Large specialized machines are needed to create matchbooks, but the company’s is apparently the only one still in operation in Japan.

Book matches, which were once distributed to restaurants and hotels across Japan, are seen in the city of Kobe on June 2, 2022. (Mainichi/Tsuyoshi Kosaka)

Since 1977, when records remain, national match production peaked — 11,000 tons of matches (1 ton of matches equals 300,000 to 400,000 matches) — in 1982, but experienced a continuous decline due to the diffusion of lighters, the emergence of electronic cigarettes and the rise of the smoking ban. Manufacturers across Japan have stopped match production one after another, and the amount created has dropped to 25 tons of matches in 2021 as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

Nittosha has decided to end match production in 2021. The company posted a notice on its official Twitter account on May 23, 2022, which read, “The flame of book match production will die in Japan.” The tweet garnered a surprisingly large response, with comments from social media users, “I’m sad” and “Those are good articles though.” One user even posted a photo of home-stored matches, along with the caption, “I’ll store it with great care.” Takahiro Ono, 60, who runs the Tarumi Match Museum, which exhibits about 5,000 matches in Kobe city, also expressed his sadness, saying, “I’m really disappointed.”

The makers have also ceased production of the common form of wooden matches, and there are currently only three companies in Japan that are in charge of their entire production process. Domestic production of matches, including matches, totaled some 8,000 tonnes of matches in 2021, falling to around 1% of the amount produced during the peak in 1973.

Canned matches for emergency use during disasters are seen in Kobe city on May 31, 2022. (Mainichi/Tsuyoshi Kosaka)

Following the Great East Japan earthquake in March 2011, lighting and heating equipment could not be used due to a large-scale power failure, and matches were reconsidered as valuable emergency items. The Japan Match Industrial Association has set up a match shop in the Kobe Kitano Meister Garden tourist spot, and canned matches for use in emergencies are said to be popular among visitors.

(Japanese original by Tsuyoshi Kosaka, Osaka Business News Department)

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