Tokyo’s small factories open doors to showcase technical finesse

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By Ryuzo Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer
Shintaro Ono, 92, of the Ono manufacturing company, explains to visitors how to use a machine during the Ota Open Factory 2022 event in Ota Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 26. Ono has been processing precision parts for more than 60 years.

Tokyo’s Ota Ward serves as a hub for Japan’s leading small and midsize manufacturing companies. During the period of the nation’s rapid economic growth after World War II, the ward was dubbed the backbone of Japanese industry.

Even today, the ward is home to about 4,000 factories, most of which are small and specialize in undertaking one specific component of the part manufacturing process such as grinding, polishing, forming and the plating of metal materials.

The municipal office describes the ward as a “town of manufacturing masters” that boasts globally competitive technologies.

Some of these factories open their doors to the public almost once a year during the Ota Open Factory event, which was first held in 2012 and took place on Nov. 26 this year.

By Ryuzo Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer
Yoshihiro Ito, rear left, explains the processing of rare metals to visitors at the Ito Seiki factory.

The Ota Tourist Association set up an organizing committee together with an industrial tourism study group, which is now called Ota Creative Town Center, comprising Tokyo Metropolitan University, Yokohama National University and the University of Tokyo.

The event is the brainchild of a group of graduate students and others who conducted on-site surveys and proposed the idea to factory operators.

By Ryuzo Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer
A family looks at a device exhibited at the factory of Yasuhisa Koki Bio Mechanics Co.

The 12th edition of the event was held this year completely in person for the first time since 2019, with it taking place mostly online the past two times due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The organizing committee now also counts a local industrial association among its members.

Although the number of factories that took part in this year’s event was still lower than the figure before the pandemic, participants were able to visit about 30 factories — which are not usually open to the public — and learned about the technologies utilized by each factory.

By Ryuzo Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer
An event participant does soldering work to make an electronic music box at the Eisyo Metal Co. factory.

The aim of the event is to give laypeople a firsthand look at the techniques, products and craftsmanship of the factories via a tour. While soldering and other hands-on activities at some facilities required fees, the tours were free.

Another goal is to make the ward more attractive and foster successors in the manufacturing industry by increasing understanding of the industry among a wide range of people.

By Ryuzo Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer
Visitors listen to a factory worker outside a small factory, as they could not enter due to its limited space during the Ota Open Factory 2022 event.

However, the number of factories in the ward has continued to decline amid a severe environment surrounding small and midsize manufacturers plagued by a lack of successors and other challenges.

By Ryuzo Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer
A person working at Iwaki Gauge Co. explains ball screw technology.

“We, a family of four, are touring factories today in the hope that our children will get interested,” said a 39-year-old company employee who was visiting one with his wife and two sons. “We moved nearby seven years ago but, even though there are so many small factories in close proximity, we have few opportunities to look inside them. I hope this initiative will continue.”