A History of Postwar Razors Part 2 Japanese Razor Materials (Band Steel)

Yasuoki Takeuchi, President of the Kamisori Club

Surprisingly, there is a connection between the famous Japanese sword and the razors of the world about the belt steel, which is the razor material for the razor that I use daily. It is a little-known fact, but if you look at the origin of the sword Masamune, you will find that the material for the sword is iron sand, a specialty of the San-in region of Shimane Prefecture, and the blade steel of the sword was made by the “tatara method,” a traditional Japanese iron making technique. The iron sand itself is found in the granite of the region, with 1% of the iron sand being true sand. In the past, people used to scoop up iron sand that had settled in the river with a colander. It’s called the specific gravity beneficiation method, and this outfit is said to have become the “scooping up of dojo” in Yasugi-bushi. Originally, it was iron sand from the soil, but according to the story, it was misheard by a comedian in Edo and became so. Nowadays, the magnetic beneficiation method using a magnet and a machine is adopted. Thus, the old-fashioned “tatara process” is now being mass-produced as a material for razors (strip steel) under different manufacturing methods. YSS Yasugi Hagane is a high-grade steel produced by using more advanced steelmaking technology to refine iron face using the “Yasugi method” of refining iron sand with few impurities, which is called YSS Yasugi Hagane and is also a material for razors (strip steel).

Iron sand contained in granite at Yasugi, Shimane Prefecture, Hitachi Metals, Ltd.
Author, April 23, 1985.
The operation is carried out for about 70 hours a day and night, from quenching to stopping the air flow, in a process called the “Tatara method,” an ancient ironmaking technique.
April 23, 1985, at the Torigami Charcoal Iron Works in Yokota-cho, Shimane Prefecture


As time passed and the demand for razors grew in today’s highly consumptive society, the amount of steel strip consumption also increased rapidly, and it is said to be about 20,000 tons of steel for razors used on the earth alone in a year. Most of them are used by razor manufacturers such as Gillette, Schick, and ASR in the US, Malhotra in India, and Wilkinson in the UK. It is also clear that the consumption of razors is growing more than in developed countries, including Western countries. The material used to make the famous swords has been replaced by razor blades, and Japanese blade steel has been recognized by razor manufacturers around the world, and Hitachi Yasuki Hagane now supplies about 65% of all shipments to razor manufacturers around the world. This is followed by Sandvik in Sweden and British Steel in the UK, but the gap does not seem to be closing. Steel products made in Japan are exported to the world, and then re-launched as finished products (e.g., sic, gillette, etc.) and are used by many Japanese people. Since the end of the war, while domestic products such as automobiles and home appliances have surpassed foreign products, only wet razors have been overwhelmed by American products, with a market share of more than 60%. This reality is a rare exception to our country’s trade structure!

I once asked the person concerned directly why the Japanese Yasuki Hagane became so popular. The answer, it seems, is a solid homogenous and stable supply, and even better service. In the 1960s, Hitachi Metals also commissioned a razor manufacturer in Seki City, Gifu Prefecture, to sell a replacement blade under the product name Sunblade, but as a result, it was withdrawn. This is because we have encountered a problem that we did not anticipate as a materials manufacturer. After that, we started again as a materials manufacturer and started doing business with Gillette when we set up a branch in the United States. The efforts of Kenji Takitani (former vice president of Hitachi Metals, Ltd.) to improve the quality of the company’s products have led to their use in many ways, from being used as razor materials for Yasugi Hagane to being used for sophisticated semiconductor components. The demand for high-grade specialty steel derived from razor blades will expand in an advanced information society, and in the midst of the steel industry’s search for global expansion through today’s mergers and acquisitions and other means, there is no manufacturer that can take on the corporate strategy of Hitachi Metals, which has spent many years narrowing its focus to niche markets and building its own presence and superiority. That’s what it is today.

Steel strip used as a razor’s material

The 1960s and 1970s were also a period of economic recovery in Japan. In the meantime, in the retail industry, the supremacy of the sales scale has been transferred from Mitsukoshi department store to Daiei mass retailer. At the same time, Japan’s exports also took off and many companies, including those in the automobile and consumer electronics industries, went to foreign markets to acquire foreign currency. Japan’s samurai spirit, which saved the post-war motherland, came together to solidify the foundation for the country to become an economic powerhouse. Hitachi Metals was no exception: in December 1963, a 37-year-old employee, under the leadership of then-President Ryuichi Nakamura, began a sales pitch to Gillette, the largest razor manufacturer in the Boston area. After that, the company maintained a deep relationship of trust and worked hard to develop the best materials. On his return to Japan on June 21, 1974, he bade farewell to 700 people, including employees of the local subsidiary. This is a drama that is both a romantic and moving at the same time. It could be said that he was a key player in the creation of the trading powerhouse that Japan is today. In my conversations with him, I always say once and for all, “This is not a success story that I could have achieved by myself, thanks to good material. He is a genuine Hitachi Metals man who joined the company after graduating from Tokyo University and was a second-generation Fulbright student. I have known Mr. Kenji Takitani for more than 30 years and I have learned a lot from him. It is a great honor.

June 1972.
Hitachi Metals’ U.S. headquarters established in the suburbs of New York
Kenji Takitani, 46, at the opening party

Although the manufacturing method of razor blades does not vary much from manufacturer to manufacturer, the manufacturing process of razor blades from steel strips (die cutting, quenching, tempering, blading, coating), etc., strictly speaking, the material of each material and the manufacturing method, etc., are different for each company. That’s one of its strengths and it’s patented. The first razor with a guard in 1994 was sold by Feather in Japan, and the next year it didn’t cut! is now available from Schick in the US. Also, in the last 10 years, three blades, four blades, and five blades have been sold one after another, and Kaijirushi of Japan, Schick of the United States, and Gillette have taken the lead. During that time, the period from the two blades to the five blades was only 35 years. It’s a good idea to be able to have a great deal of fun with your own family and friends. Therefore, the development cost has also become an astonishing investment amount that cannot be compared with the single or double blade era. This trend is a strategic transit point for manufacturers and is being reflected in their performance improvement.

September 29, 1989.
Chairman and CEO Coleman M. Mockler Jr. presents a commemorative cup at the headquarters of Gillette in Boston, USA.

Finally, after many years of working with razor materials and being very active in the field, Yoshihiro Honda, nicknamed “Mr. Razor” by razor makers, is an expert in the art of making steel strips. Thanks to his presence, and through hardships and tribulations, he has made great achievements in spreading YSS Hitachi Yasuki Hagane to the world, which is now 65% of the global market share. He is also sure to be praised by many shareholders for the accomplishments he has left behind in the midst of a tumultuous six-year period, from his promotion to head office president in 2000 to his appointment as chairman in 2006. The razor as a finished product is here on the side. What will everyone feel when they see it, pick it up, and use it? How would you rate the value of this razor? In fact, I’ve seen a lot of people working at material manufacturers and razor manufacturers working in earnest to innovate technology. This is exactly the structure of cooperation born from the trust that good materials produce good products. And I can’t help but think of the significance and weight of what my father, Kanakura, used to say during the liberalization of razors in the 1960s. Coincidentally, the phenomenal rise in the value of the yen from 360 yen to 115 yen against the US dollar during that period must have been a major factor in driving the razor market to the internationalization that it is today.

July 16, 1993.
At the Yasugi Works, Hitachi Metals, Ltd. in Shimane Prefecture, the author (from left), my father Kinzo Takeuchi, Yoshihiro Honda (Yasugi Works manager at the time), and Kenji Takitani (former vice president of the company)
July 21, 2000.
In the President’s Office at the Head Office of Hitachi Metals, Ltd., center: President Yoshihiro Honda (at the time), left: the author, right: Norioki Takeuchi (Kamisori Club)

For the first time in about 15 years, I visited the Yasugi Works of Hitachi Metals near Yonago Airport in Shimane Prefecture. This time, I had an opportunity to see and learn about the consistent production process of high-grade Yasugi Hagane, such as the obi steel used for razors and cutlery, for my son’s generation. Especially in the field of razor blades, the supply rate of steel strips including Gillette, Schick, Wilkinson, ASR and other overseas razor manufacturers, as well as domestic products such as feathers and Kaishirushi, has far surpassed that of BS in the UK and SB in Sweden to reach 70% of the global market. When I came here 15 years ago, the whole world was enjoying the two-blade era. As for the history of the company, it was spun off from Hitachi, Ltd. in 1956 and changed its name to Hitachi Metals, Ltd. in 1967. The Yasugi Plant, a special steel company, has a large scale and boasts a total area of about 2.5 million square meters, including the Coastal Plant and Yamate Plant. The main wooden building that used to be in the Yamate factory was also moved to the site of the coastal factory and changed into a modern building. On the other hand, Kanayago Shrine, the founder of the steel industry, has been erected on a hill on the Yamate Plant site. You can see a number of factory buildings lined up in a row below. Also nearby is the Wako Museum, which tells the story of the world and history of Wako (Japanese steel), including the tama steel made by the tatara iron making method and the old famous sword. The director of the museum, Mr. Yasomuneo, is also a doctor of engineering and worked as an engineer at the local Hitachi Metals Yasugi Works. Then I remember the words of an intellectual who emphasized in the newspaper that “iron is a nation, and iron is the rice of industry. In Japan, crude steel production, which is used in large quantities for automobiles and buildings, is about 120 million tons or more a year, but the production weight of special steel, such as razors and high quality materials used in information equipment, is low in comparison.

October 7, 2008.
Visit to Yasugi Plant in Shimane Prefecture, Hitachi Metals, Ltd.
A tour of razor wood and other steel strip manufacturing.
In the center is Yasuoki Takeuchi, next to the left, Murayama Plant Manager