Written by Daniel
I have been in China for about 3 days now (5 more to go), following a 2-week long stay in Japan. This tour of Asia is very important and I believe will translate into ever-better Tenkara USA products. And, I’m already seeing concrete insights and results from being here.
For about 4 years I have focused on developing authentic tenkara rods. I do not copy any rods and have my own design philosophy when it comes to making (and releasing) new tenkara rods. Futher, for the last 4 years I have been taking your feedback into account into everyone of our rods. As you can see, I brought all those notes here with me.
Spending time in Japan provides a greater understanding of tenkara – the method as well as the tools available in the country where the method originated. Spending time in China provides a far greater understanding of the main tool used for tenkara and the options available to us so we can develop new products – and obviously some valuable time spent with our engineers and manufacturing partners to whom I have made sure to relay the most important messages of this trip: we need to ensure superb quality control, and we need to innovate.
Coming to visit our factories right after spending time in Japan was a smart decision. There are insights and ideas that wouldn’t translate as well had I decided to go home right away. Further, seeing more of the possibilities available to us here in China for the making of new rods will easily foster future innovation and will be translating beautifully into the new tenkara rods we’ll release in the future.
Recently, Mike of Troutrageous.com wrote a good (even if a bit heart-breaking to me) piece on the current perceived commodization of tenkara rods. It is indeed easy and cheap to source rods from China, and buy them off-the shelf based on work done by others. the difficult part is designing something unique, doing the due diligence to find the right partners, ensuring the quality of the products and if necessary improving them. All our rods are unique designs and have gone through multiple iterations, taking into account user feedback and feedback from teachers as well as my own thinking about how they could be improved. This visit is but one step in continuing making our rods better and standing apart from the copying (or partial copying) of our older models. So, Mike, I think you’re correct that “competition tends to breed innovation”; though I really wish I could have stayed a bit away from releasing new products just because there are so many “copies” coming out; that may be what made fishing complicated to begin with.
It is also important that our partners here understand tenkara better as I want them to know what makes a good tenkara rod. Yesterday we headed to a body of water nearby and spent ime going over some of the main performance criteria I look at when designing a rod: does it feel comfortable and lightweight? Does it cast well? Does it set hooks well? Can it play fish well? Is it sensitive? etc. These are all common elements of any fishing, rod, but it was very cool to see the light going off in their heads when they better understood why I make certain requests for our rods. It wasn’t a mountain stream, but showing them what tenkara looks like in person, and getting them excited about this style of fishing will certainly translate into better products. I’m happy to work with the partners we have.
A few notes on working in /with China
Some see a bit of irony in us introducing a Japanese method of fishing to the world but having the rods made in China. What they do not know is that the vast majority of tenkara rods available in Japan – including the large manufacturers – make their rods in China as well. It is not so important where the tool is made as that it be well designed and well made. The biggest part of a tenkara rod lies in its design and on whom is directing and overseeing the development of the rod. I understand tenkara well, and that goes into Tenkara USA rods.
The quality indication of a “made in China” stamp is directly proportional to the company that backs it. I – Tenkara USA – back my products: I design them, work with our engineers to make them better, and am able to continually improve on them. And, by the way, those who may have noticed a typo or two in the packaging of one of our current rods, the labels of past rods and even the cloth bag of the Ito rods a while ago, should know those typos were entirely mine (done on this very same computer)!
I am very proud that our tenkara rods are made in China. This is my second visit to the China; I spent a semester of college living here and travelling throughout the country. In that time I gained a reasonable understanding of the cultural and manufacturing landscapes of the country, and that knowledge has directly contributed to the making of Tenkara USA. It made it possible to make good rods to begin with and is now making it easy and fun to be here working on the rods in person.
The partners I have chosen to collaborate with in China have been reliable and diligent in their work. Their willingness to make new products that I specify, and tweak ours rods have allowed Tenkara USA rods to go through continuous improvement – as well as some innovations that are generally invisible. This same responsiveness and willingness to take risks can be difficult to find anywhere else.
The fact that something is made in China tends to bring out strong opinions in people. Thus, I think it is important that I should make a few notes “as an insider” about it. It should be noted that because of the work with our partners in China, I have been able to create at least 12 direct jobs in the USA, provided part-time employment to several more contract workers in the USA (including people with special needs who do packaging for us) and contributed to the economy in some pretty concrete ways (1% for the Planet, 10% excise tax, income taxes, etc). And, yes, we also created a few jobs in China too; and, I should note I can personally confirm that our rods are all produced in safe factories, with good working conditions, decent-paying jobs, no minors hired and in very satisfactory places to work with.
Should I have stayed in my old (promising and safe) job I can almost guarantee I would have contributed very little to the economy in general and certainly would have created no new jobs. It is my hope that by “investing the time to learn about the sport, technique, and the art of superior rod design” to use Mike’s words again, Tenkara USA can continue to thrive based on superb products, customer service, and certainly innovation in tenkara rods. Luckily these are things that can not be commoditized.