The intense-white sticks drop one after the other into the whir and clatter of a weatherworn piece of equipment, the place they’re stamped with probably the most celebrated title in chalk: Hagoromo.
The early phases of the method look lots like meals manufacturing. The substances in what the corporate’s proprietor calls a “recipe” are dumped right into a mixer initially designed for bread dough, and what comes out is fed right into a kneader initially supposed to make udon noodles.
Of the thick grayish mass that emerges, 4 substances are recognized: calcium carbonate, clay, glue and oyster shells. The opposite three are a secret. In a video posted to YouTube in regards to the chalk, an American fan affords a guess as to one in all them: angel tears.
Hagoromo chalk is a cult favourite of elite teachers, artists and others world wide who reward it for its silky really feel, vibrant colours, scant mud and practically unbreakable high quality. Mathematicians in particular are vulnerable to waxing poetic about it, and shopping for it in bulk. The YouTube video, produced by Nice Massive Story, has been considered greater than 18 million instances.
Regardless of its renown, Hagoromo remains to be produced on a comparatively small scale, utilizing custom-made gear, a lot of it run by two laborers who’re equivalent twins — a throwback in a high-tech period the place interactive shows are changing chalkboards.
The chalk has survived World Conflict II and, practically 70 years later, the closing of the Japanese firm that initially made it. The coronavirus pandemic is the newest risk, hurting gross sales as schooling and different actions go digital.
Hagoromo’s continued existence is an unlikely story that bridges Japan and South Korea, two nations which have had an uneasy, and sometimes bitter, relationship ever for the reason that conflict.
The corporate that produced the chalk for its first eight a long time was based in Nagoya, Japan, in 1932 as Nihon Chalk Seizosho. After its manufacturing constructing burned down throughout a World Conflict II air raid, the corporate was rebuilt and chalk manufacturing resumed in 1947 underneath the title Hagoromo Bungu.
Manufacturing peaked in 1990 at 90 million sticks. However gross sales then steadily declined, finally reaching half that stage over the following twenty years amid competitors from whiteboards and newer applied sciences like so-called smartboards.
In 2014, Takayasu Watanabe, the grandson of the corporate’s founder, introduced that Hagoromo would halt manufacturing, partly due to the trade’s declining fortunes and partly due to his personal in poor health well being. He didn’t ask any of his three daughters to take over the corporate.
As Mr. Watanabe was getting ready to close it down, he acquired a go to from Shin Hyeong-seok, who had been importing the chalk to South Korea for practically 10 years. Mr. Shin offered the chalk by means of the corporate he began, Sejong Mall, named after King Sejong the Nice, who within the fifteenth century created Hangul, the Korean writing system.
Mr. Shin had found the chalk years earlier than in Japan whereas investigating the workings of cram colleges. On the time, he was educating math half time whereas pursuing a Ph.D. and his goals of turning into an architect.
“I went into the academics’ lounge and bear in mind being mesmerized by the fluorescent-colored chalks,” he mentioned. “And once I began writing with one, I couldn’t put it down.”
On his journey to see Mr. Watanabe, Mr. Shin offered what he referred to as a “loopy concept.” He, a instructor and importer with no manufacturing expertise, would take over manufacturing of the chalk in South Korea. Mr. Watanabe laughed.
However Mr. Shin saved urgent. “My pitch to him was that there are numerous issues on the earth that can disappear sooner or later, however the best-quality merchandise ought to be the final to take action,” Mr. Shin mentioned.
Finally, Mr. Watanabe got here round. He gave his machines to Mr. Shin at virtually no price. The marginally youthful of the 2 twins, Choi Eui-chun, an ethnic Korean born in Japan, moved to South Korea to work at Mr. Shin’s manufacturing facility, and the older brother, Choi Eui-haeng, later joined him.
Mr. Watanabe visited three or 4 instances to look at the set up and operation of the machines from his wheelchair. He died in July.
Since 2015, the chalk has been produced in a modest corrugated metallic constructing alongside a four-lane rural freeway 20 miles from the border with North Korea.
Lots of the machines within the small manufacturing facility, like the emblem stamper, with its rust-flecked metallic and old-style rubber imprinter, look extra like museum items than cogs in a contemporary meeting line. On the finish of the meeting line, the chalk is sorted into rows of 12 after which positioned by employees into bins bearing the title Hagoromo Fulltouch Chalk. “World Finest High quality,” the bins proclaim.
Seventy-two white items promote for $11.
Mr. Watanabe was referred to as a traitor by a few of his colleagues who accused him of looking for to switch good know-how to South Korea. The Japanese chalk affiliation feared that Mr. Shin would produce an inferior, cheaper product and export it to Japan, undercutting producers there.
Mr. Shin recalled that Mr. Watanabe had been untroubled by any of this criticism. He mentioned that Mr. Watanabe finally got here to deal with him as a son.
Takako Iwata, the second of Mr. Watanabe’s three daughters, who served as interpreter for Mr. Shin and her father, noticed a grander ambition of their bond. “I hope my father’s chalk might assist relieve Japan-Korea tensions,” she mentioned. “That’s the hope, a minimum of.”
She mentioned she wasn’t precisely certain how Hagoromo had develop into so beloved exterior Japan. “I suppose individuals who got here to Japan simply saved on bringing the chalk again to their dwelling nations,” she mentioned. “When my father was nonetheless operating the corporate, he didn’t learn about this enormous following.”
That modified a bit, although, in his firm’s closing months, when he acquired a flood of orders, together with from American professors who hoped to purchase provides giant sufficient to final 10 years or extra.
David Eisenbud, the director of the Mathematical Sciences Analysis Institute on the College of California, Berkeley, mentioned he had purchased sufficient to final the remainder of his life.
Dr. Eisenbud is a key determine within the chalk’s popularization in america. He was first launched to it years in the past throughout a go to to the College of Tokyo. “Every little thing in regards to the chalk was beautiful,” he mentioned. “I assumed, ‘Chalk is chalk,’ however I used to be improper.”
He later persuaded an acquaintance to import the chalk into america. (Mr. Shin now sells it to American patrons by means of Amazon.)
Yujiro Kawamata, a Japanese mathematician who launched Hagoromo to Dr. Eisenbud, marveled on the flip of occasions.
“I occurred to inform Eisenbud in regards to the chalk, which was only a instrument that was part of my on a regular basis life, and now the entire world is aware of about it,” Dr. Kawamata mentioned.
Su-Hyun Lee contributed reporting.