Tsubame-Sanjo is located in central Niigata which, like the islands of Japan, stretches lengthwise from north to south. The Shinano, Japan’s longest river, flows through the cities of Tsubame and Sanjo. Since ancient times, the people have loved the Shinano, which brings fertility to the land and supports agriculture. It was from Tsubame-Sanjo’s agrarian roots that local manufacturing and commercial industries would arise, eventually growing into what would become known as one of the world’s foremost manufacturing regions. But why did the transformation from agriculture to manufacturing take place here? Tugging at the tangled strings of history reveals that the shift in Tsubame-Sanjo’s economic landscape was triggered by nailsmithing in the Edo period (1603 – 1868).
The farmers in Sanjo near the confluence of the Shinano and Ikarashi Rivers lived in poverty due to frequent floods. The residing governor encouraged nailsmithing as a second source of income for poor farmers, and blacksmithing took root. Later, when Niigata’s agricultural land expansion projects began, nailsmiths shifted to manufacturing farming implements. This, in turn, led to the production of kitchen knives, carpentry tools, and other types of bladesmithing. Meanwhile, in Tsubame, craftsmen abandoned nailsmithing early in favor of copper fabrication, utilizing the technical knowledge of hand-hammered copperware production that had been brought there earlier in the Edo period. In the 1910s and 1920s, the manufacture of Western tableware flourished in the greater Tsubame-Sanjo area, and the region became one of the country’s foremost metalworking regions. Despite the advent of mechanized manufacturing, Tsubame-Sanjo is still home to many artisans who utilize traditional blacksmithing and hand-hammering techniques.
In the early Meiji period (1868 – 1912) sea shipping flourished in Niigata, and the prefectural population soared to number one in the country. Sanjo---located in the heart of the Echigo Plain on a key confluence---became a gateway where goods gathered and dispersed. Peddlers specializing in metal wares spread Tsubame-Sanjo’s products throughout the country, and the region’s quality metal goods earned a name for themselves. Even today, it is said that Tsubame-Sanjo boasts more factory owners per capita than any city in Japan. Family-run workshops and small, several-person factories manufacturing metal products such as knives and cutlery as well as other goods account for this high proportion. Tsubame-Sanjo’s craftsmanship has long supported Japanese daily life. We invite you to take a closer look at the agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing that nourished this craftsmanship.