The Pencils of My Childhood: Mitsubishi 9800 and others

I have lived in Japan during many different periods in my life, but the only time when I or my family bought pencils was during the years 1979-1982. I still have some left. I can state with confidence that the most important principle for budding stationery aficionados is Never Throw Anything Away.

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Even after thirty years, it is hard to convince anyone that they are indeed that old, partly because the imprint has hardly changed and partly because the lacquered surface has not degraded one bit during all that time. You may have your preferences and prejudices, but the truth is no one does pencil coats quite like the Japanese.

Because I was so attached to them, and because they looked so good, I thought of them very highly for a long time. It was only after I tried other “flagship”-grade pencils during the past few years that I realized the 9800 was meant to be and indeed performed like an inexpensive office/school pencil. The higher-grade Uni (and even the Hi-Uni) was already available at that time, which leaves me to wonder: could my parents not afford the Uni? My father was partial to stationery products and especially to his Parker pens even then; did he think pencils were not worth the investment? Or maybe the 9800s were deemed good enough for children? Anyway it took me a long time to get to the Hi-Uni, and I have to confess that even now I find its color and feel quite unfamiliar. (Here is an interesting article on the history of the Uni.)

I haven’t bought a modern 9800 since then so I can only guess based on the pictures I see on other blogs, but there are two differences in the imprint that I can point out.

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Some of the 9800s I have have “Patented” imprinted on them; I think they are older than the “Matured” pencils. (The pencil box also states “Patented”. ) Also, on the backside of the “patented” pencils, the patent number is inscribed along with the JIS mark. The “Matured” pencils have “General Writing” on them. Maybe, as Gunther says, the patent expired in the meantime and they were in the process of transition?

The JIS mark is another interesting point. This mark is the seal of approval that the government bestows on products that have met certain industrial standards. We had the same kind of quality-certification system in Korea too, called the KS mark, and I associate these symbols mainly with the 70’s and 80’s, when many companies were trying hard to bring themselves up to international standards of manufacturing and a government-issued seal of approval helped to advertise the superior quality of their products. Now that firms are successful enough on their own, I find that many are phasing out the symbols from their packaging. I can’t find a JIS mark on any of the modern Mitsubishis or Tombows I have, although I do see it on the Pentel Black Polymer. If you do find one on a recently produced pencil, I’d be interested to know.

PS – It’s funny that Mitsubishi uses “Color” and “Colour” interchangeably on the imprints. Also it says “Made By Elaborate Process” on the back side of the 9000 – a charming piece of Japlish ;)

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14 thoughts on “The Pencils of My Childhood: Mitsubishi 9800 and others

  1. the most important principle for budding stationery aficionados is Never Throw Anything Away

    Spot-on :-)

    Thank you for this post. The worn boxes are beautiful!

    Re the JIS logo: Do you see it on the regular Pentel Black Polymer 999 or the alpha version?

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    1. Oooh, I didn’t know there were two versions of this pencil ;) the only one I have has “alpha” on it. How are they supposed to be different?

      Re the boxes:I don’t remember why, but when I was younger I hated those holes in the boxes, and many years later I found the openings all covered up with paper and taped up. That’s why there are old tape marks all over.

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      1. The 999 alpha is considered even better than the regular 999, high-end and super rare (see this review and the comments at pencil talk). The regular 999 doesn’t have this logo. – Thank you for the details regarding the coverings :-)

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      2. Did the regular 999 come first or the alpha? I would assume that the logo would be on the older pencil but maybe Pentel applied for it only with the alpha? Thank you for letting me know. I am impatient for Pencil Talk to come back online so I can link it properly ;)

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      3. I don’t know which one was first but I wouldn’t be surprised if the alpha came before the regular 999. As far as I know the latter sold not well because of its price; maybe the regular 999 was the second attempt (but that’s just a guess).

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      4. Gunther, I was curious too and so I had a look at some Japanese blogs. The regular version was released in 1986 and cost 100 yen per pencil. The alpha was released later (don’t know exactly when) and cost 200 yen per pencil. The Mitsubishi Hi-Uni was 150 yen per pencil so the BP was pretty expensive. BTW they say that 999 is supposed to be pronounced “three-nine”.

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      5. Sola, thank you for these details! 200 yen was indeed a hefty price. – I wonder if “three-nine” has a connotation which made that number particularly appealing …

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      6. There is an obvious cultural reference that comes to mind, although I don’t know if Pentel was referring to it specifically. “Galaxy Express 999″(also read “three-nine”) was a blockbuster comic/TV animation/movie franchise that was immensely popular during the 70’s and 80’s. It’s a science fiction fantasy of a motherless child traveling through space on a train, visiting various planets and encountering mysterious people. It was unusually dark for a children’s cartoon. I remember the 80’s as this golden age of Japanese cartoons – they had this whole worldview contained within them, and their success meant that children throughout Asia (and not only Japan) grew up on them.

        BTW the Wikipedia page mentions that the number 999 “signifies the imminent end of youth as an adult approaches the number 1,000” -don’t know if that makes any sense, it seems like a direct quote from the creator of the series.

        Here is the famous opening sequence. It goes very well with the BP packaging, if anything ;)

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      7. So it looks like it is possible to draw a parallel to this science fiction fantasy! The pencil on the BP packing is remarkably similar to the train, and there is more: The font used for “BLACK POLYMER”, Eurostile* by Aldo Novarese (1962), was often used in science fiction works. In addition to this, the figure “999” looks like it was lifted from an LCD segment display. I would like to hear the designer’s comment on this ;-)

        * Or possibly Microgramma which is almost identical but doesn’t include lowercase letters.

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