Pencil-Sharpening as a Rite of Initiation

“入社式” is a difficult word to translate. This is a ceremony that is held at the beginning of the fiscal (and therefore corporate) new year, welcoming all new employees who start on that date – except it isn’t exactly a “welcome” in the Western sense, because you are there to serve the company for all eternity and it is meant to commemorate more the gravity of the contract between the new employee and employer. If the company is large and boasts an illustrious history, it can even seem like a rite of initiation into something momentous that will eventually mold you in the company’s image. Come to think of it, there is no specific date on which such a large number of people start work at the same time in the West (or is there? September maybe?), but anyway, this initiation ceremony, which falls everywhere in Japan on April 1st, is a Big Deal.

http://shinagawa.keizai.biz/headline/940/ (2010)
http://shinagawa.keizai.biz/headline/1517/ (2012)
http://shinagawa.keizai.biz/headline/1785/ (2013)

The articles above describe the induction ceremony at the Mitsubishi Pencil Company. Started in 2008 on the 50th anniversary year of the Uni, the year’s fresh crop of employees are asked to sharpen a pencil with a penknife. Most have never sharpened a pencil by hand before. Senior managers and future colleagues look on, advising the neophytes, “don’t move the blade, move the pencil beneath it”.

This ceremony is intended to nurture a love of pencils and writing instruments that will accompany and occupy them all throughout their working life. After sharpening the pencil, they practice writing the company name, “三菱鉛筆 (Mitsubishi Pencil)”, and finish by writing down their hopes and aspirations for the future, or (more recently) writing a letter to one’s own self five years from now.

As a Mitsubishi executive says, “A pencil cannot be of service unless it is sharpened. In the same spirit, I encourage you to be diligent in sharpening yourself, even after this first day.”

Take that, Staedtler! ;)

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9 thoughts on “Pencil-Sharpening as a Rite of Initiation

  1. Thank you for these details which aren’t accessible to those who don’t speak Japanese (like me). There are so many important differences between Western and Japanese corporate culture, and I am sure that these also show in the differences of the products.

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    1. Thank you for your comment! I enjoy transmitting these small snippets of information, and for someone who is lost in the German language, I would love to know of any special ceremonies at Staedtler or Faber-Castell, too!

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    2. These small snippets are very valuable to me! – Unfortunately I don’t know of special ceremonies at Staedtler or Faber-Castell. Of course it’s easier to hold such a ceremony when most of the new employees join the company at the same day; we don’t have that in Germany.

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      1. Do they at least have a Founder’s Day or anything commemorating the company’s establishment? It’s all so rational and practical over there…

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      2. The last celebration I have heard of took place at Faber-Castell on the occasion of their 250th anniversary (only with invited guests, though); there also was a book. Staedtler has celebrated their 175th anniversary in 2010 with a great exhibition and nice retro tins (Staedtler’s origins go back to 1662 but after a lawsuit with Faber-Castell they were forced to use 1835 as the year of founding). In the past almost all German pencil makers have issued books, brochures and special items on various occasions. To me the most unusual campaign was the one by Schwan-Stabilo on the occasion of their 100th anniversary in 1955: 50 people in Germany who turned 100 that year too were given this set.

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      3. Yes, but the events are mostly for outsiders and customers, right? I wonder if there were any rituals for employees – let me know if anything comes up when you talk to a Staedtler rep next time :) BTW the Schwan-Stabilo set is really, really beautiful!

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  2. Thanks for this account. I shared the Mitsubishi executive’s words with students in a writing class this morning. They already know about the idea of the shokunin, and the ideas of sharpening yourself seems to go well with it.

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