Mitsubishi Uni Penmanship Pencils

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I’m taking a break from writing about vintage pencils and turning to some currently available ones. I first saw the Mitsubishi Uni Penmanship (Kouhitsu Shosha-yo 硬筆書写用) pencil on Lexikaliker and have left comments on other blogs about it since then, but maybe this is a good time to organize the information scattered here and there in one place.

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Calligraphy in Japan consists of the writing of Chinese characters and Japanese kana, and have traditionally been taught using ink and brush. However, with time other instruments have been introduced into the classroom for convenience’s sake, pulling traditional calligraphy in the direction of everyday “penmanship”: felt-tipped pens, ballpoint pens, and pencils, categorically called “hard pens (kouhitsu)” as opposed to the soft brush. Of all the Asian nations that teach Chinese calligraphy, I think Japan stands out for the emphasis it places on everyday hard-pen penmanship, and its use of pencils in practicing this art. There is a Kouhitsu competition held each year, separately from the usual brush calligraphy competitions (you can see some writing samples here). The pencils seem to be used mostly in elementary schools (and no doubt demand is driven by teachers who designate exactly which kind to use); older students move on to more sophisticated instruments.

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These penmanship pencils are intended to mimic the feel and effect of the brush as much as possible: to clearly indicate the movement of the stroke as it starts, stops, strengthens or weakens, widens or fades out altogether. In doing this, it channels two seemingly contradictory demands: the need for the lead to be very dark and soft, but resistant to the pressure exerted on it. The legend “Pressure-Proofed Lead” indicates that while the lead may be as dark and smooth as any art pencil, it is strong enough to withstand any child’s sweaty effort. This is actually quite a feat! Let’s see what else Mitsubishi says about this pencil:

  • The lead breaks down evenly when it comes into contact with the paper, resulting in very dark, bold, and distinct lines.
  • The lead is imbued with a special oil that reduces friction when writing.  
  • The thicker lead allows you to make both fine and bold lines, depending on the way you sharpen it.  It is also capable of producing the effects characteristic of a brush (stops, sweeps, etc.)
  • High-quality clay makes the lead stronger, saving you the trouble of frequent sharpening.

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The interesting thing about these pencils is that there are specific variants available only in certain parts of the country (and, needless to say, seldom exported abroad). The prefecture of Saitama, northeast of Tokyo, is said to be a strong supporter of penmanship instruction; accordingly, Mitsubishi manufactures two deluxe versions of the Penmanship pencil, the Super DX 8B and the Fude-Enpitsu (Brush Pencil) 10B, for distribution in Saitama only. Even Tombow seems to have made some sort of special edition for Fukuoka. (These special editions don’t show up on official product pages.) I haven’t managed to figure out why these particular prefectures should be so enthusiastic about penmanship or how they got the pencil companies to cooperate, but in any case you really have to marvel at the kind of market that generates such specific demands and the manufacturers that oblige them.

The rest of the country makes do with regular Penmanship Pencils in 4B and 6B, hexagonal and triangular. The writing experience is enhanced with a plush writing mat that provides a sort of cushion underneath the paper. Specially ruled penmanship practice pads are also available. In other words, this is a highly specialized pencil dedicated to a very specific purpose, and I really don’t understand the reasoning behind the decision to bring this pencil to North America. Yes, it is a very well-made pencil, dark, smooth and break-resistant, but the culture or the script system that gave birth to it doesn’t travel. Here, it’s probably too dark for everyday writing and needlessly strong for drawing or sketching. If you happen to have this pencil, I recommend that you get hold of a Chinese-character primer and practice a few strokes. Then you’ll see what this guy can really do.

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18 thoughts on “Mitsubishi Uni Penmanship Pencils

  1. Sola, this is rare insight, wonderful and fascinating. At least there is one country left in the world that values its unique culture and traditions. The same domestic market exclusivity also obtains in the Japanese watch industry, but without this connection to a vital historic art form. I would note for your readers that JetPens has begun selling the Mitsubishi Fude-Enpitsu brush pencil at the eye-watering price of $7.50 per pencil, but the 8B Super-DX remains unobtainable at American retail. Specialty pencils made in Japan are the pencils I covet, so it is thrilling for the Western pencil fancier to learn that Tombow “have made some sort of special edition for Fukuoka”. News like this, that Tombow too has its own version of Mitsu’s penmanship pencil is why I love reading your blog ( one more pencil to dream of acquiring! ). It is a distinct pleasure to learn about Japanese pencil culture.

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    1. Junius, thank you so much for your warm comments! As I said, I discovered this pencil through Gunther’s website, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the detective work :) Also, I do feel that the tradition of penmanship and fine calligraphy in the West is no less precious, and I hope the current analog boom gives it a boost.

      As for the Fude-Enpitsu 10B, I will only note that the retail price in Japan is 420 yen (pre-sales tax). Not cheap, but nowhere near as eye-watering as the price you mention! I am adding a link to a Nikkei article on the 10B – it has some more pictures, including a Chinese-character writing sample around page 4.

      Regarding the Tombow penmanship pencils, I think that Fukuoka collaboration has been in the past (the logo looks old). They may be producing only their regular 4B and 6B penmanship pencils now.

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  2. Thank you for your detailed look at this pencil. I would have never imagined that there are regional varieties. How fascinating!
    My father in law holds pencils completely vertically when writing Chinese characters. Is this the same for Japan and Korea?

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    1. Vertically? It wouldn’t be standard practice but I can well imagine it. You mean he holds the pencil like a brush, right?

      In Korea there is far less emphasis on penmanship, although I daresay we started out from the same place. Calligraphy is still widely taught (I remember doing it in school with brush and ink) but penmanship is more or less up to you. There are practice books that you work on with either ballpoint or pencil. China would still teach penmanship in school, right? All the Chinese people I’ve ever met up till now had beautiful handwriting, almost without exception.

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      1. Yes, I meant vertically like a brush.
        Oh, I wonder why there is less emphasis on penmanship in Korea. Maybe because Korea wants to be modern? Like the European countries that stopped using fountain pens in school?
        I just asked and my wife said they teach penmanship in China with soft pens (brush) and hard pens (fountain pen), at least that’s how it was when she was in school.

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      2. I don’t know exactly how many hours are reserved for penmanship in primary and secondary schools now, but I have the impression that in Korea proper calligraphy has always been dominant, with everyday penmanship occupying a distinctly inferior place. Plus the rapid digitization hasn’t helped.

        They use fountain pens in Chinese schools for penmanship? Wow, now I think I understand at least one reason for the rise of Chinese pen manufacturers.

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      3. My guess would be that the China there’s less of a distinction between calligraphy and penmanship than in Korea.
        I asked our niece, she’s a bit younger (late twenties). The first two years she used pencils, then ballpoint pens and fountain pens.

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      4. Did she use special penmanship pencils like the Mitsubishi, or just ordinary pencils in a lighter or darker grade? The use of fountain pens is really interesting too, because if they’re designated by schools that means an instant demand of millions right there. Korea doesn’t have any kind of institutionalized demand for FPs now and the market for inexpensive and domestically manufactured pens seems more or less moribund.

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      5. Sorry, I just realised that I forgot to reply. My relative said that they just used normal pencils.
        About Korea, i thought they do make nice affordable fountain pens, I have one I got from a Korean friend – but I see the point that no /low demand is not good for local manufacturers.

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  3. This is such a fascinating article! I’ve sharpened the 4B you were kind enough to send me, and I’m in the process of trying it out (after being a bit overcome by that enormous core).

    I’ve had little chance to do much more than jot a few notes so far, but I’ll be sketching at the weekend, hopefully (designing sets for the local theatre group again).

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    1. I know, the lead is a bit… too much, isn’t it? I wonder if it is any good for sketching or drawing, since it seems to be formulated a bit differently from the usual darker grades. And there’s supposed to be oil in it. I’d love to know what you think :)

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  4. 한국에서는 경필쓰기가 초등학생 대상으로만 가볍게 취급되지 않나 싶어요. 일본 중고생의 경필쓰기 경지를 보니 우리 교육현장에서도 조금 더 긴 기간 학생들에게 손글씨를 훈련시키면 좋지 않겠나 싶은 생각도 드네요.
    미야자키 하야오 할배가 사용하는 것을 보고 미츠비시 5B 몇 자루를 사다 뒀는데, 글씨 연습 용도로 써봐야겠군요. 좋은 게시물 감사합니다!

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    1. “펜글씨 교본”이라는 건 많이 있죠 그쵸? 초등학교 때 점선 따라 쓰기를 졸업하면 그 다음은 볼펜으로 자가연습… 그걸로 끝이었는데 크게 변하진 않았나 보네요. 지금 커리큘럼상으로도 손글씨 쓰기를 집어넣을 만한 여유는 없지 않을까요 ㅠㅠ
      일본의 경우는 글씨 연습 시키는 것도 그렇지만 도구로 연필을 쓸 생각을 했다는 게 참 신기해요.

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  5. Ditto what Junius said! Thanks for yet another very informative post!

    I recently bought a Tombow 4B penmanship pencil and the same Mitsubishi pencil (but in triangular) without really understanding what they were for. I haven’t tried them yet but after reading your post, I’m definitely going to try practicing my kanji with them. Should be an interesting experience. :)

    I remember my sister won a penmanship award in her elementary class (in Korea), for having a very neat, “traditional” looking handwriting with her pencils. I thought it was such a strange award at the time.. ^_^;;

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    1. My Tombow pencils should arrive soon, and I’m eager to try them out too. I wonder how they differ from Mitsubishi penmanship pencils – they seem more difficult to find!
      Your story reminds me, my best friend from 6th grade immigrated to the States (a long time ago). She had the best handwriting in the class, maybe partly because her mother did Korean calligraphy. I remember thinking that if she went to America no one over there would appreciate her penmanship ;) Times have changed, obviously, but I think we still tend to be overly impressed by good penmanship.

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