Q: Why did you choose this job?
What led you to set up the company?
Suzuki: My father was a joiner, and I was brought up to succeed him. After
graduation I worked for my father for around a year, and then he told me
that I wasnft cut out to be a joiner and should look for a position elsewhere.
I had studied architecture at my technical high school, so I made the obvious
decision of taking a job at an architectural design office.
But it was then that I realized something important. I wasnft interested
in houses (laughs). I worked hard, but when I thought about the future, I
didnft really want to be making my living as an architectural designer. Friends
told me that I should just go and do what I wanted to, but this was 30 years
ago when lifelong employment was the norm in Japan and job-hopping was tantamount
to dropping out.
However, I was finding it a real struggle, and it occurred to me that if
I liked models, I should become a model maker. At the time, the only approach
I could think of was to open a model store. I joined another company to save
money to open a store, but I couldnft save enough and after around two years
I quit that company too.
At the time, I belonged to a model club, and one of the members worked for
a model manufacturer. Back then, model manufacturers had design divisions
and assembly lines but contracted out their mold manufacturing, and the mold
factory to which that particular model manufacturer contracted was apparently
looking for staff, so I took the job. It was a small company, only three
people. I was at last working with models. That would have been when I was
I didnft know anything when I started. I had never used the machines, didnft
know anything about mechanical engineering, and obviously had no specialist
education. But I still found working with models really fascinating. My time
at the design office had taught me to read blueprints, so I could change
the designs and make the models as I liked, and generally became able to
have great fun.
After a while, when I was talking to the manufacturer, Ifd often be told
that I was a real model enthusiast, which according to the manufacturer,
made me a bit weird. Even though I hadnft thought I was that much of an enthusiast
myself! If that was the case, though, I started to think that it would be
interesting if I could become a model manufacturer myself some day. After
four and a half years at the factory, I began working on my boss to let me
make my own molds. And the first mold I made was for the Lisa doll that I
had designed by Akira Toriyama.
Apparently Akira Toriyama, who is a manga artist, was busy at the time with
the start of the Dragonball series, so it wasnft the best time to be asking
for a design (laughs). Then I quit the company and started selling the doll
together with a friend of mine. Lisa made a great initial hit. Shefs now
recognized as the first injection plastic model to have been made by anyone
outside the existing manufacturing majors. That was 1985.
The trouble was that when my friend and I worked together, our opinions
always clashed and wefd end up stalling. On top of that, we were also having
money problems, so after about a year we went our separate ways. The lesson
was that you canft have two people running a company, I guess. And then we
were young and didnft have a proper business vision-really, we were just
imitating what we thought a manufacturer did, playing at being a manufacturer.
So I was on my own again. It was 1987 when I started out in my tiny six-mat
room with only 100,000 yen to my name. That was the year that the company
was launched. I really went right back to the beginning, making once-off
finished models that manufacturers ordered to use as samples. With the money
I made on those, I bought a small machine and other equipment, with the company
gradually evolving into its current form.
Q: After you made that fresh start, what was the product that made your
company known? What project was the real turning point?
Suzuki: I think that would be Porco Rosso in 1999, 12 years after
I set up the company. Until that point, I saw myself as operating in a niche
industry as a manufacturer that focused on making models of Japanese WWII
military hardware, but I didnft like being denoted in model magazines as
a especialist Japanese WWII military hardware model manufacturerf. I liked
making those models, but I didnft like being labeled as such.
When I was thinking that Ifd like to try making something else, I happened
to remember that there were no Porco Rosso models. The movie came
out in 1992, but it wasnft until 1998 that I started planning. I got a direct
introduction to the director, Hayao Miyazaki, through a model publishing
company, and the kit that I produced was Porco Rossofs Savoia S.21.
It wasnft until afterwards that I found out that Miyazaki is famous for not
giving approvals, so when that emerged there was a lot of surprise.
Miyazaki gave no directions at all about the style of business I should
follow-what I should do with the model after it was made, how I should sell
it, etc. We agreed that while the look of the plane changed here and there
in the movie, we wanted to pick a good representative image as a model. After
that, the discussion was all about Italian planes of the 1920s, Japanese
planes, and the other topics you might expect of plane enthusiasts. Then
he gave his permission and Studio Ghibli gave me the approval. I think that
also got the Fine Molds name out there from another perspective.
The next thing was the Star Wars project in 2001. First we produced
the X-wing. It was originally a suggestion from a staff member, who proposed
over a drink one evening that it would be great if we could make the X-wing.
At the time, we didnft dream that we would take on all the spacecraft that
appear in the movie. Lucas Films laid down various conditions-I would have
to get public liability insurance, for example, and they wouldnft work with
an individual. When I was working with Studio Ghibli, I was still operating
as a sole proprietor. It had been unusual at the time even for Studio Ghibli
to sign a contract with a sole proprietor, but Lucas Films insisted on a
company. I met the necessary conditions and the project went ahead.
When the models came out, there was worldwide astonishment. The first movie
had been released in the 1970s, so Star Wars fans had already engaged
in some very exhaustive research, and no one had imagined that an X-wing
model would be put out at this late point. Moreover, the quality was extremely
high compared to previous models, with plaudits pouring in from around the
world. It was the perfect example of what could be done with contemporary
technology. Even though the contract only allowed for sales in Japan, models
found their way worldwide. Even when I say worldwide, itfs still a tiny market,
of course (laughs), so it isnft as though we were selling millions of models,
but fans in the US and Europe also started acquiring them, the reason apparently
being the quality of the product.
Of course, it was widely known even before then that Japanese plastic models
were world-class, but it was great to have a little company like ours attracting
Q: When your company creates a product, what is your top priority? What
is the drive behind your uncompromising standards?
Suzuki: Ifm not very fond of the term euncompromisingf, but some idealism
is involved. Firstly, there is the reason that I started down this road in
the first place, which is that I was dissatisfied with existing models and
wanted to pursue my own ideals as to what makes a really good model. Take
those away, and it would cease to be my company. Then, the facilities to
realize those ideals are absolutely vital. As I said earlier, a lot of manufacturers
rely on outsourcing, which means that they donft build up a stockpile of
technological knowhow. If youfre making each model yourself, that technology
remains. For example, even if we lose money on a product, to the extent that
making that product has contributed something to the company in terms of
technological knowhow, we can feed that knowhow back into the next product.
I aim to value those intangible sales, forms and knowhow.
Why go that far, you might ask. Because thatfs what I want myself. I think
it would be wrong to supply to customers with products that I wouldnft want.
Wefre still selling our old products, but looking at them now, many seem
rather amateur. However, I can say for a fact that all of our products embody
the best that we could do at the time. Our approach is to treat advances
in technology as opportunities to make even better products. To keep a company
going, you need to pay attention to immediate profits, but the most important
issue is what you will become in the future.
Naturally, youfre always battling to keep the company afloat. Itfs more
than 20 years now since Fine Molds began, but that side of things has never
become any easier. Rather than aiming to expand sales or expand the scale
of the company, we need to develop our core business even further so that
we can become a company that doesnft compete. In the end, our current products
are all up for comparison. Cars are the same. You compare one companyfs cars
with anotherfs. Even if one company goes under, there are other companies
out there so it isnft a problem. In that case, the answer is to become a
company which our customers canft afford to have collapse. The company that
is the only one that can do what it does, IS the only one that does what
it does, and is the only company that makes offbeat products is the company
that canft be compared.
Thatfs why wefre making something offbeat again now-plastic models of machine
tools (laughs). Plastic models of the machine tools from Makino Milling Machine
which process our molds. And smaller models of the same for Hitachi Metals
Tool Steel. Wefre making the kind of products that youfd wonder who could
possibly want them. The manufacturing industry is currently shaky, but given
that there must be an enormous number of people in the machine tools industry,
it seems like a good idea to make models for them. With machine tools, you
can take your sales campaign out to factories as well, showing them what
youfve made. That opens a different market again. And of course we make the
machine tool models in ridiculous detail too (laughs).
In other words, models themselves are a fairly frivolous thing, so they
have to be made well to have any value at all. Like movies. All you do is
watch them and enjoy them. But isnft it good to have them? I think thatfs
Q: Young people these days seem to be struggling with the meaning of work.
What would you like to communicate to the next generation concerning skilled
manufacturing and perhaps work itself?
Suzuki: Thatfs not something for me to tell, itfs for everyone to find out
for themselves. I canft do anything as presumptuous as that.
Currently, when people talk about Japanese skilled manufacturing, theyfre
only talking about the material side. But if skilled manufacturing was no
more than making things, these days youfd only need to put CAD/CAM software
on your computer and invest in some high-precision machine tools to have
a perfectly adequate system. The result would be device industries. So, do
good devices allow you to do a good job? Thatfs an illusion often held about
skilled manufacturing. It would seem that with the right devices, you could
produce good work anywhere in the world. Why is that not the case? Itfs the
difference between cultures-the way people think, for example, and design
information, which needs to be converted into three dimensions.
For example, both elementary school students and novelists string letters
together. But what enables the novelist to write wonderful, moving passages
are the culture and the value of experience that the novelist has woven.
This aspect tends to be neglected.
I believe that what is important is that machines can be bought by simply
paying money, but people canft be bought. All young people have talents.
The first step is to become immunized against failure. You have to realize
that itfs alright to fail, that things wonft go well from the beginning.
Itfs worse not to try at all. Trying and failing is okay. After all, all
our current technology -in fact, everything around
us- has been developed through
a succession of failures. Why I believe that is because when making a plastic
model, I research all the history, the struggles of those involved and the
development process -everything- so I can get inside the minds of those who
came before me. When you make something, therefs a process of sacrificing
your own dignity and going beyond that. Working out the parameters we have
to work within gets us fired up. Thatfs why itfs important to learn about
To be frank, people are led by their feelings. Business conditions too are
sentiment. If a feeling fires you up, you can suddenly see the same thing
from quite a different perspective.
Once Ifve given my staff a theme, I try not to get in the way too much.
I leave them to do as they will. A deadline is set, and theyfre expected
to do their best by that point. In that environment, their skills inevitably
improve. When I buy a new machine, I just set them loose on it, and judging
from the groans and shouts of glee, they seem to have a really good time
Q: What are your dreams and the goals you want to achieve?
Suzuki: I always find that a tough question, and tend to say that in the
future, I want to become a strange old man! (laughs). When I watched the Porco
Rosso movie, I had no idea that I would make models from it, and Star
Wars too I simply watched, so I think you simply never know what will
happen next, which is what makes life interesting. Things will occur which
were completely beyond your imagination. If you keep walking, youfll see
different scenery. People show you things, things that differ from your own
intentions emerge. I want to go forward with eager anticipation and enjoyment
of whatever life throws at me.
Ifm only doing this job because I like it and want to know more. It doesnft
matter what it is-when people feel that theyfve found something theyfre happy
with, somewhere where theyfre necessary, thatfs where they make their breaks.
And when they find a job where theyfre necessary, thatfs called a vocation.
From my own experience, I think thatfs all you can do. Nothing is set in
stone. You shouldnft let barriers be put in your way; you should do what
you want to do. If you donft, youfll wither away inside. So I believe that
you have to take your own dreams seriously.
Fine Molds Corporation Website: http://www.finemolds.co.jp/ (Japanese
Institute for International Studies and Training (IIST)
2nd Floor, Toranomon Jitsugyo Kaikan
1-1-20 Toranomon, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan