The Pencil in Japan

by Gene Fornario

genef at netcom dot com

                      EN               PITSU

                  /\     / --\       /___  /___
                /---\   /     \     /  \  /  \
                  |    /       \     ____|____
                -----    ____      ______|____|__
                  |     |    |       ____|____|
                \ | /   |    |       ____|______
               --- ---  |----|      _____|_______
The pencil in Japan.
Gene Fornario v1.0 Jan. 27th, 1996

In this article, I will talk about pencils availiable in Japan. To keep it brief, I'll focus on woodcased brand name pencils that are sold in Japan.

The above two Chinese characters "en" and "pitsu" form the Japanese word for pencil, "enpitsu" or "lead brush." Since our own word "pencil" comes from the Latin for "brush"..."enpitsu" is not so far off from the english words "lead pencil."

Pencils sold in Japan are of both Japanese and imported makes. They can be of the wood-cased type, or the more popular mechanical pencil. The major wood pencil makers are Mitsubishi, Tombow, and Pentel. They also include mechanical pencils, which are called "sharp pencils" in Japan, and there are numerous other major manufacturers such as Pilot, Sakura, and Zebra that also make "sharp pencils". In fact sometimes I will look at a major US brand mechanical pencil to see "Japan" stamped on the pencil clip.

Pencils in Japan can be further divided into two types according to purpose. There are the less expensive home/school/work types, the regular pencil with eraser, and the very colorful "sharp pencils." The other kind are the drafting/drawing types, designed more for the needs of artists and those in drafting. Japan uses the H-F-B system of designating how hard or soft the pencil lead is. HB for example is a common grade that is close to the #2 pencil in the US. B through 9B indicates "soft" or "black" lead used in drawing, F is for "firm" used in stenography, and H through 9H for drafting.

Prices given are in yen. As this is being written, it's around 100 yen to the US dollar. So 140 yen is $1.40 US. That's just what you would pay if you were in Japan, and getting a 100/1 exchange rate.

Mitsubushi Pencil Co., Ltd. (Since 1887)


Hi-Uni: This is Mitsubishi's best selling pencil since it's introduction in 1966. It is maroon in color with the top degree indicator being black and having a gold-colored ring around it and a yellow-orange dot on top.

It writes very smoothly, which leads me to believe it's a polymer/graphite blend. Price given is 140 yen each. This model is not sold in the US, and I had to pay double the price to have a dozen special ordered from Japan. Hi-Uni lead is also made for mechanical pencils. 300 yen for a pack of 40 leads.

Uni: One notch down is the Mitsubishi-Uni. Maroon color, black lead degree indicator band at the top. "Pressured-proofed high density lead" is imprinted on the side. No eraser.

The "Uni" leads are also availiable for mechanical pencils for 200 yen/40 leads, and in 2mm diameter for drafting leadholders, 6 leads for 200 yen. A Mitsubishi Uni leadholder is 500 yen.

Uni-star: Maroon in color, lead degree is simply stamped on the side of the pencil along with "master-writing". I can't say that I can honestly see any difference or feel any difference from this model and the Uni. The price is 60 yen. No eraser. I do not see this model in their latest catalogue, so they may have discontinued it.

"For Home/Office use": Yellow pencil with eraser. 60 yen. Havn't seen or tried this one yet.

Tombow Pencil Co., Ltd.

Tombow is japanese for "dragonfly", the trademark imprinted on the side of their pencils. Tombow is distributed in the US. Pearl Paints in New York City is one excellent source for Tombow. Tombow also makes an popular white plastic eraser called the "Mono".

Mono-100: Black, white stripe at the top, and "Highest Quality Tombow Mono100 *Grade* imprinted on one side, "For high precision drafting" on the opposite side. The HB grade of this pencil is one of my favorites. It's availiable in grades 9H through 8B, and can be bought in sets for drafting or sketching. Price 140 yen, but since it can be purchased in the's around $1.

Mono: The less fancier model. Black with grey band with lead degree imprinted on it. 90 yen.

Tombow also makes a yellow office/home pencil for all you plain folks :) with eraser.

Mechanical pencil leads are packged as "Mono SX" 40 leads for 200 yen.

Pentel Co., Ltd.

Pentel is famous for their mechanical pencils. Their first model called the "Sharp Pencil" is in the Japanese vocabulary as their word for mechanical pencil. Pentel does make woodcased pencils. The problem is that their American division does not import them.

Black Polymer 999a: As with their other competitors, Pentel makes models of the "high-quality drafting" type. This model is their top of the line. It retails for 100 yen. Black, silver top, and "supreme quality for drawing lines of high density" engraved on the side.

They also package leads like their competitors: High Polymer for Pro 300yen for 40 leads, and Hi Polymer100 200yen/per 40.

Imported pencils:

Japan also imports pencils from abroad. They are mostly pencils of the drafting/drawing kind. Here are some examples:

Faber-Castell 9000         150 yen per pencil
Staedtler Mars Lumograph   130 yen
Schwan-Stabilo 8000        130
Schwan-Stabilo Othello     100
Berol Cardinal              80
Derwent Sketching Pencil   120 (Made by Cumberland)
Lyra Orlow-Technico        130
Caran 'd Ache
Technograph 777            180 (their B grade is really nice)

A word on Sharps (mechanical pencils)

Japan has been the most innovative when it comes to the mechanical pencil. You do not have to go to Tokyo to find out. KSG Stationery in San Francisco's Japantown imports the mechanical pencils sold only in Japan. The designs are a work of art. They are normally white, pink, light-blue and green with wire clips and sometimes a bellows around the push-button. I'll admit they appear to be for school use and are shorter than what is normally sold in the US. I recommend a visit to KSG if you ever find yourself in San Francisco. Oh yes, you might also want to check out the Cable Cars and the Golden Gate Bridge if you have any time left over :)

Kinokuniya Stationery and Gifts,
Kinokuniya Building, Second Floor
1581 Webster Street,
San Francisco, California
(415) 567-8901

Conclusion: I hope you found this article useful. I realize that there are things missing such as company addresses, histories, or other information that I did not think to include. It would take more time and research, and rather than procrastinate, and let this die...I have decided to release a first version and hope to add information as I find time.

The Pencil Pages © January 1996 Doug Martin