From FACHBLATT MUSIKMAGAZIN 2/1987

Translated from the German publication (Deutsch siehe Stratomaniac Schweiz)


Fujigengakki
From the Cowshed to the Top

 

Preface

Behind this name, there is something, most interesting for every proud owner of an Ibanez, Squier or Roland Synthesiser Guitar. It is the name of the biggest manufacturer in Japan and the No. 1 in the world for a long time. Meanwhile Korean manufacturers like Samick produce a higher quantity. The Name is "Fuji String-Instruments" like the highest mountain in Japan, the Mount Fuji with 3778 meters.

 

But first of all, how did it come to this report? It isn't written by one of the long approved staff of Fachblatt Musikmagazin. It is written by a japanologist, who is by the way, a "guitar-maniac". To get familiar with the Japanese language, I took part in an exchange programme off Tübingen's partner university in Hiroshima, Japan.

 

Now, books for language instruction, in any language and in any country , have one in common, they are pretty boring. As a substitute, I red Japanese music-magazines and any literature about it available. A little small talk with local dealers of music instruments provided the necessary insider information. To be up-to-date, what is going on in the world of musical instruments in Germany, friends send me issues of Fachblatt Musikmagazin. They were full of information, as usual. When I red the reports about trade shows and instrument tests, I recognised, there is still some deficit.  This would never happen, if the writers had red the manufacturers pamphlets more precisely, the Japanese of course.  Exactly this was the problem. As long there is a pamphlet available in a western language, in contains only a subset of information of it's Japanese original. In Japanese offices, the clerks have a hard fight against foreign languages. So if you translate less, you do fewer mistakes. So I informed the staff of Fachblatt by letter, right away: "I know something, you don't know!". Instead of being ashamed and hiding themselves in the dullest part of the editor's office, they stroke back. They send an express-letter demanding written and photographic material. Having a "big mouth" is fun, unless people ask you to prove it.   

 

Now the most comfortable times as an exchange student in Hiroshima found its end and I had to find something to impress those guys in cologne. So I decided to infiltrate into the backyards of Japanese music industry, write about the real manufacturers. Who they are and where they are was no secret to me any more, but there was another problem. One doesn't knock at the front gate of a Japanese factory and asks: "Hi, may I have a look around here?"

 

In Japan, you are introduced and guided to the next one, until you get in contact with the appropriate person. Without relations, your chances are minimal.

 

One of the local dealers in Hiroshima occasionally send his employees to a training course to Matsumoku, the manufacturer or Aria, Westone and a part of the Fernandes-programme. I asked, whether it might be possible to arrange a visit, using his personal connections.  He responded, this might be very difficult, and anyway he asked whether I have the pamphlets of the new Roland sampling keyboard. I got the impression, he was somehow interested to change topic, A way to say "no" in Japanese.

 

Another Contact to a local dealer was successful. He contacted an acquaintance at Kanda-shokai. One was very surprised about the proposal, but the fact, that I speak Japanese, made things easier.  The promise for a visit didn't come right away. I sent a letter with two copies of test report on Fujigen product like the Ibanez RG 450 SL and the Roland GR 77B/G77. After then, two Phone-calls where enough, and the distribution company arranged a visit of the factory. Now I had a long journey to the mountain region where Matsumoto is located, far away from the Shinkansen-line the Japanese high speed train. Most guitars, manufactured in Japan, are from Matsumoto, 6 of 11 manufacturers are located here. Fuji-Electric and Epson are other famous brands with productions here.

 

In the evening, when I reached Matsumoto, I passed a big advertising space "Westone Guitars". What a waste. This brand isn't sold in Japan at all.  When I arrived, I looked after the address of a guesthouse, provided by the Nagoya tourist information. When I wasn't successful, I asked Omawarisan, the "honourable turn around man". That's the way Japanese call their police officers, because he turns round and round with a bicycle in the district assigned to him. In the guesthouse I was the first foreigner ever.

 

The next day, I wa expected at Fujigen factory. The lady at the reception was very pleased, that I am from Germany. She had a pen-pal in Bremen to improve her English. But she didn't try to give me any performance of her learning progress. I was guided in a very simple furnished room, Then a man in the companies T-Shirt appeared and guided me in the president's office, who was absent this time. My Guide was nobody less. then the head of the department of developing, Mr. Takayuki Hirabayashi, and so the most competent partner a journalist, visiting a Japanese guitar manufacturer, could ask for. The Blade-Shorter-Vibrato for example was one of his inventions. He wasn't happy with this, because this piece, made for Fender, turned out to become company's history from January or February next year on. Although it was Fujigen's own development, conflicts with the licence of Floyd-Rose still remained. In future they will use the Kahler-Fulcrum instead. Mr. Hirabayashi patently listed to all my many questions and guided me to the factory all through the morning. After lunch, another person took over this rule.

 

It was Mr. Fumiaki Yokouchi, the second son of the founder and actual president Mr. Yűichiro Yokouchi. Since the first son decided to stay away from the guitar business and preferred to run a coffee-shop instead,   it was now on Fumiaki to take the role of the crown-prince. His younger brother was at that time in the USA to take training as a guitar-technician. On my question, when the little brother will be back to Matsumoto Yokouchi responded: "If he speaks English". So I went with changing companion through different buildings on the factory ground. Everywhere I was overwhelmingly welcomed by the employees. This is a custom at Fujigen. Paint-shop and wood-cutting are separated from the main factory, so we had to take one of the factory's cars. Besides the building, where bodies where glued from several parts, one could see the flat one story building of Fuji/Roland. This is a joint-venture of Fujigen and Roland, founded for the developing of the Synthesiser-guitar. Where ever I wanted, I was allowed to push the shutter of my camera, but the developing section was restricted area.

 

Mr Yokouchi invited me to play the new Midi-guitar from Ibanez. He gave a sign with his hand to one of the employees working at a big table in the middle of the labour room, to adjust the guitar with all its devices. It was Toshio Yano, one of the three electronic engineers in the developing team and inventor of the midi-guitar himself. Furthermore there are a number of designers like Mr. Hirabayashi. Not all instruments are designed in this room.  The trading-companies of the different brands have their own design divisions. But, they make often use of the computer equipped developing facilities and team at Fujigen. The separation of design divisions assures, that all brands are manufactured under one roof, sharing the same production quality, but technically remain completely different instruments. This is practise among other Japanese manufacturers, too. At this time, there were five brands made by Fujigen.

IBANEZ

This is meanwhile the best known Japanese guitar and frequent subject of FACHBLATT test reports. Pure copies are no longer part of the programme. For Japanese customers, this brand was available from 1982 first. When I visited Japan that year, a pamphlet in one of Tokyo's music stores was the only hint I could discover. From 1970 to 1982 all Fujigen-products for the domestic market took the name Greco, Ibanez for the export.

FENDER/SQUIER

Since April 1982, there exists Fender "Made in Japan". With the brand name Squier one took care not to harm the noble name Fender. According to a treaty of cooperation, all product made for the domestic market, not looking like their US-Counterparts (because of a different combination of pickups or a different vibrato following the Floyd-Rose principal) where called Squier. Lower priced replicas of US models, solely made with Japanese parts where equipped with the label Squier for the export, but sold within Japan with the Fender-label.

 

Since March 1985, there ist a tremendous change. Fender guitars from Japan are no longer hidden behind the Squier-label. Now the Contemporary-series has a small written hint under the Fender-label telling the origin of the instrument. Today Squier is an entry level instrument in Japan. The price is to low, that Fender would like to see its own brand name in full size on the headstock.

 

Beside those models offered in Germany, there are Stratocaster and Telecaster with medium scale and flat fretboard. There is also a goody for Blackmore-fans: a Stratocaster with "scalloped fretboard". Between the frets, it is concave to enable a better vibrato with the finger play. Who is more dedicated to Yngwie Malmsteen from Sweden, would decide on an one peace maple neck, instead of a rosewood fretboard. But one has to be patient until next spring. I asked Yokouchi-san, whether both version will be offered in Germany in future. But, he said, there is now order from USA yet, since it is decided there, what models will be sold worldwide.

ROLAND

The first system of a guitar synthesiser was a joint-venture of synthesiser manufacturer Roland and Fujigen. 1977 it was first introduced in Tokyo and is actual present with the guitar model GR 707 and the bass GR 77 including their ground devices.

YAMAHA

Actually, this is not a descendant of Fujigen. Yamaha stopped guitar mass production in Hamamatsu and moved to Taiwan. For the Japanese market RGX-, Session and RBX series continue to be made here. Fujigen does only do the manufacturing and has no influence on the design at all.

 

As one can see, the programme of all the brands is completely different. Also, the policy in applying a vibrato, all brand go a different way. While Fender (at the moment) uses that one developed in Matsumoto, Greco uses Kahler, Ibanez uses its own Vibrato, but made under the licence of Floyd-Rose.

 

What is never mentioned in Fender's advertisement in Guitarplayer, one can't ignore at a round trip through the factory. The guitars of Master-series (D'Aquisto, Flame, and Esprit) are from Matsumoto. Flame and Esprit are pure Fujigen-guitars.  The rough draft with double cutaway and two humbucker was the premise from USA; the rest did Hirabayashi's team. Curious, they are not offered to his japanese fellow citizen at all.

 

Times, where "Made in Japan" was a drawback in the manufacturing of musical instruments, are over for long time. Here one can see how the quality of Fujigen-Fender relation is developed. While Charvel and Kramer let produce lower cost instruments under their own premise, Fujigen has a major part in the developing and, as one can see at the Master series, not only for the low cost section. Formally, the distribution companies are customers of the factory in Matsumoto. In reality the incorporated companies are tight together through the ownership represented through the shareholders and positions hold in the boards. So the general director of Fender/Japan Chitoshi Kojima is president from Kanda (Greco) and member of the board of directors of Fujigen. The activities of the distribution companies go further. Kanda distributes the Steinberger Copies from Hohner in Japan, and Hoshino effects and amplifiers. The amplifiers are only available outside Japan. Yokouchi-san was really surprised to hear, that I have an Ibanez-amp myself in Germany. He said, he had never heard anything about it, but it wasn't his business anyway.

 

Electronic is made in the factory, as long pickups are concerned. Pickups for the vintage models are made in USA and those for the Contemporary Stratocaster Deluxe (system III vibrato) are custom made from Schaller Germany. Every month 12000 to 15000 guitars and bases leave the plant. About 12000 are manufactured staight here the rest is made by other factories. Some necks and pick-guards for example of a Japanese Fender are made by Atlansia, whose sensational design made furore on the Frankfurt music trade show. The final control is done by Fujigen. They assured to me, that only those instruments and parts matching the standards of those produced in the Fujigen-plant, will pass the control.

 

During the factory tour I missed the production of acoustic guitars. After a loss of 40000 DM every month in 1981, the production was stopped. What a pity, since the quality of those instruments was highly appreciated by the musicians and also Martin, the leading manufacturer off folk-guitars bcame interested. An offer for a merging of the companies Yokouchi senior rejected gratefully. Now, with about 200 employees, it is a bigger medium size company and a yearly turnover of 53 Mill. DM. 80% is earned by the export. The beginning was quite modest today's success far beyond all expectations.

 

If the history of Fujigen had become public earlier to the western public, the term "cowshed maker" would enrich our vocabulary.  Not four wheels had to make place for the entrepreneurship like in case of "garage-maker" Charvel and Apple Computer, it was cattle. To have space for the production, was one reason. The other one was to have the capital stock, necessary for the Fujigengakki incorporated founded in Mai 1960, led by Yűichiro Yokouchi and his Friend Yutaka Mimura.

 

They started with 10 employees in the production of violins. Times changed, so they decided on the production of the more popular becoming guitar two month later. They were not successful with the first delivery, which was send back by truck. A letter of the customer in Tokyo expressed: "At all guitars or your honourable company DO RE MI FA are different. This is not a guitar." The positions of the frets ware completely wrong. How could it happen? Yokouchi was a farmer and none of his employees has ever learned how to play an instrument. With the firm promise to let a disaster like that never happen again. They hired a professor from a university to teach the stuff basics in music theory like tone scales. In December of the year of foundation, one was ready to build the first saleable classic guitars.  Soon, in the next year, theymoved into a new factory building 200 meters and had a production level of 30 guitars per day. Ten of the leading employees changed to the new founded Teisco Inc. in Tokyo. 

 

The first contact with an American E-guitar in one of the capitals music stores, had a deep impact on Mr. Yokouchi. In 1962 the production was extended to this kind of instrument. Trough some dealers Fujigen products came into the US-market first in 1963. The plan was to find a regular access to this market, too. At first Mimura made an US-round-trip. In the following year Yokouchi travelled with eight guitars in his luggage to Los Angeles and New York. That this turned out into a long stay of  six month, wasn't because of disinterest  in his guitars, Yokouchi had to learn English first. His efforts, both in terms of language training and business were successful. From now on the direct export to USA started. The popularity of musician like the Beatles initiated a world wide boom for electric guitars. With a monthly production of 3000 pieces, Fujigen became one o the four biggest manufacturers in Japan.

 

From 1965 on drum-kits where manufactured, too. In the following year a electronic division was opened to produce a fuzz. The demand of production capacity exploded. Since then it was possible to delegate the production of bodies to the Matsumoku company. From now on, it had to be done in the own factory. Matsomoku had other plans. This quite unknown subcontractor with its products Aria, Westone and a part of Fernandez-programme grew up to one of the biggest manufacturers in Japan. The move in 1966 to the contemporary plant eased the situation. The guitar industry of the land of the rising son had a serious crisis in 1968. 80 manufacturers of e-guitars gathered on the market. The two biggest, also bearing the name of its products, became bankrupt. This was the end of the best known Japanese brands of the sixties, Teisco and Guyatone. Under the name of the last, effect devices and amplifiers are available.  In 1969 Fujigens balance sheet showed red numbers, too. The beginning of production of folk-guitars turned out to be the rescue. Electric guitars lost popularity. Fujigen had an advantage over its competitors. It was already experienced in the production of acoustic guitars. Yutaka Mimura left the company on its own will and Yokouchi took the leading position in the company.

 

Until now, so called "buyers brands" were manufactured. This means, the guitars had the name on the headstock of those, who ordered the guitars. In 1970 this policy should be finished and all guitars be clearly identified as a product of its manufacturer.  Two Japanese names where chosen: Greco for the local distribution and Ibanez for the market overseas. Of course, those instruments where replicas of Gibson, Fender and Martin. A first in 1972 invented order-made-system and a 1973 formed team for developing showed relatively early attempts to get further then simply copying. Additionally flat mandolins and banjos enriched the programme. The market share in Japan reached 65%. The reputation of the company improved significantly through order of two famous guitarists. George Benson and Paul Stanley ordered guitars made from Ibanez according to their ideas in 1977. Other artists followed. In the same year, another product was a sensation, a product of a joint-venture with Roland: the GR-guitar-synthesiser. Since only Roland was written on the headstock, only insiders knew that the manufacturer of Ibanez was behind it.

 

In 1980 there was the breakthrough with the cost-performance Blazer series. At least Ibanez said "good bye" to the business of copying guitars. Other brands like Fernandez and Tokai took over this role. From 1981 on the pickups where produced by Fujigen itself.

 

At that time, Fender was very ambitious in settling down in Japan. The vice-director of Fender was in Tokyo and followed an invitation to have a look on Fujigens production facilities. What the hosts didn't know, that there was secretly already done a decision to manufacture Fender guitars at Tokai in Hamamatsu. The modern plant and its advanced production methods in Matsumoto deeply impressed the Visitor. Accompanied by the heads of Kanda and Fujigen, he revised his decision, sitting in the car back to Tokyo and made an offer. In April 1982 finally a contract was signed.

 

First, they started with four lines of models. According to the price level, it should be more or less be equipped with parts of the US-manufacturing. The aim was to gain a 70% market share in Japan. The rest, guitars on a low price level, without any parts from USA, should be for the export and the Fender-logo substituted with the logo of Squier.

 

There where no plans in selling those guitars to the US in the beginning. The 4000 Fender guitars, which streamed into the market every month, changed the whole branch. Whatever the intention of Fender was, it was a heavy strike to all of those copying their brand. The "kings of copying", Fernandez and Tokai had to reduce their product-line. The bankruptcy of Tokai certainly was a result.

 

Now this company (in a smaller scale) is back again. Most important was the behaviour of the Japanese customers. Whoever demanded for the sound of Fender, decided on a product made by Fujigen. Greco, still doing copies, had to remove all replicas from the production line. The yet only outside Japan offered Ibanez guitars had to fill the gap with its original designs. Fujigen grew up from its previous role in simply producing low cost Fender guitars.  The "Made in Japan" supplement on the headstock does not promise a small budget product at all. Even the brand Ibanez is no longer a cheaper alternative to known US-products. It is certainly one of the outstanding  achievements  of this company, to hold its top position not only because of the highest monthly production numbers, it is a achieved by medium and high class instruments, not number crunching product in the low cost section.

 

The visit at Fujigengakki needed almost the whole day. When I said good bye, I saw a Hand coming against me. Shaking hands was something I had trained myself as something not being one of the local customs. After we shake hands, the meanwhile usual bowing procedure followed.

 

The next day, there was another appointment in Matsumoto. Although it was the smallest of eleven manufacturers in Japan, I didn't know, it would need as much time as the today's visit. More about it, you will read in the next issues of FACHBLATT.

 

Written by Rainer Daeschler

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FACHBLATT title page
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Sign to Fujigen plant
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Fumiaki Yokouchi
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Toshio-Yano an his sythesiser-guitar
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Bodies passed the quality control
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Fender D'Aquisto
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Fret shaping
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Fret shaping
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Greco Strat
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Necks
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Humbucker Army
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Ibanez
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Rosewood from India
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Japanese Fender
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Development divison
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NC-router
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Fujigen and trade companies
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Drychamber
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Yamaha headstocks

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