No ink starts off mouldy, and our Inky Mess of this article is no different. Wancher is a household name for many non-Japanese fans of fountain pens. From some of the first exclusive Sailor pens available to the non-Japanese pen scene to lower priced urushi pens that caused major waves on Kickstarter, Wancher has cemented itself with a semi-legendary status in pen imagination. However, the Wancher name also often accompanies a shroud of mystery and rumblings of shady business practices. In this article, I aim to shed light on both the history of Wancher as well as the darker underbelly of its business.
In order to understand Wancher, we must track the origins to a man named Okagaki Taizo, the person behind the business. According to Taizo himself, the story of Wancher begins in 1984. It is unclear as to how exactly Taizo got into the pen business, but money was everywhere in Japan at the time. The economy was booming and Japan was about to enter into the famous Asset Price Bubble (1986-1991). If there was ever a time to get into the fine writing instruments business in Japan, it is hard to imagine a better time than the years when people were making their fortunes overnight.
The fountain pen world was also moving with excitement. Platinum had released their first version of the famous 3776 in 1978. A few years later, Sailor released the 1911/Profit model in 1981. In 1985, just a year after Taizo got into the business, Pilot released its first flagship round top pen – the Custom 67 – which would become the precursor and basis of all future Custom series pens to this day. It was under the backdrop of these economic times that Engeika was established by Okagaki Taizo.
The early years of Engeika are not documented. Given that Engeika was run out of Oita, far away from either Tokyo or Osaka, digital records are unlikely to exist for this period of Engeika’s history unless Taizo himself publishes it. The earliest mention of Engeika as an eBay seller that I could find on Fountain Pen Network was from 2006, so my guess is that he had started to become active on the auction platform around the turn of the millenium. Very soon after, Engeika became known as a trusted source of Japanese fountain pens. Moreover, Engeika was CHEAP, and even had a period with $0.99 starting bids on some products. It did not take long for Engeika to become the talk of the forum. The same products were already more expensive outside of Japan, but Engeika managed to provide the same pens for prices often 20-30% off of the already comparatively cheaper Japanese prices.
What I describe next is not specific to Engeika, and I cannot confirm that this is exactly how Engeika procured his products, but I want to spend some time discussing Japanese business practices. Although far less common now, Japanese business culture is known for “relationship selling” rather than “value selling”. What this means is that your personal relationship with your business counterpart is often far more important than the actual bottom line that the business relationship produces. In other words, if you were familiar with the counterparts’ salespeople, and potentially even their executives if you were a high volume customer, you could easily expect to have almost any reasonable request fulfilled. In the Japanese business culture context, it would not be difficult to procure products at all. Even today, the y.y. pen club and the Wagner pen group are able to commission custom Sailor pens in rare shapes and finishes at ridiculously small lots, not to mention the plethora of random retailers across the country.
When manufacturers produce products and sell them through a retail distribution channel, the products are usually sold to the retailer at wholesale price. In my previous life as a luxury fashion buyer for an external retailer, that margin for the retailer to make was around 50% at Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) assuming that the retailer would assume risk of the inventory bought. MSRP, therefore, is truly just a suggestion, at least in technicality. Retailers can theoretically discount their products however much they want, since the inventory now belongs to them as does the risk. In reality, Japanese vendors almost never stray from MSRP unless they are having a liquidation event, such as a sale. It is therefore relatively unheard of that a Japanese vendor would take advantage of the unspoken rule of respecting MSRP, even more so when they also take advantage of the difference in pricing between countries. Of course, the world was and continues to become more globalised, so it is natural that customers would find the cheapest ways to purchase products. To the manufacturer, their overseas sales is most often made via a distributor. This means that they sell their products to the distributor at wholesale price, while the distributor sells the products to the retailers at distributor price. When you add up the margins and the logistics involved, Japanese items sold outside of Japan can easily compound in cost.
Bringing the story back to Engeika, it seems that Engeika was able to provide such ridiculously cheap products to the non-Japanese audience by sacrificing their own margins, while manufacturers either did not know about or turned a blind eye to what was going on. As long as Engeika had inventory, which would have been easy enough if they went out drinking with the salespeople whenever they would be in town, then he would be able to turn a profit on his wares by focusing on the overseas market. This model trades profit margins for volume, which clearly worked in Engeika’s favour. The Japanese domestic market retailers and manufacturers could really only blame themselves for not taking advantage of the internet at an earlier time.
This is where the story gets weird. According to Taizo again, but this time on the Wancher website, Taizo got into the fountain pens business while working in Egypt on the government funded ODA projects in 1990. Taizo claims that he “research[ed] and develop[ed]” for 10 years before launching his stationery company as THT Inc.. Taizo goes on to claim that he renamed THT Inc. into Wancher Inc. in 2011, at least more than 4 years after the first mention of Engeika on Fountain Pen Network. Interestingly, no mention of Engeika here, even though it was already obvious that Taizo owned and operated Engeika.
If you thought that was weird, the true origins of Wancher were in China. Wancher was established some time before 2008 under THT Inc. as a company to import Chinese fountain pens into Japan. In fact, the name Wancher comes from a corrupted pronunciation of the Chinese words “萬佳” (wanjia), which means “ten thousand auspicious things”. However, this part of Wancher’s history of important affordable Chinese pens is no longer anywhere to be found on their official website. What happened to Wancher’s Chinese fountain pen business is unclear, only that Taizo decided to completely pivot away from that business in order to focus on the mid to high end range.
Evidently, Wancher began to actively distancing themselves from this part of its history completely aside from the name. Instead, Wancher became known for its ability to pull strings to create limited edition pens with Japanese manufacturers. Wancher churned out many hits with Sailor, including the Hawaiian Ripe, Purple Rain, Shamrock Green, Inca Rose, and more. Platinum also did two great looking pens with Wancher: the Lantern and the Nyhvan.
Taizo continued to operate Engeika while also simultaneously running Wancher. However, trouble would strike soon. In 2013, reports on Fountain Pen Network suggested that Engeika no longer stocked Pilot products. Further troubles in late 2016 when people on Fountain Pen Network started to complain about Engeika. Engeika was no longer the golden child of the overseas market. Very much the opposite, long time buyers had started to warn against Engeika. However, Wancher became a name mentioned on Fountain Pen Network as early as 2012, the new darling of the overseas pen collector.
In 2016, the same year when folks started to complain about Engeika, suspicions of unethical business activities started to arise. User kenshiro of Fountain Pen Network remarked that Wancher was selling items that were not known to exist in the Autumn of 2016. Whether Wancher was selling the item in question is likely lost to the annals of internet history, but rumblings were starting to emerge about their business practices.
2018 can be considered the positive turning point for Wancher. In January of that year, Wancher launched it’s most ambitious project yet: the Wancher Dream Pen on Kickstarter. The premise of the project was simple enough. Wancher announced to the world that their goal was to bring affordable urushi and ebonite pens to the market, claiming that modern urushi pens are too expensive due to marketing and middlemen. They claimed that they were going to cut down the costs, but never compromising on quality, by going straight to the source. In short, this project was wildly successful. At over 32 million JPY raised and 21800% funded, this might be one of the most successful pens in Kickstarter history.
One might be led to believe that these pens were made in Japan by traditional Japanese artisans if one reads their spectacular marketing copy. The Kickstarter project begins its copy by referencing reviews that read like the following (below extracts are from the actual reviews, not the excerpts on featured on the Kickstarter itself):
“Let’s start at the beginning. With The Dream Pen project, Wancher set out to make a true ebonite and urushi fountain pen at a competitive price (and even a Maki-e version, albeit at a serious premium). At the same time, they want to honor the Japanese craftsmen who specialise in Urushi and Maki-e, by including them in the manufacturing process instead of turning to large scale industrialized production methods.” – The Pencil Case Blog
“The goal of the Dream Pen is to make the Japanese urushi and maki-e artistry available “without the luxury markups.” In other words, Wancher is taking aim at a lower-cost market segment disregarded by the likes of Platinum and Nakaya, whose urushi pens start around $700 and move very quickly into the thousands for the more intricate and complex designs. While the Dream Pen is certainly not inexpensive, Wancher’s pricing ($350 Kickstarter / $450 retail) is more in line with what you would pay for a custom Edison or Newton pen with similar specs.” – Gentleman Stationer
“If there is any pen style that makes my heart go pitter-pat it is Japanese urushi pens. Keep that in mind as I discuss this pen because by nature I am predisposed to like it. This is the perfect style of pen for my tastes. Normally, just saying the words “Japanese” and “urushi” put dollar sign thoughts in your head, and rightfully so. The Wancher Dream Pen itself is expensive, but relative to the time it takes to manufacture one of these pens and where similar pens in the market are priced, this one is intriguing.” – The Pen Addict
The campaign then cuts to an introduction of the company with the words “MADE IN JAPAN TO THE WORLD” immediately beneath, discussing a magazine feature that Wancher was in, allowing the reader to imply what they will from the text.
A video further down the page that features Taizo himself starts off with the subtitled text “Japanese Ebonite fountain pens, especially the ones with Urushi, have extremely high price tags”. Interestingly, the actual Japanese words spoken are “一般的に、エボナイトで作られて、漆が施された万年筆の価格はとても高いです”, which translates into “generally, urushi lacquered fountain pens made of ebonite are very expensive”, and that the English hardcoded subtitles refer specifically to Japanese Ebonite fountain pens, while the actual spoken words do not.
Even the names of the Wancher team specifically have Japanese names in brackets next to their casual names, which might lead one to believe that these are Japanese people who have come back from abroad, or who are second/third generation Japanese youngsters to are repatriating to Japan. However, only Taizo appears to be a Japanese person in that team; Tony, Melody, and Gao are Vietnamese and do not appear to go professionally by their “Japanese” names at all according to their Linkedin profiles.
The entire campaign seems to try to imply the idea that the pens and the urushi application are made and done in Japan by craftspeople and artisans without specifically and outwardly claiming that the pens are made in Japan. In particular, they point to Wajima urushi and spend copious amounts of time discussing trips to Wajima and sharing photos of Wajima urushi studios on their backer updates.
The only place that they specifically claim that their pens have urushi application by “Japanese traditional craftsmen in Wajima” is in a press kit video, never to be mentioned again. They also never specify the studio that they claim to do their urushi application.
More likely than not, the Dream Pens were not made in Japan at all at this time. It should be likened to Apple’s “assembled in California” claims, because almost every single part is made and crafted outside of Japan, although Japanese lacquer might indeed have been used.
In the “MADE IN JAPAN TO THE WORLD” part of the campaign, the link below that reads “click the picture for more information” leads one to the Japan Finance Corporation‘s (JFC) website without further context. Wancher’s own marketing copy makes no specific reference to the pens themselves, only that the magazine called “MADE IN JAPAN TO THE WORLD” had featured them. So what is “MADE IN JAPAN TO THE WORLD”? The magazine is a once a year publication by the Japan Finance Corporation, which is a government owned corporation that is, in their own words, “a comprehensive government-affiliated financial institution“, not one of traditional industry.
Given the name of the magazine, one might think that Wancher was recognised as a company who is bringing products made in Japan to the rest of the world. However, the link in Wancher’s Kickstarter campaign deceptively links only to the JFC’s English language landing page, and not the article itself. With a little digging, I found both the online version of the feature and the full PDF of the magazine.
Pulling directly from the article, the original Japanese includes a section as reproduced below:
「万年筆はペン先、本体など、いくつかのパーツに分かれる。同社では、各パーツを国内外から調達している。例えば、ペン先の素材はドイツや日本で仕入れ、本体のエボナイトは台湾の職人が削ったものを仕入れる。そして漆塗りはベトナムで、という行程が同時に行われる。最終的に各パーツは日本で組み立てられて、製品が完成するのだ。」- Wancher feature with Japan Finance Corporation
The translated version would roughly read as follows:
“Fountain pens are separated into different parts, such as the nib and the body. This company sources domestically and from abroad. For example, the nib materials are from Germany and Japan, while the ebonite body is turned by Taiwanese craftspeople. At the same time, urushi application is done in Vietnam. Finally, all the parts are assembled in Japan, which creates the complete product.” – Translation of Wancher feature with Japan Finance Corporation
So it becomes clear that it is not the case that Wancher’s Dream Pen have urushi application by Japanese traditional craftspeople at all. A thorough reading of the feature with the quasi-governmental organisation has Wancher telling the organisation that their goal was to bring the expertise of foreign craftspeople to this product. This information is corroborated by a Wancher customer (anonymous to protect their identity) who had asked Wancher directly about the place of lacquer.
Then why would it be that Wancher was featured in said magazine, and what does it have to do with the Kickstarter? The answer is in their business timeline, which was outlined in the same feature. Wancher had received money from JFC as part of the JFC’s program to support Japanese companies who had ambitions to expand abroad (and especially to China and the ASEAN countries). In the timeline itself, it is written that Wancher received funding in October of 2017 in order to develop their own products. The products that they were developing was evidently the Dream Pen.
It is important to recognise here that Vietnam has a long history of lacquer work. I have no doubt that Vietnamese lacquer craftspeople can produce works of art at the highest level. However, the way that the campaign itself relies on deceptive marketing of misleading features that link to nowhere. Backer updates about trips to Wajima even though the work itself was not done in Wajima and the outright claim that the urushi application was done by Wajima craftspeople likely have many backers believing that they were purchasing goods made in Japan at too good to believe prices.
Off the back of their successful Kickstarter campaign, Wancher started an aggressive campaign in 2019 to sell restored vintage pens at what they marketed to be great affordable prices starting from 100USD. They sent pens out to influencers and bloggers to drum up the hype, claiming that an expert pen maker Nishio had collaborated with them to restore the pens and that they were one of a kind products. I do not know if Nishio san had actually collaborated with them, but I do know that according to Nishio san himself, the prices of a pen restored by Nishio san range from 2,000JPY to 6,000JPY. How can Nishio san offer such ridiculous prices, you ask? Because these pens regularly sell for a few hundred yen at flea markets and second hand auction sites. We effectively have Wancher fleecing the overseas market at multiple magnitudes through smart marketing and withholding knowledge. Nonetheless, these pens became hugely popular and word of these pens spread across forums such as Fountain Pen Network and Reddit.
Since these two campaigns, Wancher has continued to push forward with urushi releases, now recently becoming more forthright with their Vietnamese connection, but still misleadingly features alleged Wajima urushi craftspeople’s names. To non-Japanese people, this may look like evidence that Wancher is using Wajima craftspeople for their products. However, the urushi industry in Wajima is highly controlled and traditional. First of all, all urushi craftspeople in Wajima work as part of a studio or workshop called “nushiya”. Nushiya are producers/companies that strictly control the process of Wajima urushi, and each craftsperson is responsibly for a singular aspect of the urushi application. For example, the division of labour is such that there are craftspeople who specialise in base layers, others in maki-e, and yet others in uwazuri. Indeed, there are craftspeople who specialise in polishing. These craftspeople do not step beyond their defined boundaries and become the foremost experts in their division. This is how nushiya control the consistency and quality of Wajima urushi. In fact, the rules of Wajima urushi are so strict that urushi application on anything other than wood cannot be considered Wajimanuri, but only urushi applied in Wajima. Therefore, it is highly improbable that Wancher use any Wajima craftspeople, and even if they did, it would be near impossible to single out craftspeople as they do on their website. To be clear, I do not know without any shadow of doubt that their pens are not being lacquered by craftspeople in Wajima, but given the strict rules and traditions surrounding Wajima urushi, I am inclined to believe that they are not.
Rewinding a bit, as Wancher began to become an actual branded retailer working with the manufacturers in a much more visible way, it would get harder for Wancher to continue the kinds of discounts that Engeika offered. Enter the establishment of the PenSachi brand in 2014. According to the PenSachi website, PenSachi was founded by a man named Katsumoto Ken (I could not verify this person’s existence outside of the PenSachi website).
Initially, PenSachi seemed to follow Engeika’s business model of offering standard line pens for a marginal discount, taking advantage of their smaller business size and flexibility to offer good prices to overseas buyers. They also offered Wancher’s pens at a slight but decent discount, something that was not available on Wancher’s own website. When I asked PenSachi of their connection to Wancher, they denied it. However, upon further investigation, the connection could not be clearer.
Customers of PenSachi noticed strange things with the company. Whenever orders came from PenSachi, the name on the shipping label was Wancher. I did some digging a few years back and, interestingly, PenSachi’s eBay description also specifically said that they were part of Wancher.
Furthermore, companies in Japan have a publicly searchable company registration number. Wancher’s can be easily found online, but PenSachi does not have any such record. The final nail in the coffin that convinces me of PenSachi and Wancher’s connection is the DHL account that PenSachi uses to ship orders. Whenever customers noticed that their PenSachi orders would come from Wancher, PenSachi would claim that DHL made a mistake and accidentally printed Wancher instead of PenSachi. Given that the labels are electronically generated and connected to the shipper’s account, this wouldn’t be possible from a technical perspective. Moreover, DHL in Japan requires corporate accounts to provide their company registration number. In other words, it is impossible to open a DHL corporate account in Japan without such company registration number. Given that PenSachi does not have a company registration number, it wouldn’t be possible for PenSachi to even open a corporate account with DHL in the first place. Not only this, PenSachi’s Paypal invoices also came from Wancher, most likely for taxation purposes. Yet, despite this, PenSachi vigorously denies their connection to Wancher. Provided the evidence that exists, I conclude that PenSachi and Wancher are deliberately obfuscating their relationship.
This is all very strange on the surface, so I decided to look into the PenSachi’s website for regular production merchandise, Wancher merchandise, and non-Wancher retailer exclusives that they sometimes have on their store. The first thing that I noticed was that PenSachi was changing the names of the limited edition pens that they were selling.
I also looked into the pricing to see if I could notice anything strange, and in fact I did. PenSachi’s average mark up on regular production Sailor merchandise was 4%. If they really operated as a personally owned business, it would be impossible to purchase from Sailor at wholesale price, and they would need to sell on average 2 pens per day, or 540 pens per year to pay the minimum wage of a single employee before profit. Moving to Wancher branded Sailor pens, the average mark up is 14%, which is a better margin, but still requires sales of 478 pens per year to pay a single employee. When looking at the non-Wancher retailer exclusives (selected from Kingdom Note and Nagasawa), the mark up jumps to an average of 53%, which is much more in line with a retailer’s margins, and only requires sales of 114 pens per year to pay a single employee.
The natural question is why non-Wancher retailer exclusives have such a large margin difference to the rest of the product line up? If a retailer were to look at the margins of the products, no sane retailer would continue to stock up so heavily on low margin inventory the way that PenSachi does, unless they could get those products at wholesale price. Only if we are to believe that PenSachi and Wancher are in fact one and the same company does the pricing and the merchandising on PenSachi have a business case from a margins perspective.
However, as dubious as everything above seems to be, Wancher’s adventures into sub-brands and hiding behind other names does not stop at PenSachi. Within Japan itself, Wancher operates under the names of PenLife and Hunnyhunt. These two are actually one and the same, the former serving as Rakuten’s storefront (notice the hunnyhunt in the store url) and the latter usually used for Wancher’s auction account. The fourth sub-brand that Wancher operates is called Pen Wing Stationery.
On the surface, Pen Wing Stationery is a purveyor of urushi fountain pens. However, even a cursory look at the wares seem to reveal shockingly low prices. Even well known pen authority Richard Binder originally described the artwork as “screen-printed on” before revising his post, which is actually not uncommon for lower tier urushi work such as Platinum’s Wa Preppies series or the Sailor x Ca.Crea pens.
In reality, these pens are decorated with stickers and then covered with some kind of cheap transparent lacquer and passed off as “modern Maki-e”. This kind of behind the scenes behavior which is intended to deceive the consumer misleads what the product is: a sticker put on a pen to make it seem like it should have a higher value than it does. Pen Wing Stationery justifies this by claiming this as an “original (in house developed) technique” while at the same time calling it similar to “Kindai Maki-e” used on Platinum’s lower tier screen printed pens. Using obfuscating jargon, they hide the reality of their practices behind the description of “ultra-thin golden/colorful paper decals”. The truth is that these decals are simply cheap stickers that can be bought at around 4-7 USD each on Amazon or Yahoo Marketplace.
So where is the connection between Pen Wing Stationery and Wancher? The key is held by their sub-brand Hunnyhunt/PenLife. On their Rakuten store, there are no Pen Wing Stationery products, but on their Yahoo Auction listings, it becomes extremely clear that the assortment available only includes products that Wancher and their sub-brands sell, including Engeika watches, Pen Wing Stationery “customized pens”, and Wancher exclusive pens themselves.
A further investigation into the product assortment of PenLife reveals that Wancher has been taking parts from their Sailor exclusive pens and “inventing” new exclusives that were never created by the factory.
For example, “Hutt Lagoon” is actually a mix of parts from Aqua Blue and Hawaiian Ripe, whereas “Cafe Latte Brown” is actually a mix of Ivory and Mocha Brown.
In other words, Wancher has been artificially creating demand around made up products that they deliberately make difficult for customers to research, while circumventing the official process of creating special edition pens. All this is done to sell slow moving inventory with a new twist, and to gain for themselves a competitive advantage versus other stores who have to work with Sailor for many months before a special edition can be approved. It is important to notice that these pens are NOT sold on Wancher’s main site and only through the sub-brands.
During the early days of @jp__select, I also suspected the two to be connected, but there is not enough evidence yet to firmly link the two as there is PenSachi and the other sub-brands.
While in the earlier years, Wancher had been fairly liberal with admitting their connection to sub-brands such as PenSachi, there has been an active campaign on the brand side to scrub the outward connection. However, the surrounding evidence is too great to ignore, especially when one considers how eerily similarily all the Wancher websites are built. The model with multiple shop fronts would theoretically allow Wancher to maintain relationships with manufacturers while pretending like they don’t know about the less than ethical practices of their sub-brands. This allows them to control inventory and churn out slow movers while inflating demand at the same time at the expense of the buyers, who think that they are purchasing rare items.
The question that remains is how we, consumers, should deal with Wancher and its sub-brands. Most Japanese retailers in the industry already refuse to do business with Wancher as far as I am aware. The deeper the investigation, the more skeletons emerge from Wancher’s closet, so I suspect that nobody will truly know the full extent of Wancher’s web of deception. However, it is true that Wancher does provide decent prices to the non-Japan based buyer. Additionally, it is also true that Wancher does a lot of good in their local community, providing jobs and even charity work with local students.
Cases like Wancher make the decisions of conscientious consumers very difficult. I have no doubt in my mind that Taizo doesn’t see anything wrong with what Wancher is doing and what Wancher has become. Indeed, Taizo probably believes that they are doing the right thing, and yet, if they are, why are these activities and connections so shrouded in mystery?
Although I admit that Okagaki Taizo and Wancher have done a lot of good for connecting the fountain pen world in their earlier days, as well as now with charitable local initiatives, we are responsible for choosing who we associate and work with. Should you, the reader, continue to support Wancher after knowing all of this? I am not here to answer that question in one way or another because only you can decide what you want to do with this information. That being said, I personally want to steer clear of doing business with the Inky Mess that is Wancher.