The only makers of katanuki pieces may have to close their doors forever if the pandemic continues much longer.

There all kinds of fun traditions associated with Japanese festivals, but one of the most popular for kids–besides the many food stalls selling sweets, of course–are the festival games, like the goldfish scoop, ring toss, and air rifle shooting. Children all over the country look forward to festivals so they can win prizes from the games.

But one beloved festival activity known as katanuki might not survive the pandemic. Why? Because the company that makes katanuki may be forced to close its doors if it goes on much longer.

Katanuki is a kind of contest of skill and patience. The game is played with small, fragile candy boards that have a picture carved into them, like flowers, daily objects or animals. The designs come in different levels of difficulty, and participants have to try to carefully cut out the picture with a small needle or pin without breaking it. If they succeed, they win a prize, and the higher the difficulty, the better the prize.

These candies, which are made with rice or potato flour, sugar, and food coloring, are mostly supplied by one small, family-owned company known as Hashimoto. They have been making katanuki candies since the 1960s, when they began selling them at kamishibai street theater performances. Though the advent of television meant the decline of kamishibai, Hashimoto weathered the change of times when other katanuki candy makers closed their businesses by selling their candies at street stalls, which soon led to a huge boost in popularity. Eventually, thanks to their savvy business practices, katanuki became popular across the country as a festival game.

Currently, the company consists of just nine people: four of his family members and five part-time workers. Yet still they have managed to supply enough katanuki candies for festivals all over Japan. “There isn’t a clear way of knowing for sure, but I think we are the only domestic company who makes them,” said the company’s current president, Kenji Hashimoto. But that means if his company is in trouble, the whole tradition might be, too.

With the declaration of the state of emergency in April last year, spring festivals around the country were canceled, and Hashimoto realized they would have to suffer losses for spring and hope that summer would let them bounce back. But the pandemic continued through the year, cancelling nearly every festival of the summer and fall and essentially wiping out most of the demand for katanuki candies. Even shops and restaurants that sold them experienced a decrease in business, and Hashimoto’s sales tanked.

Though they hoped stay-at-home orders (Hashimoto katanuki sets can be purchased through Amazon for 775 yen [US$7.50]) would boost sales of their katanuki sets at supermarkets, profits have still been tremendously low, and with a second state of emergency declared and extended, things aren’t looking good for Hashimoto. “We have zero orders for events. It looks like festivals might be difficult this year too. We’ve been surviving by lowering my family’s salaries, but that has its limits, too,” said Hashimoto. “At this rate, we won’t be able to maintain the culture of katanuki.”

Vaccines are on the way, but they may not be approved in Japan for several months yet, so we will probably see spring and summer go by without any festivals. Hopefully katanuki and its maker Hashimoto can withstand the winds of change and continue to provide children of all ages with happy festival memories when all this is over, or else they’ll be yet another decades-old, traditional business to become a victim of the pandemic.

Source: Asahi Shimbun via Kyodo News via Hachima Kiko
Top image: Amazon/ブランド: ハシモト(Hashimoto)

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