It may not be what you think
One of Japan’s leading cast iron cookware companies, Oigen Foundry, a member of the Nambu Tekki Cooperatives Federation of Iwate, Japan, recently announced that the group had lost its eight-year battle in Chinese courts to retain its “Nambu Tekki” trademark. (‘Nambu’ is a Japanese name, ‘tekki’ the Japanese word for ironware.) In China, the right to use this venerable Japanese brand now belongs to a “third party.”
Why this is significant to Japanese manufacturers, and to those wishing to purchase high-quality, Japanese-made ironware goods, is multifold. Before discussing these ramifications, let’s briefly review the history of Japan’s Nambu Tekki industry.
A Long and Illustrious Tradition
Cast iron kettles and cookware are a traditional industry of Iwate Prefecture, in Northern Japan, where iron casting has been practiced since Fujiwara clansmen built the northern capital of Hiraizumi, in the year 1090. Many of Japan’s oldest foundries, and the finest of its artisanal producers – including families in continuous production of these goods for over 400 years – are clustered in this region, where iron-bearing sand, carbon for coking, and good clay (for casting molds) are found in abundance.
Nambu was the name of the lord and clan that controlled this area during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), when the fluorescence of Japanese arts, including the Tea Ceremony, created new demand for chagama (ceremonial tea kettles) and other refined cast iron merchandise. It was at this time that the Nambu brand gained prominence throughout Japan.
The first association of local producers using the Nambu Tekki name was established in 1948. In 1972, this group was renamed the Nambu Tekki Cooperatives Federation of Iwate.
Along with their exceptional durability and artistic craftsmanship, Nambu Tekki kettles are said to soften the flavor of water, and infuse it with traces of iron, an essential mineral often lacking in the modern diet.
The Current Situation
The appropriation of the Nambu Tekki trademark by a third party in China is a potentially damaging turn for Japan’s cast ironware producers, who have already been hit hard by a deluge of cheap, mass-produced replicas of questionable quality and material purity. Now, ironically, genuine Japanese goods can no longer be exported to China under the original brand name.
One can safely say that, outside Japan, the Nambu Tekki name – which once represented a heritage of uncompromising quality – has come to symbolize the immoral and rapacious character of modern global business.
Perhaps more importantly, the sanctioned theft of this trademark has allowed these low-quality knock-offs to be deceptively marketed as “Japanese Nambu Tekki.” How serious is this deception? A search of “Nambu Tekki” or “Japanese cast iron teapot” on Amazon.com will produce dozens of results, all labeled as “Japanese Nambu Tekki teapot” in the product description, yet nearly all fakes – low-priced knock-offs using original Japanese patterns and designs.
To the eye of an ironware expert these copies might be laughably obvious, but what about to the father in Minnesota, looking to buy his daughter a graduation present to take to college, or the frugal tea-lover in London or Singapore, seeking the health benefits of a pure cast iron kettle of the highest quality?
Think about it.
And for collectors considering the purchase of an heirloom or antique Japanese teapot – perhaps in a rare, square-shouldered mozuya form, or a classic turtle shell shape, possibly with the traditional hailstone surface pattern, or a lovely stallion and cherry blossom motif – be advised that online auctions like Ebay, and all the rest, are infested with forgeries and counterfeits. Don’t be fooled. Even on the streets of Tokyo, great care must be taken when shopping for genuine Nambu Tekki.