A Century-old Japanese Company’s Quest to Enhance Living Environments through Shikkui Platser
The city of Tagawa, located in the Chikuho region of Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu (southern Japan), once flourished as the region’s coal capital and is rich in so-called “black diamonds” of coal, as well as the “white diamonds” of limestone.
Limestone, when baked in high temperature kilns and mixed with water, forms slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), the main raw material for “shikkui” plaster used around the world since ancient times as the base layer for fresco art and for building walls. In Japan, it has been the traditional building material for the cultural properties like shrines, temples and castles, and for many of the residential and commercial buildings for hundreds of years.
Tagawa Sanyo Co. is Japan’s largest producer of shikkui, established in 1924. The company’s historical factories are located on a huge 40,000 square meter expanse of land, where they have continued to stand in their original form. Initially, the firm manufactured calcium carbonates for rubber fillers and food additives, as well as slaked lime. In 1964, Tagawa Sangyo made a name for itself by coming out with a major commercial invention – Japan’s first ready-to-use shikkui product, “Shirokabe (Castle Wall).”
In 1988, Nobuyoshi Yukihira became the third-generation president of Tagawa Sangyo. Upon taking the helm, he acknowledged the continued demand for raw materials, but also predicted limited growth potential for a business based solely on simple material manufacturing.
“I wanted to find something that truly set us apart as a firm, that made us not only the best in the industry, but also the most unique,” Yukihira said.
With this in mind, Yukihira focused on research and development of new products and in 2002, his efforts bore fruit, with the long-awaited completion of “LIMIX,” the world’s first unbaked plaster tile.
LIMIX is manufactured by applying 4000 tons of pressure to slaked lime in an airtight environment, without the use of any kind of heating equipment nor any binders. Comprised primarily of natural calcium composites, the product inherits the moisture-controlling, odor-voc absorbing, anti-bacterial and incombustible properties of shikkui, but can also be freely colored and designed.
While the history of shikkui is long, there had never been an unbaked product that could replicate the strength and feel of marble without usage of resin, as could LIMIX. Soon after its release, the product was awarded numerous Good Design awards, as well as the 2007 Prime Minister of Japan “Monodzukuri Nippon Grand Award.”
LIMIX is currently used in high-end residences, commercial complexes and public facilities. Initially designed as a material for walls, there has recently been increased demand for its use as a floor material, given its price competitiveness as an alternative to artificial marble.
Even after the release of LIMIX, Yukihira continued to pursue new ways to realize and apply the full potential of shikkui in new products. Some of his unique creations include the “Lumie Cube,” a natural deodorant for homes which combines the odor-absorbing functions of shikkui and air-purifying photocatalysis into chic interior design, and the “ecopo,” an ecological DIY flowerpot made with shikkui. The company also manufactures products that mix in traditional shell lime and linen for use in cultural sites, such as the World Heritage sites in Nagasaki.
At the end of 2018, Yukihira’s son, Shimon, came up with a product for individuals amid the growing Do-It-Yourself boom in Japan, revamping the image of shikkui being a material used by traditional builders and professional plasterers. The product is playfully named NURI2 (Nuri, means paint in Japanese, and nuri squared, or nuri-nuri, is an informal way of expressing the act of painting), to capture the image of families participating in DIY work together. He is also currently developing a product that mixes in the smell of cypress.
In August 2019, Tagawa Sangyo opened a showroom in Fukuoka to display its various shikkui products and provide a place where visitors can experience the atmosphere created by shikkui first hand. Not only does shikkui deodorize the surrounding air, it can also absorb volatile organic compounds that are harmful to human health, such as formaldehyde, the main cause of sick building syndrome. The material also generates very little static energy, which results in attracting in less dust. Given the environmentally considerate properties of the products, Tagawa Sangyo became the first Japanese firm to receive the US and the EU based Cradle to Cradle Certification (C2C)*. Yukihira believes that demand for such sustainable building material will continue to grow, not only in Japan, but abroad.
Before taking the helm of Tagawa Sangyo, Yukihira worked for six years in Singapore as a system engineer for a Japanese software firm. It was this experience abroad that sparked his strong desire to spread the benefits of shikkui to countries outside of Japan, from his start at Tagawa Sangyo.
While the common English translation for shikkui is lime plaster, Yukihiro continues to deliberately use the Japanese term shikkui, so as to establish the word globally and market the brand. The company also on-boarded Paul Reibold, a German national who was studying in Japan, to help the company communicate in multiple languages through its website and marketing materials.
Little by little, the firm is making progress in receiving orders from abroad and accumulating experience in providing material for high-end residences in the US and the UK. In order to meet potential large-scale orders from overseas, the company has developed a product which can be sprayed on, without the use of a trowel. The firm has also recently been receiving visitors to its factory from Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore and Australia.
“We understand that an overseas presence is not something that can be created overnight,” said Yukihira. “We need to steadily and carefully accumulate our experience in global markets.”
His words underscore the philosophy of a tried-and-true century-old firm that is looking to keep on prospering in the years ahead.