Japan is home to the world’s premier airbrush brands, but how much do we actually know about the manufacturing industry behind these brands? I decided to do a little research, and here’s what I discovered about the Japanese airbrush industry:
Anest-Iwata is, of course, the most widely recognized Japanese brand, and for valid reasons: they have global reach, they offer a comprehensive line of industry leading products, and they’ve been around for a very long time. How long exactly? Well, the original company, Iwata Seisakusho, was founded way back in 1926. They began by making industrial spray guns, and, later, small-sized air compressors. Today, they’re a major conglomerate, offering a wide range of industrial products. It may be difficult for hobbyists to fathom, but airbrushes are merely a sideline business for Iwata.
Iwata’s published history recounts each significant step of the company’s rise, yet says absolutely nothing about airbrushes. Not one single word! There are no photos on Iwata’s website showcasing their production of airbrushes – no trace, whatsoever, that they actually manufacture the airbrushes which bear their name. Instead, they showcase production of large-scale industrial equipment. You have to drill fairly deep into the Anest-Iwata.co.jp website before finding any mention of airbrushes, then you encounter vague text like “all Iwata products are manufactured to the highest standards without compromise”. If they were the actual manufacturer, wouldn’t that read something like “We manufacture Iwata products to the highest standards without compromise”?
Iwata’s ambiguous choice of words is worthy of note, because you often hear the claim “all Japanese airbrushes come from the same factory”. I was always a bit sceptical of that, but I understood why people said it; there’s an undeniable resemblance between Japanese airbrush brands. I figured that was maybe the result of each manufacturer sourcing their parts from the same small pool of outside suppliers, but I presumed each company, at the very least, undertook their own final assembly. That’s often how manufacturing works in other parts of the world, but Japan’s manufacturing culture is unique. The deeper I looked, the more I agreed most Japanese airbrushes do likely come from one, single manufacturing site.
A little-known airbrush brand is RichPen. While looking into their history, I made the breakthrough into locating the source where Japanese airbrushes likely come from. RichPen is the house brand of Fuso Seiki, another Japanese industrial products manufacturer for their line of airbrushes. What’s different about Fuso Seiki/RichPen is they actually say they produce their own airbrushes, and not only that – they’re not shy about stating they make airbrushes for other companies too.
Fuso Seiki traces their history back to October 1956. Perhaps, not so coincidentally, that’s about the same time another airbrush brand, Olympos, got their start. Of all Japanese brands, I find Olympos the most intriguing. From their establishment in the mid to late 1950s, they were the brand others were measured against. Not only that, they were true innovators, with cutting edge designs like their Micron line of fine detail airbrushes.
Micron? Is that anything like Iwata’s Custom Micron? Yes, precisely! Olympos was the company which originally designed the Micron line of airbrushes, precision manufactured for them by Fuso Seiki. It was a winning combination until around 1985, when Olympos suffered a major downturn.
Picking my way through various translations, it seems the original Olympos founder wanted/needed to step down into retirement. And why not? For thirty years, he’d lead his company’s rise to becoming Japan’s top airbrush manufacturer. Not only did they enjoy unparalleled success in their domestic market, they’d also built a growing and loyal following around the world. In the end, though, Olympos was still a family run business, and from what I can determine, there simply was no other family member capable or willing to assume leadership of the company. The decision was made, therefor, to drastically downsize the company, and licence away all of their most successful designs. Iwata bought the licences to Olympos’ designs, and that’s when they started marketing the Custom Micron and many other successful models. I believe Fuso Seiki continued handling the manufacturing process, simply changing the name engraved on the sides of the airbrushes to Iwata. Because all these airbrushes shared a common manufacturing source, an extremely high level of parts interchangeability remained. It was, in large measure, thanks to the shared designs amongst Japanese airbrush brands that parts for Olympos airbrushes remained available.
Jumping ahead to July 2008, Olympos announced a “transition phase and management restructuring”. Olympos was back in the market – though not at anywhere near the same level they were at originally.
In early 2016, Toshiya Takeshima, a Japanese airbrush artist became the new face behind Olympos. He’s now the sole owner. His own website displays photos of shipping containers full of Olympos products, and he’s named as the owner of Olympos’ online store.
Tamiya also markets higher end airbrushes, and Mr. Hobby just introduced one of their own. In both cases, the resemblance to offerings from the other Japanese brands is obvious. B.B.Rich is a defunct Japanese brand, but the Olympos website mentions parts for some of their own models as being perfectly suitable substitutes.
So, there we have it. Although there are many Japanese airbrush brands, indications strongly suggest Fuso Seiki is the one production source for most of them. It’s important to remember, with the sole exception of Olympos, the selling of airbrushes is only a minuscule part of each parent corporation’s business. To major corporations like Iwata or Tamiya, airbrush sales represent only the tiniest fraction of the overall annual sales. That being the case, why bother establishing a production facility? Surely, it makes much more sense to contract the work out?
This is how I believe the Japanese airbrush industry is structured. I’d welcome your thoughts and comments.