The Trouble We Had with Chinese Tenkara Rods

22 CommentsMonday, 15 May 2017  |  PG

There is a big problem that we've not been able to solve when it comes to having rods manufactured in China.

But there have also been plus-points - so it is a pretty complicated picture...

I'm writing this just before we head out to Japan on an epic mission to film a ton of unique content AND go on a mission to discover just what makes Japanese tenkara rods so good. BUT before I get going, I need to start out by saying that this is our personal experience - and may or may not apply in other cases. So, with that said, here's the deal in our personal experience...

The first rods to carry the Discover Tenkara badge have, so far, been manufactured in one of the two Chinese factories that supply a UK tenkara company (Tenkara Centre). We were introduced via TCUK as consultants so that we can provide specifications and test prototypes before production.

Our first move was to take the highest quality (Japanese) carbon cloth used in two rods in the existing TCUK range (the Hayase and the Honryu). These were 360cm long/delicate and 400cm long/big fish rods respectively - and we decided to make a rod to bridge that gap in terms of length and stiffness.

Both these rods were made in TCUK's initial factory and we were able to have TCUK send samples to the new facility with a design brief to come up with a rod that basically split the difference between those two models.

The quality of prototypes that came back were excellent and, with some testing, tweaking and getting the right handle design to counterbalance the blank perfectly...a prototype was produced that we were really happy with...and the price also meant that it should be possible to sell at a profit. Happy days.

Then, when it came to full production, is where the fun starts...because we had not factored in to our costs how long it would take to sort through the batches of rods to check for defects or inconsistencies...Nor did we expect to have a reject rate of somewhere around 30% of the rods that were sent.

So here's what that meant - we had a rod that starts out as clearly profitable; until you factor in the checking time to ensure quality before supplying to clients. On the one hand, the ones that "passed" meant we could supply a really, really excellent rod...but the high reject rate is incredibly costly...and also makes you paranoid about defects that you might not have spotted. This is frustrating, because when manufactured without defects - they are wonderful rods.

Then there came an even larger problem. We noticed in prototyping photos for other rod developers that the handles we supplied for our rods had been attached to their prototypes. At the same time, a strong similarity between the specifications of our blanks and another brand was also brought to our attention by folks doing testing for that brand...

Now, we don't have a way of finding out just how much crossover in the manufacturing process/machinery/mandrels etc. there was in that factory - but it identified a huge problem; there is no such entity in Chinese law as "intellectual property". At the very least it would seem to give a different spin on how they had managed to answer our brief with a high quality first prototype.

So - big problem for us and a big problem for our fellow brand using the same facility!

Neither brand could feel confident that any development wouldn't just leak across into each other's ranges (and there isn't an easy way to combine forces on rod development without significantly cutting into your revenues). 

OK - I expect if you are able to order big enough batches of products on a regular basis then it would make financial sense for the factory to provide more exclusivity...But when you are building up from a standing start that isn't going to be the case!

That is a pretty good summary of the problems we have had with developing rods using the two major tenkara rod factories in China - but what would be the positives?

Well, if companies are able/willing to spend the time and money sitting hard on quality control, it means that good volumes of affordable tenkara rods can be brought to market. This is excellent news for the potential to grow the tenkara community. There is a vital place for this capacity - and the hobby that we are so passionate about would not exist without it.

It also needs to be stressed that other people (either in the same or in other, unknown, facilities) may have very different experiences with those factories. It is only possible for us to describe our own experiences.

That does bring me to another point; while there is that vital role for affordable kit - I think there is a critical balancing factor that cannot be ignored...

If tenkara is to thrive, develop and provide lifelong fascination for folks who do it regularly (and not just one or two weekends a year as part of another activity)...then there has to be more than entry-level to mid-level kit. There's a need for people who are willing to seek excellence and continual incremental improvements to provide the best possible experience at any point in time.

It is too easy to see how mainstream fly fishers in the West may automatically overlook tenkara as trivial and a poor second to "real" fly fishing when the tenkara industry outside Japan only consists of the cheaper Chinese production rods.

That is why we are taking on a quest to see if we can develop and market a high-end Japanese-made tenkara rod. We might fail, but we will certainly have fun trying. At the very least, the Japanese manufacturing practice of having all components checked as they come off the production line will mean that me and JP can spend more of our time testing them on-stream and also continuing to produce and share the wealth of authentic tenkara information that we are always discovering.

Chris Stewart at Tenkara Bum has shown that it is possible to approach and work with Japanese producers as a Western company - so we are on a mission to develop our own relationships with other Japanese producers and bring our own specifications and preferences to a continually-developing range of high-end rods.

Again, to be absolutely crystal clear -  this is not to "put down" existing tackle and brands (the whole range of producers across the board is vital to the global tenkara community). We do believe, though, that the strengthening and expansion of widely-available top end Japanese rods is one essential component of tenkara's future that is currently under-represented.

I hope you enjoy coming along on the ride (even if it ends in a fireball wreck) - we think it is best to skid in sideways with your hair on fire and a good stiff drink in one hand than to slowly grind to a halt with a quiet fizzle.

Just don't tell my bank manager that...

 

Paul

 

PS Let me have your thoughts in the Comments below!

 

 


David Noll
Monday, 15 May 2017  |  23:06

All I can say is "Wow". Good luck in Japan.


PG
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  0:50

Thank You David - we hope to bring some incredible stories, footage and techniques back


PG
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  11:09

Thanks David! We have lots of stuff planned - but things change all the time (and then there is weather and the rest of mother nature to contend with too). Very sadly, both Saitou-san and Sebata-san have been taken seriously ill and we are unlikely to be able to meet with them as we had planned. I am awaiting news of their conditions so that I can pass it on to folks who I know will want to know.

Paul


Akai
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  0:07

Very interesting article. I would expect reject rate to be high with Chinese producers but I would not expect 30%. And intellectual property sharing...what a nightmare!!

Anyway , at this point I am really looking forward to see what will be the result of this quest for excellence!

Good luck guys!


PG
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  0:53

Grazie Akai - I look forward to catching up with you on our trip and I am full of hope for future experiments with rods


Luke Jennings
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  2:29

Daiwa make very good, high-quality rods in China, which have been very well reviewed. I've got one! But I guess they have a lot to invest in r & d


PG
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  11:11

Hi Luke - yes I reckon once you are a big enough company you can probably set up a facility in exactly the same way that it would be run in Japan (and employ people to make sure the systems are all applied at all times).

Paul


Dom
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  6:06

I really appreciate the attention to quality that your approach is taking. My opinion is that there are enough people willing to spend more money on "quality" products to make production, sales and distribution a profitable endeavor. Please continue with your mission orientation so that quality Tenkara gear is accessible to the market. My rod is manufactured in Japan, it's a Nissin pocket mini V3 360. I purchased the rod through Tenkarabum. I fish one or two days a week, and I truly love my Tenkara fishing experiences. Thanks Paul & JP for you contributions to the Tenkara community! Love from Texas


PG
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  11:12

Dom - thank you so much for your very kind support; it certainly helps to give us confidence to take a good swing at this.

Texas Tenkara 4 the Win :)

Paul


Peter
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  6:43

I suspect the problems are not confined to Tenkara rods!
Regards.
P


PG
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  11:14

Very Possibly Peter - we don't have manufacturing experience outside that sphere though, so impossible to say. And as I mentioned to Luke; I think it ought to be possible to create the right system there - but you'd need more capital than we have right now.

Paul


Joakim Karlsson
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  7:21

Very interesting read. And it's an interesting perspective what quality gear can actually mean to tenkara. It might seem gear-centered, but it has a good point. Cause whilst Jimi Hendrix could have rocked any guitar out there, there's a reason he used Fender Stratocasters and Gibson models. Great gear doesn't make you great, but if you master something you will want a fine-tuned instrument to use.

Jimi used right-handed models while playing them left-handed, that doesn't apply to tenkara rods. Yet.


PG
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  11:17

Totally - the paradox with things like tenkara is that the challenge is to become skilled enough to use any old stick - and then express that fully with the very best gear. When those two combine together that is when you can have the ultimate experience.
Again, while they are a vital component of the whole guitar "ecosystem" it would be a shame if you could only buy Squire and Epiphone (which are some great guitars and very fit for purpose...) without still having access to original Fender and Gibson...

Paul


Mark Sutton
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  7:43

I have an oni 1 with bamboo handle. Perhaps an agreement with masami would be a good way forward. They are sold in France but with brexit import duties again!
Can't fault the rod!


PG
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  11:25

Your rod is very good; well-balanced and great to cast with Mark (the famous Oni casting skills).

We are looking to cover different ground so that we are not "reinventing the wheel" though. Hopefully the tenkara angler will be well catered for in terms of the range of conditions that different models of high-end rods will be able to tackle as the variety of rods expands.
First start with the fish and then work backwards though! There is no point in creating something new that doesn't have a very specific role and function.

"Form Follows Function"...a wonderful motto from the Bauhaus art and design movement :)

Paul


Ian Aitchison
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  10:04

It is exactly the same in Shipbuilding, cheating with NDT, plans from Chinese nationals working in Korea sent home. China at the moment does not understand QC, they will produce and say does it work, yes or no, the whole concept of QC escapes them. My former company has had colleagues that were threatened if they leaned too hard to improve QC. Remember it is still totalitarian state and depending where folk are in the pecking order has a huge bearing on results to improve matters. Good luck


PG
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  11:27

Cheers Ian - a very interesting parallel experience and perspective. I'm quite glad that I don't need to come up with the capital to design and build a ship mind you!! :) :)

Rods should be easy by comparison...ha ha.

Paul


Neil McGhee
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  13:07

Your Hakusan & Otani rods are great guys! As I improve I think that I can appreciate the conditions where each rod excels. Tough that the business side kicks your plans.


Oleg Stryapunin
Tuesday, 16 May 2017  |  14:51

Paul,
Please let me remind you that DAIWA manufactures their perfect Tenkara Expert rods in China.
SHIMANO makes its very high quality Tenkara ZL rods in China too.
That means that propper Quality Check can be introduced in China and it is the duty of the brand holder.
Probably it needed more effort to find the right factory with propper QC approach.
P.S. The butt cap of your rods looks similar to Shimano Tenkara ZL, designed by your big friend Hisao Ishigaki.
Sure you've ask him for the permit due to your approach to "intellectual property".
Sincerely yours
Oleg


Steve Wilson
Wednesday, 17 May 2017  |  3:29

First, let me thank you for your remarkable instruction and information. I am new but feel that I am getting the bet information available. As to rod making, I believe you should approach the creation of rods very carefully. Building rods that can be purchased at Walmart will never build the sport and maintain the standards that you gentlemen have established in your work. Having your own rod line may be lucrative but as you said, Chris Stewart at Tenkara Bum has illustrated that there is an appetite for the beautiful and functional Japanese rod. I am new to the sport and not accomplished but why would I purchase any rod without the reputation of such companies as Nissin. I am not attracted to the sport because of economy.


Iain Gibb
Wednesday, 17 May 2017  |  11:42

Hi Paul, firstly thanks for the lessons and blogs - they are superb. I come from a pharmaceutical and clinical trial background, but never worked in China. However, I did learn a bit about brands from my marketing colleagues. Top end consumer brands control both their Quality Assurance and Control really tightly, if you cannot do that in China, then do it elsewhere. In fishing as in most other things, there is a market for high end kit, with fewer sales at a much higher price for superior quality. You need to decide whether you are aiming at those with the funds for that, or further down the price scale in an attempt to introduce Tenkara to a wider audience. My personal guess would be that the latter is reasonably well served, so you have much more business competition there, but seriously high end Tenkara rods don't spring readily to my mind (I'm no Tenkara expert though and not immersed in the Tenkara world) - I think your market research needs to be rock solid to found the basis for your next move. High end luxury branded goods aim at the Chinese market for sales, but usually get manufactured far closer to home........


David West Beale
Thursday, 18 May 2017  |  15:13

I really think this is a positive step forward and wish you every success. Perhaps too there is scope for distributing genuine Japanese tenkara rods from established manufacturers here in the UK?