Interview: Japana, Ladies with Japanese Knives
Meet the ladies of Japana, three ambitious women from Poland with a passion for Japanese knives. Their story is an inspiring one, and with passionate ambitions to bring you the best and sharpest Japanese knives, crafted by expert blacksmiths in Japan, these are women who have overcome many challenges in a competitive Japanese market.
Tell us a bit about your brand - who you are and what inspired you to set up your company?
Kamila: We are three friends fascinated by Japanese culture and its art. Anna Szymczak is my high school friend and when I suggested we should start a company together, she agreed without a thought. I met Anna Czarnecka on a plane to Thailand 4 years ago and we bonded instantly. Anna Czarnecka is an interior and product designer. My core background is in technology and management, I have been running another business in robotic automation field, but for some time I was missing working on something more tangible, with a soul. Japanese knives and whole history around them was a perfect fit for another company with a great mission.
It happened that my fascination with Japanese Damascus steel knives was born over two years ago, when I was looking for a Christmas gift for my partner. The price and offering of Japanese knives in London's Knightsbridge store weren’t appealing, so I decided to go to the source. Although it wasn’t easy, I managed to find a Japanese blacksmith who crafted for me a custom gyuto - chef’s knife and engraved inscription in Katakana for my partner. The knife was beautiful and the price very affordable, so I started considering it as a business idea. I talked about potential cooperation with my long time friend Anna Szymczak. Fascination with the culture of Japan, the achievements and strength of the Samurai women - called onna-bugeishas convinced us to create a company inspiring women and men, offering unique, high-quality products.
Anna C: We are inspired by onna-bugeishas as they also had to pave their way to be accepted in the Samurai ranks and prove their worth. Same with us, we constantly need to be taking risks with starting new projects, following our passion as well and just putting ourselves out there, despite all the difficulties and cultural differences. It takes a lot of courage and we think that an entrepreneur has got to have something from a warrior: to never give up, fall down and raise up again – getting stronger and stronger. So sometimes we feel like modern onna bu-geishas.
Why should we be using your Japanese knives? What are the benefits?
Anna S: Japanese knives are of superb quality, extraordinary sharpness that lasts and the designs are beautiful and one of a kind. Most of the knives that we sell are hand made, so each is of a slightly different appearance which I find very interesting. They are a result of hundreds of years of tradition, so when you are using these knives, you just feel it. It’s not just a simple knife that you can buy everywhere, these knives represent a lot of beautiful values that I truly admire. When you start using Japanese knives, you will not want to use different knives. They are just unique.
Did you face any obstacles accessing a Japanese market?
Anna S: We have had many different problems, ranging from organisational issues, lack of time due to each of us working two jobs, to cultural differences, which proved difficult to overcome, especially at the beginning. The way of doing business in Japan is completely different than doing business in Europe.
Our first major supplier refused to cooperate with us overnight and stopped all deliveries only because we subtly complained about the long processing time. Now we have a completely different approach, we are more delicate in dealing with our Japanese suppliers. We also had issues with the competition, which in this industry is extremely strong and plays quite unfair. We had a situation where well-established stores forced blacksmiths to break contact with us at the risk of them ending cooperation. And because they have been ordering knives in much bigger quantities than us (as we were just starting out), they had much stronger leverage, therefore they could afford a lot more.
Do you have tips for first timers who want to purchase and maintain their knives?
Anna S: It’s difficult to answer shortly, but first of all they should start from choosing a steel from which their first knife should be made. There are many different types of steels that have different parameters and the maintenance can be more or less absorbing. The shape and length of the knife are also very important. For less experienced users shorter blades are more recommended. The appropriate maintenance, eg. sharpening or storage is crucial when it comes to knives. Japanese knives, when taken appropriate care of, will last for years.
What other sorts of products do you stock?
Kamila: In 2016, we started offering handcrafted kitchen knives imported from different parts of Japan. Two months ago we have started creating our own products focused around knives, so called satellite products, such as magnetic strips, ceramic vases, and soon we will release our own series referring to the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi - fixing broken pottery with gold urushi lacquer. All our kitchen and home products are based on materials from which the knives are made: steel, wood and stone.
What are your plans and goals for the future?
Anna C: Just like Kamila mentioned, our first collection of products for the kitchen and home is based on the kintsugi art. Working as an interior designer, I would like to create products that will please the eye and sooth the other senses. We have plans to launch products such as carpet, mirrors, decorative pillows and other accessories. After the Kintsugi collection, we plan to release Katto (eng. cut) collection. Products based on an asymmetrical design.
Kamila: In the long-term, we want to promote and dominate market of Japanese and Japanese-inspired products, from kitchen and home products to the high-end clothing line. We have a lot of ambitious plans!