Japan Pulp & Paper’s business is not limited to being a distributor (primary wholesaler) for paper manufacturers. It can also realize the new potential of paper and support and maintain paper distribution networks in regional areas.

Secondary wholesalers, known as "merchants," are the key to doing business in the Tohoku region, located in the northeastern part of Japan's main island of Honshu, and the stage for this issues’ topic. Merchants in the paper distribution industry are businesses that maintain stock and delivery functions and sell various kinds of papers including printing paper, paperboard, and communication paper to printing companies, publishers, general companies, and the local authorities. Printing companies and publishers use various styles of paper for a variety of purposes, and in many cases, the paper can’t be delivered in the large bulk form in which paper distributors, such as Japan Pulp & Paper, purchase it from paper manufacturers. That's why merchants provide detailed services, such as cutting the paper into small lots and delivering it in accordance with the customer's needs. A characteristic of merchants in the Tohoku area is that very few businesses deal with just paper alone, with many also often selling other items such as office supplies.

To date, the Tohoku Sales Department at Japan Pulp & Paper’s Kitanihon Branch has had a history of working with merchants and other customers in the region, which will remain unchanged. Local customers will continue to serve as the key to its business.

Japan Pulp & Paper’s slogan is “Paper, and beyond.” It is a phrase that expresses the company’s attitude to continue to move forward together with paper and to what lay ahead. The future is what is important; however, the future is supported by the present and the past. Our future business will not succeed if we do not value the relationships of trust that we have continuously built with our customers in the region. Still, it is also clear that we will not be able to survive with our past business practices alone. To continue to support paper distribution in Tohoku, the Tohoku Sales Department is eyeing a circular society while contemplating something new as it now faces a time to transform.

Ko Wakameda

Japan Pulp & Paper Co., Ltd.
General Manager
Tohoku Sales Department, Kitanihon Branch

Tomoki Kawabuchi

Japan Pulp & Paper Co., Ltd.
Sales Section 1, Tohoku Sales Department, Kitanihon Branch

(Job titles and departmental affiliations are current as at the time of this interview)

Paper Distribution in the Tohoku Region Today

In 1961, the company opened its first base in Tohoku, renting office space at the Sendai branch of Akazawa Paper, a merchant and valued customer based in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture. “Collaboration with merchants was indeed the origin of the Tohoku Sales Department,” says Wakameda. From its inception to the present day, wholesaling has remained the cornerstone of our business in the Tohoku region.

Wakameda’s assignment to Tohoku Sales Department was announced on the day before the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. This unexpected disaster was a huge blow to the business in Tohoku that saw a particularly sharp drop in population. While paper demand in the region had been around 2% of nationwide distributor results when Wakameda assumed his post, the figure now stands at about 1.6 to 1.7%. “I’d heard that sales had been favorable until March 10, 2011,” Wakameda said. “Then the disaster struck, and the Tohoku region was severely affected. The momentum of the past has never recovered, and a decrease in paper demand caused by advancements in digitalization and other such factors has further exacerbated the problem.”

Then, to make things worse, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Another characteristic seen in Tohoku is the demand for paper associated with events such as the Sendai Tanabata Festival and Aomori Nebuta Festival. However, the cancelation of these local events has dramatically decreased the volume of paper sold.

Despite various ongoing negative phenomena, including fewer local jobs, Wakameda offers a glimpse of his positive stance. “It might be correct to say we have no choice but to look for opportunities in areas other than sales of printing paper, but I see this as an environment that allows us to focus on creating new schemes.” In Tohoku, many merchants have long histories. Wakameda is prepared for his Tohoku Sales Department to continue to unite as one and make every effort to prevent those histories from coming to an end.

Proposing Products that Answer to Customer’s Needs and Coordination with Manufacturers

In the Tohoku region and other parts of Japan, besides providing a stable supply of paper, a crucial role played by Japan Pulp & Paper is that of cultivating demand. Examples of that include introducing new products and making sales method proposals. Bearing in mind the trend to move away from plastic in recent years, Kawabuchi has focused his attention on Nippon Paper Industries’ LAMINA®. Kawabuchi introduced LAMINA®, which originally comes in roll form, to the limited number of merchants in Tohoku that can cut rolled paper and together succeeded in stimulating potential demand.

In addition to LAMINA®, Kawabuchi proactively proposes biodegradable and renewable materials. Among such materials, Kawabuchi notes Oji F-Tex’s SILBIO BARRIER, paper material with barrier properties for packaging without plastic that can curb oxygen and water vapor leaks.

Kawabuchi is never off guard when it comes to coordinating with manufacturers. To enhance precision levels, he makes it a rule to gather information from various sources in different directions, both within and outside the company, gain a firm grasp of the details, and offer only the information he judges to be accurate to manufacturers. He is prepared to always be on the alert for the latest information available in the Tohoku area for which he is responsible and from Tokyo, where the paper manufacturers’ head offices are located.

  • Heat-sealable LAMINA® paper that can be used for creating packaging from paper alone

Our Role:
To Support Merchants from Various Perspectives

As mentioned earlier, festivals in the Tohoku region and paper consumption are closely related. Narumi-Kamiten, headquartered in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, supplies approximately 80 percent of the shoji paper used for Aomori’s famous Neputa festival. Narumi-Kamiten became a part of the Japan Pulp & Paper Group in August 2021 and serves as a good example of the trust relationships the Tohoku Sales Department has continued to build. “It’s thanks to those who have come before me who have been responsible for the Narumi-Kamiten account at our Tohoku Sales Department that we’re where we are today,” Wakameda says. Continuing to grow from the foundation that our predecessors built—that’s the mission imposed on the Tohoku Sales Department, and it is substantial. To date, Narumi-Kamiten has been focusing its efforts, first and foremost, on community-based service. Its addition to the Japan Pulp & Paper Group will blend its solid sales network in western Aomori with the group’s broad array of products and planning strengths and open up new possibilities. To change expectations to certainty, the Tohoku Sales Department will continue to respond to increasingly complex requests from customers and contribute to maintaining paper distribution networks in the region.

Merchants in Tohoku are no exception to the nationwide trend of a decreasing demand for paper, and they have no choice but to seek other new products. As part of such efforts, Kawabuchi has also proposed AIRead from Arise Innovation, part of the Japan Pulp & Paper Group. Kawabuchi stresses that AIRead, a tool that handles everything from the digitalization of ledgers to system linkage, enhances work efficiency by migrating from analog to digital and will also become a new product for merchants to sell. He considers eliminating paper for some business tasks inevitable and is set to boost his contribution level by gaining more knowledge of DX.

Initiatives for Resolving Issues

Anticipation from local merchants mounts for resolving logistics issues, which are a significant challenge for the industry as a whole. “Many warehouses owned by the various merchants are so huge that they’re incomparable to those in Tokyo. At the same time, the decrease in demand for paper and changes in delivery patterns have made it more difficult to maintain the logistics function. I hope that we can build a new system of joint deliveries and storage taking advantage of this situation. Nothing would make us happier than acting as a bridge between competing merchants and working together with them to resolve the common challenges we all face within the industry,” Wakameda said.

It may not be long before the future image that Wakameda has been envisioning for some time becomes a reality as he is also considering collaborating with JP Loginet, a logistics company and pioneer in coordinated deliveries that is part of the Japan Pulp & Paper Group. If joint deliveries could be possible with other companies in the same industry, it would reduce wasted time and costs and improve efficiency. “Further decreases in the population on the back of the decreasing birthrate and an aging population is bound to intensify the workforce shortage. Therefore, there is an urgent need to create a new logistics framework to resolve such social issues,” Kawabuchi says while also contemplating “joint cutting services” for boosted efficiency in the cutting process.

Looking Ahead

Wakameda is counting on the ability of Kawabuchi and the other young sales personnel to cope at the front lines of business while also seeing plenty of room for them to grow further. “I look forward to every one of them becoming dependable and irreplaceable to their community,” he says, aiming to develop them into the leading team in the Tohoku region in both name and reality. Wakameda’s ultimate objective is to maintain the paper distribution network in the area and create an organization that can offer the wonders of paper to society.

We must not let the old ways die out, however, for the future it is essential that we take on new challenges. It has become more evident than ever that we cannot survive with the previous business models alone. While it is undeniable that there will be resistance and opposition to change, extra ingenuity, perseverance and the will to never give up, and the ability to make proposals that can win the nod of other parties will serve to break through current conditions. The Tohoku region and the whole of Japan are facing difficult times, but the Tohoku Sales Department will work together with merchants, end-users, and converters, and continue to flexibly take up the challenge as one team.

The information provided herein was current at the time of its announcement.
Please note that this information may be subject to change without notice.
[Published on May 25, 2022]

Japan Pulp & Paper operates two e-commerce sites.

One of them, Paper & Goods (https://www.paperandgoods.com/), deals with media for on-demand digital printing, mainly targeting stores, factories, and offices. The site currently handles more than 8,000 items. For printer paper, it has everything from copy paper commonly used for laser printers to large format printer paper for professionals. The lineup also includes label stickers, films, non-woven fabrics, inks and toners. In addition, there is a wide range of other products such as general paper items, partitions, antibacterial products, and other hygiene-related goods.

In 2019, the company also launched Paper & Green (https://www.paperandgreen.com/) as a new e-commerce site to help promote the use of environmentally friendly products by collecting and disseminating related information through the sale and introduction of environmentally friendly products. In addition to products made from paper, pulp, and wood, the site also offers a wide range of environmentally friendly products made from bioplastics.

We asked Messrs. Tokoshima and Yamashita, who have been involved in these sites, about the background of the sites’ launches, features, the value they can provide by being operated by a paper trading company, and their future prospects.

Paper & Goods
Hiromu Tokoshima

Digital Solution Group, Functional Materials Department 3, Functional Materials Sales Division

Paper & Green
Takeshi Yamashita

Sustainable Solution Group, International Sales Division

(Job titles and departmental affiliations are current as at the time of this interview)

The site was launched over 20 years ago

The launch of Paper & Goods dates back to 2001. In addition to being the company's first e-commerce initiative, there was no one skilled in this kind of business at the time, so the company had to start from scratch. In 2015, Tokoshima took over the e-commerce business from his predecessor, but “at first, we did things like SEO* and tried to improve the purchase conversion rate based on our own intuition” (Tokoshima). Through repeated trial and error, the site gradually grew, and in 2016, the company entered into a capital and business alliance with Matsumoto Paper, which also manages an e-commerce site that handles paper products. Then in November 2017, it opened a store on Amazon Business, strengthening its ability to attract a wide range of customers.

* SEO is an abbreviation for Search Engine Optimization, which is a general term for efforts to make a site appear higher in search engine results and gain more traffic.

On the other hand, Yamashita, who was in charge of new product and application development in 2017, has been working on many projects to replace plastics with paper from the perspective of sustainability. Yamashita says, “Of course, it is necessary to respond to growing environmental needs, but first and foremost Our mission is to take the initiative in widely promoting environmentally friendly products”. Because of this, the company decided to add an e-commerce channel to further promote and sell environmentally friendly products as part of its business.

Thus, at the end of 2018, the Sustainable Solutions Group was born. Then, in September 2019, Paper & Green was launched in order to uncover needs more directly than before and to more widely promote environmentally friendly products.

High level of expertise and meticulous response of a paper specialist

What value do these two sites provide?

Users who visit Paper & Goods can order not only paper and other media from the extensive lineup, but also ink, toner, household paper, and office supplies all from the one site. This is extremely convenient for users of our site, as print media is becoming increasingly diverse and there are more and more instances where orders must be placed with several different vendors these days.

“As the e-commerce site of a paper specialist, we can respond to diversified business needs in terms of dimensions, thickness, color, and lot size,” (Tokoshima). We also respond to inquiries received on the site in detail, including sending samples from time to time.

In addition, because we deal directly with paper and material manufacturers, we’re able to deliver up-to-date product information obtained from manufacturers directly to users. “We are able to sell directly to end users and get an immediate response, so we sometimes receive requests from clients to sell their products on the Internet and collaborate with clients to develop product introduction pages and post them on our site” (Tokoshima).

We have the advantage of being able to reach a wide range of customers, and we sometimes directly contact and visit users who have made frequent purchases from our site.

Using detailed explanations to differentiate products

Yamashita explains the value of Paper & Green: “It is the same as Paper & Goods in that we provide products carefully selected through the eyes of a paper specialist on an e-commerce site where users can select, decide, and purchase products on their own”. For Japan Pulp & Paper, the ability to approach a wide range of customers is similar. “Through this site we can reach a large number of users, including those who could not be reached through conventional sales channels”, Yamashita said.

There is also value unique to being a site that deals with environmentally friendly products. “Some environmentally friendly products are still in a developmental stage, during which it is often difficult to capture the market immediately. We are receiving more and more requests from suppliers, who want to make their information widely known, to introduce their products on Paper & Green” (Yamashita).

On the other hand, Yamashita says that because they deal with environmentally friendly products, they need to be creative. “If you simply compare their functions, some may be inferior to existing products. That's why we try to provide detailed explanations on our site so that each environmentally friendly product is not buried under other products” (Yamashita).

Looking to expand beyond the boundaries of the group and national borders

Paper & Goods has recently been focusing on disseminating its message by distributing digital newsletters and updating its blog. In addition to its mainstay products such as inkjet and laser printer paper (copy paper), the site is also focusing on products that are not generally noticed, such as field notebooks and traditional Japanese Zori sandals made from washi.

As Paper & Goods continues to evolve, what kind of vision for the future does Tokoshima have in mind? “One thing I want it to become is an e-commerce sales and marketing platform for the Japan Pulp & Paper group,” says Tokoshima. Taking advantage of the value in being able to connect directly with users online, Paper & Goods aims to collaborate with the Japan Pulp & Paper group.

The site is also looking to expand beyond the boundaries of the group. “We hope to help our customers diversify their businesses by listing the products they handle, including those of paper merchants throughout Japan and other customers with whom we do business. In the near future, I would also like to do cross-border e-commence so that we can capture overseas demand” (Tokoshima).

Playing a part in demonstrating the new possibilities of paper

On the other hand in relation to Paper & Green, Yamashita, who has been dealing with environmentally friendly products for a long time, says that he feels there’s been a change in the market recently. “In addition to big themes such as “protecting the global ecosystem”, more and more people are focusing on issues that they can realize closer to home. I have the impression that many people are beginning to engage in environmental activities by starting from what they can do themselves” (Yamashita).

Yamashita says that it is precisely because of this that paper, as a recyclable material, is attracting renewed attention. “There are many things that paper was originally used for that have been replaced by plastics and other materials. Furthermore, it is possible to return to the use of paper without significantly changing the production and manufacturing schemes and without incurring much cost” (Yamashita). The opportunities for paper products to be used in fields where they have never been used before are also expected to increase in the future. “I hope that Paper & Green can play a part in demonstrating the new possibilities of paper to society through the introduction of new products” (Yamashita).

The information provided herein was current at the time of its announcement.
Please note that this information may be subject to change without notice.
[Published on June 30, 2021]

In the paper distribution business, secondary wholesalers, known as "merchants," sell various kinds of papers including, printing paper, paperboard and communication papers to printing companies, publishers, general companies, government offices, and other paper users.
Printing companies and publishers handle various styles of paper for a variety of purposes, and in many cases, the paper can’t be delivered in the large bulk form in which paper distributors (primary wholesalers), such as Japan Pulp & Paper, purchase it from paper manufacturers. That's why merchants provide detailed services, such as cutting the paper into small lots and delivering it in accordance with the customer's needs.
The Paper Merchant Sales Division at Japan Pulp & Paper supplies paper to merchants in Tokyo and the surrounding areas. We asked Takuo Furukawa, General Manager of the Paper Merchant Sales Department, about the basics of the paper wholesaling business, the challenges it faces, and what Japan Pulp & Paper is working on to solve them.

Takuo Furukawa

Japan Pulp & Paper Co., Ltd.
General Manager
Paper Merchant Sales Department

After a few years in the company, Takuo Furukawa was transferred to the Paper Merchant Sales Department, where he worked in sales and management positions. After 14 years he was seconded to a subsidiary paper merchant, where he was involved in the company’s restructuring. After returning to Japan Pulp & Paper, he was transferred to the Corporate Planning Department. During his 6 years in corporate planning, as he watched demand for Printing and Communication Paper continue to decline Furukawa worried about the tough time his old Paper Merchant Sales Department would face in the future. Then in 2018, Furukawa returned to the Paper Merchant Sales Department as its general manager.

(Job titles and departmental affiliations are current as at the time of this interview)

Backing up Merchants to Ensure the Reliable Distribution of Paper

The most important function of a paper distributor is to ensure that the paper produced by the paper manufacturer gets distributed. In order to build and maintain sales systems to do this, paper distributors support and back up their customers, the merchants, in a variety of ways.

Of course, the Japan Pulp & Paper Group is no exception. One example is the creation and provision of a specialized core IT system for paper distribution through JP Information Center Co., Ltd., a group company that develops IT systems, to support the management of merchants.

Furukawa says, "We were able to implement this initiative because of our close relationship with merchants.” Historical transactions with merchants still support much of Japan Pulp & Paper's sales. The number of employees involved is relatively large within the company, and the company has built up trust through detailed sales activities.

Responsibility to Maintain a Consistent Stock and Supply of Paper

Paper distributors also serve as a link between paper manufacturers and merchants' customers, such as printers and publishers. Furukawa says, “The mutual relationship between paper distributors and merchants ensures the stable supply of paper.” Japan Pulp & Paper provides printers and publishers with information on manufacturers’ production plans and industry trends, while providing paper manufacturers with information on printers and publishers’ paper usage schedules and inventory status. In the event of a paper supply scare, such as the recent spate of natural disasters and sudden incidents, every possible means will be used to ensure that the production of printed materials and publications does not stop.

“The business itself is still much the same as it used to be years ago," says Furukawa. However, in addition to factors such as the declining birthrate and the shift to digitalization, just as with other industries, the paper industry is also struggling due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic. The way we use printed materials is changing due to changes in the way we work and new lifestyles. In the future, we can expect a further reduction in demand, and paper manufacturers may shutdown machines and consolidate their brands. Even under such circumstances, paper distributors will continue to be responsible for providing merchants with a stable supply of paper. “If we don't do that and secure our customers, I don't think we will survive," he says.

Issues for Merchants Revealed by the COVID-19 Pandemic

As high-mix, low-volume paper usage becomes mainstream, Furukawa says that the functions provided by merchants in their detailed response to customers, such as cutting and delivery, will continue to be necessary to meet the needs of customers.

However, the business environment for merchants is becoming tougher as competition intensifies amidst the world's increasingly stringent demands for cost reductions. And while the problem is not limited to paper distribution, the shortage of drivers supporting Japan's logistics network is getting worse every year.

This is compounded by a sharp drop in demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There have been voices pointing out the problems in logistics for some time, but with more than 100 companies competing in Tokyo alone, no merchant has been able to make any moves to improve the situation. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems that all of this has come to the fore at once.”

In addition to the logistic challenges, many merchants in the Tokyo metropolitan area have been troubled by business succession issues and poor business profitability. Besides the lack of successors, merchants are facing the problem of how to proceed with the succession and continuation of their businesses. The reason for the low profitability is due to the intensified competition resulting from the large number of players in the market, but another reason is that the system itself was designed to make it difficult to grasp the profitability of each customer's transactions. This is something that Furukawa understands having been seconded to a merchant, and why he was so quick to tackle the issue.

Working to Improve the Added Value of Merchants and Streamline Logistics

“With the demand structure dramatically changing, now is the time to create new value and work on further streamlining.” Furukawa feels that there will unfortunately be quite a few merchants who decide to give up on their businesses due to the sudden decrease in demand. There will also be some business owners who will consider business consolidation or major restructuring. “We don't want to make the industry a place where those who are working hard lose money.” With Furukawa taking the lead, Japan Pulp & Paper has begun to take action.
To date, together with JP Loginet, Co., Ltd. a group company that provides logistics services, Japan Pulp & Paper has been supporting merchants to improve their business efficiency through “JP Co-operative Logistics”, an organization that it established to share the logistics, storage, cutting and processing functions that used to be handled by merchants. Recently, it has been exploring ways to further streamline its operations from an IT perspective together with JP Information Center. Japan Pulp & Paper is also discussing with merchants to explore ways to increase the added value of paper, while at the same time getting merchants to review the value of their logistics, storage, and cutting and processing functions themselves. Furukawa asks all merchant business owners to once again sell paper as the valuable product that it is. Because he knows the functions and inner workings of merchants, Furukawa feels strongly that it is his mission to spread the word to help strengthen the corporate structure of each merchant.

Providing "Paper, and beyond Tools” to Support Customers

Japan Pulp & Paper is also trying to accelerate another initiative. The idea is to offer merchants "Paper, and beyond Tools," or non-paper products, as a way to breakthrough a difficult business situation.

For example, software packages that automate the paperwork done by government offices, food and cosmetic trays made from materials that contribute to a reduction in the use of plastic, and such items as electrodeless lamps to replace mercury lamps at printing plants and warehouses. Utilizing the collective strength of the Japan Pulp & Paper group, we provide a wide range of products and services sourced from within and outside of Japan. Basically anything that has the potential to expand a merchant's business without being limited to paper.

Furukawa says that for a long time the culture at Japan Pulp & Paper has been to become the first person merchants look to when they have a problem, even if it's not paper. There is a lot of business to be made in responding to that.

The situation continues to be tough. “I think it's important to keep coming up with new suggestions rather than saying to our suppliers, 'You're in a tough spot,'" Furukawa says. Furukawa returned to the Paper Merchant Sales Department in 2018, just as the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The unprecedented situation, he says, was daunting at first. "But nowadays, I think it was fate that I returned to this position in the Paper Merchant Sales Department at this point in time. Because if I can get through this, I'm sure the industry will change for the better.” laughs Furukawa. Lately, he has slowly but surely begun to notice a more positive attitude about himself.

The information provided herein was current at the time of its announcement.
Please note that this information may be subject to change without notice.
[Published on January 4, 2021]