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Tenkara China Innovation, the best tenkara rods, and working with China

On September 12, 2012
Comments (20)

Written by Daniel

I have been in China for about 3 days now (5 more to go), following a 2-week long stay in Japan. This tour of Asia is very important and I believe will translate into ever-better Tenkara USA products. And, I’m already seeing concrete insights and results from being here.

For about 4 years I have focused on developing authentic tenkara rods. I do not copy any rods and have my own design philosophy when it comes to making (and releasing) new tenkara rods. Futher, for the last 4 years I have been taking your feedback into account into everyone of our rods. As you can see, I brought all those notes here with me.

Tenkara rod design notes

Spending time in Japan provides a greater understanding of tenkara – the method as well as the tools available in the country where the method originated. Spending time in China provides a far greater understanding of the main tool used for tenkara and the options available to us so we can develop new products – and obviously some valuable time spent with our engineers and manufacturing partners to whom I have made sure to relay the most important messages of this trip: we need to ensure superb quality control, and we need to innovate.

Coming to visit our factories right after spending time in Japan was a smart decision. There are insights and ideas that wouldn’t translate as well had I decided to go home right away. Further, seeing more of the possibilities available to us here in China for the making of new rods will easily foster future innovation and will be translating beautifully into the new tenkara rods we’ll release in the future.

Recently, Mike of wrote a good (even if a bit heart-breaking to me) piece on the current perceived commodization of tenkara rods. It is indeed easy and cheap to source rods from China, and buy them off-the shelf based on work done by others. the difficult part is designing something unique, doing the due diligence to find the right partners, ensuring the quality of the products and if necessary improving them. All our rods are unique designs and have gone through multiple iterations, taking into account user feedback and feedback from teachers as well as my own thinking about how they could be improved. This visit is but one step in continuing making our rods better and standing apart from the copying (or partial copying) of our older models. So, Mike, I think you’re correct that “competition tends to breed innovation”; though I really wish I could have stayed a bit away from releasing new products just because there are so many “copies” coming out; that may be what made fishing complicated to begin with.

It is also important that our partners here understand tenkara better as I want them to know what makes a good tenkara rod. Yesterday we headed to a body of water nearby and spent ime going over some of the main performance criteria I look at when designing a rod: does it feel comfortable and lightweight? Does it cast well? Does it set hooks well? Can it play fish well? Is it sensitive? etc. These are all common elements of any fishing, rod, but it was very cool to see the light going off in their heads when they better understood why I make certain requests for our rods. It wasn’t a mountain stream, but showing them what tenkara looks like in person, and getting them excited about this style of fishing will certainly translate into better products. I’m happy to work with the partners we have.

Teaching tenkara in China

A few notes on working in /with China

Some see a bit of irony in us introducing a Japanese method of fishing to the world but having the rods made in China. What they do not know is that the vast majority of tenkara rods available in Japan – including the large manufacturers – make their rods in China as well. It is not so important where the tool is made as that it be well designed and well made. The biggest part of a tenkara rod lies in its design and on whom is directing and overseeing the development of the rod. I understand tenkara well, and that goes into Tenkara USA rods.

The quality indication of a “made in China” stamp is directly proportional to the company that backs it.  I –  Tenkara USA – back my products: I design them, work with our engineers to make them better, and am able to continually improve on them. And, by the way, those who may have noticed a typo or two in the packaging of one of our current rods, the labels of past rods and even the cloth bag of the Ito rods a while ago, should know those typos were entirely mine (done on this very same computer)!

I am very proud that our tenkara rods are made in China. This  is my second visit to the China; I spent a semester of college living here and travelling throughout the country. In that time I gained a reasonable understanding of the cultural and manufacturing landscapes of the country, and that knowledge has directly contributed to the making of Tenkara USA. It made it possible to make good rods to begin with and is now making it easy and fun to be here working on the rods in person.

The partners I have chosen to collaborate with in China have been reliable and diligent in their work. Their willingness to make new products that I specify, and tweak ours rods have allowed Tenkara USA rods to go through continuous improvement – as well as some innovations that are generally invisible. This same responsiveness and willingness to take risks can be difficult to find anywhere else.

The fact that something is made in China tends to bring out strong opinions in people. Thus, I think it is important that I should make a few notes “as an insider” about it. It should be noted that because of the work with our partners in China, I have been able to create at least 12 direct jobs in the USA, provided part-time employment to several more contract workers in the USA (including people with special needs who do packaging for us) and contributed to the economy in some pretty concrete ways (1% for the Planet, 10% excise tax, income taxes, etc). And, yes, we also created a few jobs in China too; and, I should note I can personally confirm that our rods are all produced in safe factories, with good working conditions, decent-paying jobs, no minors hired and in very satisfactory places to work with.

Should I have stayed in my old (promising and safe) job I can almost guarantee I would have contributed very little to the economy in general and certainly would have created no new jobs. It is my hope that by “investing the time to learn about the sport, technique, and the art of superior rod design” to use Mike’s words again, Tenkara USA can continue to thrive based on superb products, customer service, and certainly innovation in tenkara rods. Luckily these are things that can not be commoditized.

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20 Responses to Tenkara China Innovation, the best tenkara rods, and working with China

  1. Daniel,

    Very well said. I have been extremely pleased with the quality of my Iwana. A great rod at a very reasonable price point. Keep up the good work!

  2. Madbadger says:


    As a small business owner myself, I appreciate your efforts in bringing Tenkara to the US through TUSA. I especially appreciate:

    The level of quality of the gear I’ve purchased (iwana rod, level and traditional lines, flies etc.) and the speed and care with which they were delivered.

    Your efforts to understand and honor the traditions behind Tenkara and the Japanese and Chinese cultures as they relate to your products and their manufacturing.

    Your efforts to continually communicate with your customers through your website. You’ve created a sense of community and partnership with your customers.

    Your extra effort through travel to promote and further develop Tenkara USA products and the Art of Tenkara outside of Japan.

    The service you provide by making all of the equipment, technical and strategical resources I need to get started in, learn and fully enjoy Tenkara, all in one place. It saves me many many hours of my own time.

    Lastly, and maybe most importantly, your diligent efforts to provide fresh and valuable information in your website blogs and forums. You open a window into not just the world of Tenkara but a small glimpse of Japanese culture too.

    Although new to the world of Tenkara, you’ve earned my trust and my future Tenkara business.

  3. Tim Plunkett says:

    Just a note of thanks and envy! I have followed your reports day by day, wish I was there! And Margaret, she is so cute, your lucky dude! (hey, Im 61, no worries : ) Next time you need someone to carry your luggage, I VOLUNTEER! Thanks man!

  4. DARCY says:

    I think I don’t know anything and ask my cat if he knows anything and he shakes his his head and lays back down

  5. Craig says:

    Great information and your willingness to share the inside information most would try to keep secret. Have to say you have a top notch company and your staff is right on par with you. Enjoy your trip and have safe travels.

  6. Matt "statikpunk" Donovan says:

    Daniel its your passion and dedication to innovate that makes Tenkarausa stand out and always will stand out amongst the growing list of tenkara offerings. as long as you continue to dote on your customers the way you do, you will have my business for a good long time. cheers

  7. mike says:

    Your commitment to guality and thorough vetting of the manufacturing process are the reasons I have and will continue to support Tenkara USA. By the way, TJ is doing a great job as customer service dude.

  8. Steve King says:

    Good stuff Daniel. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness in all that you do. I do love your products. (I am still hoping to replace my lost Ito as soon as posssible!)

  9. Rosie says:

    Reads like a press release to me.
    I wonder Daniel, are you conflicted with the business side of things vs your love of fishing and passion for tenkara?

    • Rosie, it’s very interesting to be in a business that mixes something I love. I did study business, and grew up amidst businesses, but was lucky to have found something I could devote my heart and soul to.
      Every post comes out when I sit on the keyboard with inspiration to write about something. Most inspiration I get is from trips, and nowadays my trips consist of business/pleasure combined. Going to Japan gave me good inspiration to see what else I could find out about tenkara. The China leg of the trip is more focused on the business side of Tenkara USA so I ended up talking more about the business aspect of it. I have noticed more people getting on the tenkara “bandwagon”. Obviously that means it looks like we’re doing well and tenkara is causing some ripples. But, I also felt important to get the loudspeakers for once and talk about how I’m on this because I love it and I have come to spend time with our factories to make our products better and so they will stand above the rest. Luckily I think there does not need to be a conflict between the business side and my passion for tenkara; I seek to learn more about tenkara as well as to learn more how to run a good business. My love of fishing and passion for tenkara provide the foundation for the business side of things.

  10. Corbin Hauen says:

    Keep up the hard work Daniel. There are very few people out there who can say that they have put in the time and effort to learn an age old method and improve on design while still keeping with tradition. The respect that you have shown for the sport and earned from masters tells me your product is not replicable.

    • Thank you Corbin. Really appreciate the vote of confidence. Tenkara has become my life, and I really feel I couldn’t have chosen a better match, so I’ll continue putting the time. I want to make sure the sport stays alive and our products stand up with it.

  11. Zack says:

    Just the act of you actually going to oversee production at the factory speaks highly of TUSA! Awesome that you can get so hands on to make sure your products come out meeting exactly what you wanted. Thanks for the behind the scenes look at TUSA

  12. Rob says:

    With the premium that is charged for Tenkara USA rods, and their given name, one would expect them to be manufactured in America.

    Manufacturing in the US is important because it shows your dedication to a high quality of life for your workers and a clean environment for your fellow citizens in the country that you do business in.

    It shows your willingness to pay the increased cost of manufacturing under strict environmental guidelines. As a fisherman and outdoorsman, how do you feel about China’s polluted rivers? You are now a part of the manufacturing landscape that is wreaking havoc on the world’s climate, whether or not you directly contribute to that pollution.

    By undermining American manufacturing and operating in China, you are sending a message to America, its citizens and polticians, that if we had a lower standard of living, and non-existent environmental regulations, then you would continue to do business here.

    I look forward to the day that a true US made tenkara option becomes available, or you move your operation back to the US and live up to your name. I will be thinking twice about purchasing Tenkara USA products in the future for these reasons.

    • Rob,
      I hope I can make a few points that will shed some light on what guides our philosophy, but how I created the company, what has happened since then, and what future plans/goals are (including that of bringing manufacturing of our rods into the USA).
      First, I should say that I started Tenkara USA from scratch with all my personal savings, and we do not rely on any outside funding nor loans. And, I do like to recognize that I would not have been able to create Tenkara USA and introduce tenkara here without the help of Chinese manufacturing. It would have been nearly impossible to create what I did without them. By doing so we have created a lot of employment here in the United States that we wouldn’t have created otherwise. Also, we created a new market segment, which is in turn creating even more jobs here.
      I see our planet as an interconnected one, and because it is a connected economy I do not see it as a us v. them issue. We have created many more jobs here in the USA than in China. And, just based on our export income we have brought more money into the US than we have sent out. But, I also like the idea that we may be helping China start paying attention to its environment and quality of life. When I visited China I spent a fair amount of time in all our factories and have facilitated changes that will help with their quality of life. And, I like to think the conversations I had with my partners there have helped them become more aware of the issues you bring up.
      In terms of environmental guidelines/high quality of life for workers, I have a lot to say about this but will try to remain brief. I lived in China for a period of 5 months while in college, and spent about 2 months traveling in remote parts of China and witnessing the shameful condition of most of their rivers. BUT, I do believe one of the best ways for countries and a people to shift their attention to their environment is for them to rise beyond looking simply at the immediacy of needing money. While China is currently the second largest economy in the world, it ranks 120 in per capita income ( This is significant, as it is the “capita” that drives a concern for the environment. The United States didn’t start paying attention to its own environment until it rose in terms of per capita income and development. So, the hope, and one can only hope, is that China (like many other countries, including Japan), will soon start paying more attention to their rivers and environment. We are already seeing signs of pressure and a shift in their thinking. China is quickly getting ahead of the US in terms of clean energy for example.
      When it comes to producing here in the US, that is actually something I have been looking at. I have been studying the possibility of opening a workshop/manufacturing facility here in the US in the medium-term (3-5 years). That’s part of the reason I relocated the company to Boulder, Colorado, which is home to the most manufacturing per capita in the country. The cost will certainly have to be much higher, and it is a difficult endeavor that will require a lot of capital, but I think it will be worth doing it and I’m trying to build the business foundations that will allow Tenkara USA to produce rods here too.
      There is a lot I’m learning as a new entrepreneur about how to run a business, and there is TONS more I will have to learn to be a manufacturer with a US manufacturing facility. We are not sending a sign to anyone that we want lower standards of living or environmental protection to do business here! In fact, we pay a lot in taxes, and voluntarily send an additional 1% of our total revenues to environmental organizations. Without outside funding and without relying on loans, we just need to sell quite a few more rods to make that dream of manufacturing here a reality.
      I do not think we are undermining American manufacturing, and as much as possible we try to do things here. Our tapered lines are made here in the USA, and that’s an intensive manufacturing operation. We also source some of our packs, stickers, glass vials for packaging the flies, packaging in the US, and are looking at producing a new product right here as we speak. Further, while many companies can outsource things ranging from graphic design to customer service to people in other countries, we have all of our web development, graphics, customer service and other types of services provided by US contractors, firms and employees.
      Things are much more complex than they may seem. Our goal is to not only make a living but to try making the world as a whole and the country we belong to, better places. I hope these comments will not be met with cynicism, and I hope you’ll believe my heart is in the right place on these issues.
      Thanks for your comment.
      Tenkara USA, founder

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