“I don’t think I’ve ever done this before,” says Takenobu Toya. In his barebones workshop in the backstreets of Asakusa, Tokyo, the CEO of specialist dyeing company Toya Senryo sits on a small folding fabric chair, facing a metal vat of boiling vermillion dye.
Wearing white knit cotton gloves, he holds up a piece of frosted, machined acrylic that appears pristine in front of the surrounding paint-speckled surfaces. A group of onlookers holding cameras and smartphones crowd closer, eager to see the results of this experiment. Even an NHK documentary crew has come to capture this moment.
Taking a deep breath, Toya gently lowers the acrylic into the vat partway, lifts it out in a fluid motion and dips it back in repeatedly to varying depths. After a minute or so of this, he finally lifts it out to reveal a keyboard frame glistening and glowing orange.
I was at the dyeing factory to get a peek into Tokyo Keyboard’s latest adventure — manufacturing a mechanical keyboard in Tokyo. Founded in 2018, the brand draws from 90’s tech, streetwear, and Tokyo’s underground hardware culture to design keyboards that are “creative tools for creatives”. Prior to this endeavour, its founder Alvin Cheung had already lived many lives.
Designer, hacker, and coffee nerd, Alvin spent a decade in Silicon Valley — going to university for film, picking up an MBA, and eventually practicing service and UX design. Disillusioned with startup culture in the Bay Area, Alvin came to Japan and worked with a non-profit agency that focused on social entrepreneurship.
Driven by his love for coffee, he later founded Alpha Beta Coffee Club, a coffee subscription service that sources beans from independent roasters all across Japan. I met Alvin in 2017 when our paths crossed for work, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. Over the years, he’s been telling me about his ongoing obsession with mechanical keyboards.
Mechanical keyboards redux
Popular in the 1980’s, mechanical keyboards are characterized by physical, spring-loaded switches underneath each of its keycaps. The switches produce the clickety-clack sound and bouncy feel that is emblematic of these analog models, but they also cause them to be heavy, noisy to type on, and expensive to make.
Most keyboards today use dome switches, which consist of a singular and flat membrane made out of rubber or silicone with domes for each key and a conductive sensor below. When a key is pressed, the dome is pushed down onto the rubber/silicone membrane to register the keystroke, giving it a mushy feel when typed on. Compared to their mechanical cousins, they are lighter, quieter, and cheaper to produce — so they quickly became the default mass-market option.
However, mechanical keyboards have been making a comeback in recent years. The global market for mechanical keyboards reached $928 million USD in 2019, and is projected to climb to $1.4 billion by 2025. These analog tools have found popularity particularly among software developers, digital creatives, and of course, gamers.
Mechanical keyboards are prized for overall durability, as well as tactile feedback and the responsiveness of the switches. However, what really drives the revived interest in mechanical keyboards is how they can be customized — changing the keycaps and frames for a certain look, or choosing certain switches and layouts for tactility and ergonomic reasons.
As Alvin puts it simply, “A lot of people make the comparison to a good pen. A really good fountain pen makes you want to write more. A really good keyboard makes you excited to write, code, or create whatever you want.”
From user to creator
So how did Alvin tumble down into the rabbit hole of mechanical keyboards? While he was searching online for a high-quality keyboard, he stumbled upon an unexpectedly enthusiastic keyboard community. Immediately, he was amazed at how diverse subcultures could come together and influence each other.
“There were the hard-core Silicon Valley engineers on one side, artists & craft-makers who made amazing sculptures on the other, and then hypebeasts, kids who were showing up in the latest Supreme drop,” he recalls of a Bay Area meetup during that time. “Why is everyone hanging out together? It’s because we all love keyboards. It’s a part of our lives and what we do, whether it is gaming, creating, coding or making music.”
Inspired by the DIY and hacker spirit, it did not take long for Alvin to eventually make the jump from tinkering to actually manufacturing his own mechanical keyboards. Back then, keyboard designers were mostly based in the United States and Korea. Being based in Tokyo, Alvin thought about what unique addition he could bring to the mechanical keyboard world from Japan.
His first design, the Tokyo60, was a sleek keyboard in the style of the HHKB (“Happy Hacking Keyboard”), a minimal 60-key build invented by Japanese computer scientist Eiiti Wada. Working with this iconic silhouette as a base, he put his own twist on it. One aspect was choosing to use machined aluminum instead of plastic in order to give it a more high-end and clean look. Borrowing from the streetwear business model, he also released limited “drops” of the Tokyo60, each time with different colorways and slight changes.
Game-changing at the time, the Tokyo60 was one of the first keyboards that did not require soldering to attach the switches onto the printed circuit board (PCB). This meant that the switches could be easily swapped, but more importantly, it lowered the barrier to entry for newcomers to the world of mechanical keyboards.
New to making physical products, Alvin embarked on a crash course in everything from electronics design to 3D modelling and production. He went to the Chinese city of Shenzhen, known as the “world’s factory,” and eventually found a partner who he could start manufacturing with. First released in 2018, the Tokyo60 proved to be a successful project and is currently in its fourth iteration.
With the majority of mechanical keyboards around the world manufactured in Shenzhen, it was increasingly difficult for Tokyo Keyboard to differentiate itself from other brands. The factories he worked with were optimized for mass production, so it was tough for him to experiment with new materials, shapes or techniques. “The manufacturing shapes the design, as much as the design shapes the manufacturing,” says Alvin.
In the back of his mind, Alvin always wondered if it was possible to not only design, but manufacture the keyboard in Tokyo too. To find out more, Alvin emailed Taku Furukawa, the founder of Tokyo FabHub, whose mission is to make Tokyo’s machi-kōba — small, independent factories and workshops — more accessible to outsiders wishing to manufacture in Japan.
Taku began to introduce Alvin to various machi-kōba — he would bring Alvin to an acrylic factory one day, and then a metalworking shop on another. Over the course of a year, Alvin began to realize that there was an invisible yet vast network of makers in Tokyo that most people had never heard of, even in Japan.
Machi-koba: Japan’s hidden heritage
Stereotypical imagery of Japan tends to involve traditional craft, zen, and nature; Tokyo is often imagined generically as a cyberpunk city of the future. However, wandering deep down into a side street in eastern Tokyo, you can find many machi-kōba, which are a lesser-known facet of the metropolis.
The eastern half of modern-day Tokyo is known as Shitamachi, a region in the flatlands historically settled by merchants and artisans who served the aristocracy in the hilly Yamanote region west of the Imperial Palace. Nowadays, Shitamachi is composed of Tokyo's eastern wards, such as Ota, Taito, Adachi, Arakawa, Sumida, Katsushika, and Edogawa.
Shitamachi is where many machi-kōba are located, forming manufacturing clusters with specialities that range from traditional crafts to light manufacturing, working with precision parts, and assembling machines and tools. They also deal with a wide variety of materials such as metal, rubber, leather, fabric, and plastics.
As of 2014, there are almost 30,000 factories located in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, with a large majority being machi-kōba. Many of them are family-run, and have been around for at least 50 years. Others date back much longer. They are also nimble, as most of them have less than ten employees.
On their own, machi-kōba are deeply specialized — whether in terms of techniques or the materials that they work with — but together, they form an informal yet strong network of local factories. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, they quietly fuelled Japan’s postwar economic boom as they formed the backbone of the stable, flexible, and relatively low-cost supply chain for large Japanese manufacturers.
Over the decades, as these Japanese companies have shifted their manufacturing bases overseas, machi-kōba are facing new challenges in adapting to the realities of the global economy. Dealing with dwindling orders and changing consumer needs, these previously hidden machi-kōba are increasingly looking to try new things beyond their regular work.
It wasn’t until the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020 that Alvin started to realize his vision of producing keyboards in Tokyo. Manufacturing shutdowns in China had caused shortages around the world, affecting the production of the Tokyo60’s fourth run. This provided the impetus to jumpstart the first Made-in-Tokyo keyboard: the Alix40.
The name itself is an homage to a similarly shaped predecessor called the Alice. With a split-keyboard layout, the Alix40 is considered to be a “slightly ergonomic” keyboard. However, in contrast to the standard 80 to 100-key layout, its spartan 40-key setup requires a different typing configuration that is geared towards more hard-core users.
Alvin chose this layout as a nod to the niche, quirky layouts popular with the mechanical keyboard scene in Tokyo. Its smaller size and reduced amount of keys provided a lower-risk way to experiment before scaling up production and tackling larger, more standard pieces.
The Alix40 was also heavily inspired by Alvin’s memories of growing up in Hong Kong during the 90’s. The frosted acrylic frame harkens back to colorful iMac G3s. The psychedelic, black-and-white graphic that is silkscreened on the PCB (which is made in Malaysia) and the vivid gradient color dyes are nods to acid house music and rave culture.
However, this keyboard goes beyond nostalgia — it highlights an important era in modern Japanese history when products from Sony, Panasonic, and Toshiba could be found in households around the world. These companies and their products were a symbol that Japanese craft does not consist just of tradition, but also encompasses a high level of expertise in the manufacturing of electronic and technological products.
What makes this keyboard truly “Tokyo” though is the unique aesthetic and design that emerged from working with several machi-kōba in Shitamachi that Alvin visited in the year before — namely the gradient-dyed, sandblasted, acrylic frame.
All of these machi-kōba have their distinct specialities, but before the Alix40, they had never worked together on the same product. By showcasing and combining each factory’s unique set of skills and experience, the keyboard is a testament to the importance of machi-kōba in Japan's craft heritage as well as their resilience and adaptability over the decades.
The first step to making the Alix40 starts off in Adachi, an area in the northeast of Tokyo that is suburban, slow-paced, and popular for its lower rent among students, new immigrants, and the elderly. The ward is home to over two thousand machi-kōba in various industries spanning textiles, plastics, metalworking, printing and traditional crafts. In terms of diversity and specialization, it is the mecca of light manufacturing in Tokyo.
Tucked away on a mostly residential street, a plain white three-storey building houses Ohemu, which specializes in precision resin machining for industrial uses. The company has over ten employees, making it one of the larger machi-kōba in the ward.
Walking into their first-floor workshop space, I am immediately transported back in time — surrounded by retro machinery and signage in a setting reminiscent of a Japanese elementary school from the 90’s. Here, I meet the clean-shaven Kenji Omura, who is the fourth-generation member of the family business and its current Head of Sales.
Before taking on his current role, Omura spent several years on the workshop floor learning the ins and outs of each step in production. Greeting me with a cheerful smile, the tall next-generation head of the company speaks with a soft, yet deep voice about the family business and his background.
Founded in 1929, Ohemu has experienced many changes over the generations. The company started off making barrels for fountain pens from hard rubber, then shifted to creating small plastic components used in electronic devices. Recently, they have taken on more diverse projects in different industries ranging from the medical field to hardware startups.
Being around for a long time has afforded Ohemu advantages that lie beyond technical expertise: “We have accumulated a lot of knowledge over the years. We don’t just ‘make’ things. Our strengths lie in being able to propose different materials and techniques,” says Omura.
Even so, the Alix40 was a new adventure. Omura did not know much at first about mechanical keyboards, but the more he looked into it, the more he thought that it could be a worthwhile project. Meeting Alvin directly several times sealed the deal, as he felt the designer’s passion for this project and his desire to work with local manufacturers. That Omura could speak English and had spent time studying abroad created a friendly rapport between the two.
Ohemu is responsible for machining the body of the keyboard, essentially creating the basic shape. They use their CNC platform to cut 10-millimeter thick sheets of Japanese-made, clear extruded acrylic to form the top and bottom pieces for the keyboard. While aluminum and injection-moulded ABS plastic are typical choices, Alvin decided that acrylic would be especially fitting because there is a deep tradition of working with this material in Japan.
The freshly-cut pieces are then taken to an old-school Hitachi buffing wheel to remove the machining blemishes and give the acrylic a smooth bright finish. In particular, buffing requires a high level of manual skill in controlling the angle and pressure applied, which is apparent from Omura’s demonstration. As much as some of this work is automated, a lot of it still requires a human touch — a point the Alix40 emphasizes.
The pieces are then sent off to the neighbouring ward of Katsushika, a quiet residential area on the outer edge of Tokyo that still feels like Showa-era Japan — with its numerous temples, shrines and retro shopping streets, as well as the absence of high-rise buildings.
Not many people know that the neighbourhood developed as a hub for light manufacturing of toys, as many Japanese companies set up their factories here in the 1950’s. While much of the production is done offshore, Katsushika is still home to a vibrant metalworking industry. Boasting the second-highest number of factories in Tokyo, the ward is also known for injection moulding, rubber processing, and traditional crafts.
Located in a small corrugated aluminum structure characteristic of postwar Japanese construction, Matsuura Blast is run by father–son duo Katsutoshi and Kenji Matsuura. This family operation specializes in the art of sandblasting glass, a technique used to create a frosted texture. Their craft is highly acclaimed, working on trophies for major sports tournaments as well as gifts from the Tokyo governor for foreign dignitaries. In fact, Kenji is recognized as a “Tokyo Meister”, a designation given by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for “supremely talented craftsmen”.
When we arrive at the workshop, we find Kenji sandblasting a small batch of the acrylic pieces and Katsutoshi carefully taping the edges of the next batch in preparation. Sporting a bleached blonde buzz cut and a long-sleeved black graphic T-shirt, Kenji is the third-generation head of Matsuura Blast. He joined the family business at the young age of 15, learning on the fly and getting scolded by the sandblasting craftsmen. More than two decades later, the business has shifted and the other craftsmen are gone, leaving only him and his parents to carry on the family trade.
Sandblasting isn’t an automated process as much of the work requires a lot of coordination and a sense of timing. In their usual work, a pattern stencil is cut out of vinyl film and adhered to the glass before blasting in the cabinet. The large apparatus produces pressured air and sand that is directed onto the surface of the object to be engraved. From here, it is done completely by feel.
It’s difficult to see exactly what’s going on as most of the action happens behind a small window in the blasting cabinet, but Kenji is kind enough to show me how the process works. He puts one frame in, sticks his gloved hands through the ports in the cabinet, and steps on a pedal to actuate the blaster — controlling the angle, the pressure and speed applied, and the exposure time. After what seems like just thirty seconds, he’s finished and it’s on to the next one. The result is a soft, matte surface that varies slightly from piece to piece in texture, depth, and smoothness.
“This kind of work, it’s a world where even a few seconds matter. The finish evolves each second as it’s being sandblasted, so by making sure each second isn’t wasted...well that requires technique and experience,” says Kenji.
Even though Matsuura Blast normally works with glass, Alvin approached them to conceal tiny marks on the acrylic left behind from the machining. At first, the project sounded quite troublesome to Kenji because sandblasting acrylic presents its own unique challenges: “Blasting both with sand makes them frosted and white, but there are still differences in acrylic and glass as a material. As you sandblast glass, it gets dented, but if you do it for too long to acrylic, it gets burnt!”
After several tries, they figured it out and landed on a new aesthetic that was pleasing to the eye and touch — combining the frosted surfaces with the clear edges created by Ohemu’s buffing technique.
The sandblasted keyboards then travel to the Asakusa area in the nearby Taito ward. For several centuries, Asakusa was Tokyo’s main entertainment district, housing theatres and geisha houses until the onset of World War 2. The development of this area — which many see as the “capital” of the Shitamachi region — also attracted many craftsmen and artisans to practice here since the Edo Period. Asakusa is still a popular tourist destination for people seeking a more traditional Tokyo, and this district is still home to many small factories, many of them specializing in leatherwork and textiles.
Out of all the machi-kōba involved in this project, Toya Senryo is the largest in size — its office and workshop occupy an entire four-storey building. Founded in 1931, they develop custom specialized dyes and pigments for fabric-dyeing factories. They pride themselves on their research and development capabilities, drawing on their deep experience working with chemical paints and their network of suppliers.
With twelve employees and a satellite production factory in the neighbouring prefecture of Saitama, it appears that business is good for them. According to Takenobu Toya, the current fourth-generation head, the family business prospered during Japan’s postwar economic boom, riding on the back of the thriving domestic textile industry. Much of the business has not changed, but they are already trying new things.
Toya Senryo is responsible for engineering and dyeing the two vermillion and silver-blue gradient colourways of the Alix40. Compared to the other aspects of production, figuring out this step was the most involved and challenging. To begin with, they are primarily a dye manufacturer so they are not typically involved in the actual dyeing. On top of that, no one knew whether it was even possible to dye a gradient pattern onto acrylic.
As Toya recalls, in the beginning he actually tried convincing Alvin to outsource the dyeing work, but eventually decided to take on the challenge himself: “Back in the day, I did a lot of work as an artist, even going to art school. I’m good at understanding what the client is visualizing and then recreating that, so I realized that probably only I could do it. Yeah, it was a discovery — that I could dye things myself, haha.”
Daring to try something new has paid off, as the two colourways have easily become the most eye-catching and unique part of the keyboard. Building on his grandpa's recipes, Toya-san shows us a custom plastic-dyeing solution he developed just for Tokyo Keyboard. In a metal vat, he combines it with water and a catalyst, heating it on an industrial gas stove to 80–90°C. From there, the master himself plunges each keyboard frame into the solution repeatedly to varying depths, with the colour gradient emerging through successive dips.
As Toya-san explains while demonstrating to me, it is quite apparent that this job isn’t something anyone can do. In order to create a gradient with a smooth ombre effect, each frame needs to be wiggled every time it is dipped back into the vat. With this setup, it is tricky to control the temperature of the solution, which lowers with each subsequent job. Toya-san and his staff have to take this into account, estimating how much more time is required for the colour to set onto the acrylic according to the temperature. Because of the manual nature and difficulty of this task, no two keyboards have the exact same pattern — but that is part of the Alix40’s handcrafted charm.
Made With Tokyo
After each keyboard is dyed, they return to Adachi for a final flourish. On the back of each keyboard, the words “Made With Tokyo” are stamped in black by Anshindo. This machi-kōba specialises in pad printing, a process where a 2-D image can be transferred onto a 3-D surface, even if it is not flat. Next, Alvin installs the PCB in each case, one by one.
The keyboard then goes in a tailor-fit box made by Package Art, a company that focuses on custom packaging. Using thick Japanese card stock and custom-cut foam, the medium-gray coloured package is fitted with an orange paper sleeve that lists the names of each machi-kōba involved.
For Alvin, the phrase “Made With Tokyo” and the names on the sleeve signify how the process is truly collaborative — only possible through serendipity, constant dialogue, and a shared desire to do something different. While many brands today mask their supply chain, the Alix40 places the collaborators in equal standing. It is also a model for building a hyperlocal brand — making, designing, and creating within a global megacity.
It’s possible that Alvin’s perspective as an outsider positions him uniquely as the connector, bringing together otherwise siloed manufacturers. By building on their techniques and generational experience, this uncommon partnership has remixed traditional knowledge for a contemporary context.
In the end, the first edition of the Alix40 was a limited run of only a hundred pieces, fifty of each colour. Targeted at niche users, the keyboard requires users to source their own switches and keycaps. All in all, the current reality of manufacturing a mechanical keyboard in Tokyo is that the higher cost of labour, production, and materials in Japan resulted in a product priced at $560 USD. Alvin justifies the price by borrowing a page straight from luxury brand strategy, which emphasizes how the value of craftsmanship is built on the technical precision and one-of-a-kind results of manual labour.
The process of this collaboration also shows us something that is only possible in our day and age. In addition to the dialogue between the designer and makers, social media has allowed for the brand to give people all across the world the chance to also participate in real-time. Alvin actively documents the co-creation process on Instagram and forums such as Reddit and KeebTalk, sharing footage from machi-kōba visits, live-streaming sessions with the craftsmen, and answering questions from the community.
Sure, a lot of this is highly effective marketing. But, there’s also a deep sense of genuine, human connection here. Through these behind-the-scenes interactions, he is sharing a world that most people outside of Japan (or even within Japan) do not come into contact with. The manufacturing process becomes visible — allowing viewers to empathize and understand for themselves the effort, skill, and people involved.
Personally, I started using mechanical keyboards after COVID-19 forced me to start working from home. Along with buying a new desktop monitor, the keyboard helped me concentrate more on work — with the clicking rhythm and the tactile sensations generated from typing coalescing into an almost meditative experience.
There’s something valuable about knowing the story behind the objects we use — who made them, and where they were made. These stories imbue objects with an emotional link to a deeper meaning, offering a sense of belonging to a larger community.
Through this latest “Made With Tokyo'' experiment, Tokyo Keyboard has come full circle. This project shows us the potential of unusual collaborations to spotlight the people and places involved in making the objects we use — creating connections that provide meaning and bring joy to the daily tedium of our lives. ▲