The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games are underway. The stories of the athletes who have been striving for this global showcase are all captivating. But behind each of their prostheses, equipment, and wheelchairs lie the stories of the small and medium-sized Japanese companies that have been steadily developing these tools for use at the Paralympic Games.
Techniques cultivated by local industries
Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture is the birthplace of Japanese motorcycle manufacturers such as Suzuki, Honda, and Yamaha, and boasts a wide base of motorcycle-related industries. Hashimoto Engineering has been honing its techniques for making molds for motorcycle parts and metal processing there, since 1968. This company manufactured the wheelchair that Manami Tanaka uses to compete in wheelchair tennis. The wheelchair they developed was the result of their effort to independently develop "the lightest wheelchair in the world" with the aim of breaking away from subcontracting after the financial crisis in 2008. The wheelchair is made of magnesium alloy, which is the lightest of practical metals, but extremely difficult to process. The techniques they have cultivated with the local community in motorcycle parts manufacturing have flourished into a sports wheelchair for para-athletes to use to compete on the world stage.
Imasen Engineering Corporation, based in Kakamigahara City, Gifu Prefecture, started as the medical equipment department of Imasen Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. which is an automotive parts manufacturer. Utilizing the expertise in ambulation technology it has cultivated over decades, it developed KATANA Σ, a plate spring used for Saki Takakuwa's prosthesis in collaboration with Mizuno, a major sports equipment manufacturer in Japan. Takakuwauses the prosthesis to participate in track and field events in the Paralympic Games. The company has been making improvements on the product for many years. The product's highlights are its compact size (perfect for a Japanese person's frame) and that it is the world's first design with a large open air hole in the center of the plate spring. The design was engineered to reduce air resistance by 31% and make the spring 15% lighter compared with conventional products, in order to improve the athlete's performance, despite maintaining sufficient strength for use by Paralympic athletes.
The secret behind this is the precision design and processing techniques for carbon fiber composite materials cultivated in the local aerospace industry. Making products that respond to on-site needs is the company's strength, and this helps improve the performance of Japanese athletes.
Making products that fit each athlete perfectly
"You don't have to give up"— Kawamura Gishi in Daito City, Osaka Prefecture has been supporting the development of a society where everyone can demonstrate their abilities regardless of disabilities or other restrictions, by designing and manufacturing prostheses and nursing care support equipment. The company has developed a sports wheelchair for Shingo Kunieda who competes in wheelchair tennis, and a sports canoe seat for Monika Seryu who participates in canoeing events. The seat must be designed to firmly secure the athlete's body despite the intense movement during a match or race, but at the same time, ensure that they can still move their upper body with ease. The performance required is different for each sport, and the way in which each athlete moves their body is unique, too. The items, which are all custom-fit to their bodies, are all made by hand.
Natori Manufacturing Co., Ltd. located in Ageo City, Saitama Prefecture is a company that designs and manufactures molds, and forges products. Making use of original techniques, they manufacture sports adapters used for sports prostheses. A sports adapter is a component that connects a plate spring to a knee joint, which means it acts as a joint. Although it is a small component, fine tuning and precision processing techniques are essential in order to make the whole prosthesis work smoothly. The company has been developing the products in cooperation with AIST* and their adapter provided support for the prosthesis worn by Atsushi Yamamoto's, who participates in track and field events. They have pursued an efficient design by accurately measuring the athlete's movements and analyzing the forces applied to the components, but "in the end, it is evaluated using the five senses." They continue to make unceasing efforts to respond to the athlete's keen assessments.
* The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology is one of the largest research institutes in Japan. It comprehensively develops various technologies in a wide range of industrial technology fields.
Information about each company, or the corresponding pages for Companies Driving Regional Growth and the HABATAKU Small and Medium Enterprises 300 Program