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Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011
Prosthetics give town new vein to fame
The town of Omori in Shimane Prefecture is perhaps best known for the Iwami Ginzan silver mine, a World Heritage site deep in the mountains that produced silver ore for nearly 400 years from the 16th century.
Iwami Ginzan's silver was exported, generating commercial and cultural exchanges with the West. The same town, which has a population of just 400, is now home to Nakamura Brace Co., a company that specializes in prosthetic and orthopedic devices.
Its founder and president, Toshiro Nakamura, 62, is hoping that one day, just as the mine did, his firm will make a similar contribution to the international community.
Nakamura Brace is often visited by women who have undergone breast cancer surgery or by people who have lost limbs or other body parts in accidents. They come because the company's prosthetic devices are setting new standards for the industry.
"We aim at producing prosthetic devices that put smiles on the faces of users," Nakamura said recently. He has been pursuing this dream since he started the company by himself in 1974, he added.
Its artificial breast, called Vivify, is one example of the company's expertise. The silicon-rubber device replicates the curvature and movement of the female breast and the characteristics of the nipple. Unlike heavier, plastic-covered silicon-gel breasts produced in the West, Vivify's pneumatic structure helps to keep its weight down.
Nakamura Brace's artificial breast is priced at between ¥60,000 and ¥190,000. Although it is not covered by health insurance, it elicits favorable reviews from users.
"It's a nice fit and I feel as if the breast I lost a few years ago has been restored," a woman in her 60s from Chiba Prefecture said.
Around 5,000 women have purchased the Vivify prosthetic since it was developed in 1991.
In 1993, the company set up the Medical Art Research Laboratory, a facility tasked with developing artistically produced prosthetics. The lab has produced an arm that has wrinkles at the joints and reddish tones under the finger nails, which can even be manicured. Ears, noses and eyes produced by the lab all look like the real thing.
But the laboratory is a high-cost operation that constantly runs at a loss. Nonetheless, it serves an important purpose, Nakamura explained. "We can communicate to professionals how particular we are about each product we make," he said. "We treasure the positive feedback we receive from users."
He added, sarcastically, "It's a healthy money-losing division."
Mitsuhiko Uchida, secretary general of the Japanese unit of the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics, credits Nakamura with "making prosthetic devices widely known and inspiring young people who want to become prosthetics makers."
Nakamura Brace upholds the idea of contributing to society as its management philosophy. Avoiding monopolizing its knowhow and products, the company relies on sales agents throughout Japan, thereby sharing business opportunities.
The firm chalks up about ¥900 million in sales annually. "We had the ambition to multiply our sales, but have come to think we should prioritize enhancing after-sales care for people with disabilities," Nakamura said.
Nakamura has also been exploring how its prosthetics technology and knowhow can make an impact overseas.
At the root of his thinking is the question of whether it is appropriate simply to donate expensive devices. "I wonder if it is a genuine form of international contribution to send children prosthetic legs costing several hundred thousand yen," he asked.
Last July, at the suggestion of an acquaintance, Nakamura visited Iloilo, a city on Panay Island in the Philippines. There, he met local bamboo artisans and offered them expert advice about manufacturing prosthetics. During the visit, Makamura used bamboo and other locally available materials to make artificial legs.
His idea was that it would be easier using local materials to provide the repairs and aftercare that would be needed if the devices are worn by growing children.
"Just like the Iwami Ginzan silver mine became world famous in the age of exploration, I hope Nakamura Brace's way of giving support will come to make a contribution to the international community," Nakamura said.