Anticipation is growing over the Olympics day by day, with the Sochi Games just around the corner and six years to go until the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. Much of the sports equipment used in Olympic events is manufactured by regional companies in Japan. What are the secrets behind the technical prowess of these talented manufacturers, which are recognised by the world's top athletes and competition officials?
Stringing rackets electronically
By Koji Shintani
SAITAMA - Toyo Zouki Co., which manufactures machines that string rackets for such sports as tennis and badminton, is a small factory in Niiza, Saitama Prefecture, with just 10 employees. Its technology, however, has drawn the attention of the world's top players.
Toyo Zouki was founded in 1973 as a maker of staplers and other stationery and office equipment, but it ran into financial difficulties due to an influx of cheap foreign goods. Akira Tsuchida, the 64-year-old second-generation president who took over the firm in 1984, cast his eye on making sports goods, which are said to be highly profitable, and embarked on the manufacture of stringing machines.
At the time, most of the machines made by other companies required the tension of the strings to be adjusted by hand, and only a few craftsmen were capable of making delicate adjustments. Tsuchida decided that a machine using electronic control to adjust the tension would sell. He spent about a year learning electronic engineering at a night school in Tokyo and developed the company's first model.
Over the last 30 years, the company has developed 15 models. It has burnished its technical skills and continued to make improvements, such as using only one screw to keep the racket in place.
Toyo Zouki's machines cost about ¥1 million, two to three times the price of machines made overseas. However, they are highly durable, able to string more than 10,000 racket strings. Toyo Zouki's products were used as the official stringing machines at the Beijing and London Olympics, and the company exports to 24 countries.
"Providing machines for the Olympics makes us feel a lot of pressure, but it inspires our employees," Tsuchida said.
It's all in the quilting
By Takeshi Nagata
OSAKA - Known for its Kusakura brand, Hayakawa Industry Co. in Kashiwara, Osaka Prefecture, is a long-established manufacturer of martial arts wear. The firm was founded in 1918.
It holds a large share of the domestic market for judo gear, its primary business, and enjoys a strong international reputation as well. Hayakawa is one of only about 10 companies in the world whose judo wear is approved by the International Judo Federation.
The secret to the company's popularity among sports associations and competitors lies in the embroidery techniques it applies to the sashiko quilting that strengthens judo gear. Using unique techniques in this quilting, Hayakawa handles every element of production, from weaving the fabric to cutting to sewing, and its judo gear is both strong and feels good.
In addition to judo gear, Hayakawa also makes attire for sports including karate, kendo, naginata halberd fighting and archery. It also handles a wide range of protective gear and other items related to martial arts.
The company's domestic business has been aided by the designation of martial arts as a required subject in middle schools from April 2012. Spurred by the continually low birthrate, however, Hayakawa last year began exporting judo gear to central Asia, where the sport is very popular, and it is considering expanding into Brazil. President Masahiko Miura, the 67-year-old grandson of the company's founder, is ambitious, saying, "We'd like to introduce new things in keeping with the times, while preserving Japanese tradition."
Volleyballs hit the mark
By Naoya Azuma
HIROSHIMA - Beginning with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, volleyballs made by Mikasa Corp. in Hiroshima have been used as the official tournament balls in 11 Olympics.
This is due to the high regard for its technical skill, which has created balls that have precisely fulfilled requests from the International Federation of Volleyball (FIVB).
For the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the FIVB asked Mikasa to create a ball that would facilitate rallies, to make the games more interesting. In response, Mikasa designed its MVA200 model, in which it thickened the surface panels and reduced the amount of stitching by cutting the number of panels from 18 to eight, thereby lessening the impact on players' arms. It also painted fine particles on the surface, making the ball less slippery.
The ball was exactly what the federation wanted, and the same model was also used at the London Olympics. "Thanks to its use as an official tournament ball, we became better known overseas," administrative head Nobutomo Nakahigashi, 54, said proudly.
Pro leagues in 30 countries, including Italy and Brazil, now use Mikasa balls.
The company is currently conducting research and development with the aim of being chosen for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and some players are calling for a ball that allows for greater control. Ryutaro Ogawa, 41, head of the company's product development centre, said, "We want to develop a ball that will respond to top players' finely honed senses and result in compelling games."