January 4, 2010

JAPAN: When the 'eye of the beholder' needs a little help

. OSAKA, Japan / Asahi Shimbun / Lifestyle / January 4, 2010 By Mana Takahashi, The Asahi Shimbun Akira Kitani always makes sure he has a notepad and a pencil at his bedside before he goes to sleep. The 63-year-old researcher has designed 200 kinds of eyeglass lenses during his career. He says the time right before he falls asleep is when he often comes up with a new idea. Kitani was the first in his company, Hoya Corp., a leading manufacturer of optical glass in Tokyo, to design progressive lenses--bifocals without the telltale visible line. When Kitani joined the company after graduating with a degree in physics from Tokyo University of Science, the only progressive lenses available in Japan were from Essel, what is now Essilor International SA, in France. All Hoya could do with those imported lenses was polish their rear surfaces to fit the vision needs of their clients. When Kitani suggested that he wanted to develop progressive lenses for the company, he quickly became known as "a new hire eager to take on a big challenge." Undeterred, he became more convinced of the need to develop Hoya's own progressive lenses as time went by. Every summer, the company had trouble importing a sufficient number of progressive lenses because Essel, the firm with which Hoya did business, closed for vacation. To make matters worse, the prices of the lenses went up every year. Finally, Kitani got the OK to set to work on a solo project to develop progressive lenses for Hoya. However, information was sparse. The only resource he could turn to was patent literature, which read like a literal translation of a foreign language document. He kept at it and by merging more than 100 software programs over the course of nearly a decade, he eventually developed the complex software needed to produce progressive lenses. It was difficult, but Kitani says he loved the work. It was like figuring out a puzzle. He often became so absorbed that he forgot all about time. In 1987, his efforts culminated in the first-ever sales of the progressive lenses produced by Hoya--at half the price its French supplier charged. Naturally, the orders flooded in--triple the number the firm had initially predicted. Kitani says he felt a deep sense of satisfaction when he visited an ophthalmology clinic one day. He overheard an elderly woman telling her doctor, "It's nice that high-quality glasses are available at less expensive prices these days." Kitani believes that progressive lenses, which are aimed at middle-aged and older buyers, should be within a price range the elderly can afford with their pensions. He says the incident reminded him that he has a responsibility to produce and sell quality products at reasonable prices. Working alone has never bothered Kitani, he says. Rather, he has found it engrossing. When he was young, the head of a Hoya plant told him, "You're doing your job like a hobby." Kitani took it as a compliment and replied, "Thank you." The offended boss scolded him, saying his remark wasn't to be misconstrued as approval. Like any industry, manufacturers of optical glass are always fighting to stay ahead of the competition. Kitani recalls when Hoya was scooped by a rival in the development of a similar line of new products. He studied the competitor's product inside out and came up with his own original technical innovation. The result were lenses designed to substantially reduce distortion and the "swimming" sensation wearers experience when making swift head movements. Those particular lenses won him a Silmo d'Or, a coveted French prize equal to an Academy Award in the global eyewear industry. It is given to frames and lenses for excellence in design and technology at an annual exhibition held in Paris. Kitani tries out all his lenses on Hoya employees. "Humans see things with their brain," Kitani says. "We cannot make good glasses only by calculating the light coming into their eyes." With 20/20 vision, he does not usually need to wear glasses. But eight years ago, he developed presbyopia, a common condition in older people in which they have difficulty focusing on items close up, like the print on the pages of a book. He was pleasantly surprised to find bifocals did the trick. "Somehow, without any basis in fact, I was confident that I would never get presbyopia," he says. Kitani was rehired by the company for his world-class technological capabilities after he reached mandatory retirement age in September. He now works three days a week at Hoya's Lens Technology Center in Akiruno, Tokyo. "Let me continue to work until my graduation project is complete," he says with a smile, comparing retirement to graduation. [rc] Copyright 2010 The Asahi Shimbun Company Photo credit: Hoya Corp