Story 21: Thoughts During My New Years Climbing Expedition

  • MIscellaneous
January 1, 2013

Thoughts During My New Years Climbing Expedition
Naoto Izumo
R&D Division 5, A&D Company, Limited


                                                                                Happy New Year to you all!

Balance enclosure

January 5, 2007, 9:30am, fine weather on the summit of Mt. Daisen, looking across to the Kengamine peak

The Development Stories, which started in April 2010, have already reached their third year of publication. With the start of the New Year I have taken the opportunity to share my experiences climbing Mt. Daisen in the west of Honshu and offer my personal opinions on the present state of Japan from the viewpoint of the measurement and weighing devices market.

On the 3rd of January this year I climbed the 1,709m peak of Mt. Daisen in Tottori Prefecture in Western Honshu, the main island of Japan. Mt. Daisen does not have a particularly high altitude, but as it lies directly adjacent to the Japan Sea it receives very heavy snowfall and bears the full brunt of the seasonal winds which hit the area, meaning weather on the mountain can be very severe in winter. This means that the tree line on Mt. Daisen barely reaches more than halfway up the peak. Above that lies only alpine scrub, which gets fully covered in snow during the winter, leaving an almost completely white landscape for those who wander that far.

As it was the New Year holidays, there were about 40 people climbing the mountain that day, in about 20 different groups. However, due to strong winds and heavy mist, visibility fell to less than 10 meters and most people turned around by the 7th station (out of 10 to the peak). As I had previously lost my bearings near the top of the mountain on an earlier winter trip I had a little apprehension about proceeding, but decided to continue at least as far as I could. I continued from the 7th station past the 9th station, where the slope starts to level out. Passing the mountain hut just below the summit I reached the point that can be considered the highest on Mt. Daisen. Near the summit I met two fellow climbers who were coming from Kyoto.

The three of us started searching for the summit together, but as the mountain is cut into a very steep north face and south face past the summit, it is an extremely dangerous place if one loses their footing. As the visibility was also very low, we determined the summit to be a location where the height fell off in every direction, and without full confirmation that we had properly summited, started our descent.

On our descent there was an unrelenting gale coming from the northwest. It was blowing directly into us at about 20m per second, meaning we couldn't walk in a straight line and it was possible that we would start to lose our orientation and wander around in circles. We had to focus our attention on the poles placed 5-10m apart guiding the descent and wait for a break in the whiteout conditions to navigate between them while climbing down.

Actually, just above the 6th station on my ascent, I had happened to run into a mountain rescue team of about eight members descending, who I assumed were climbing the mountain for practice drills. At that time, I was told that the mountain was very dangerous above the 7th station so I should not attempt to climb to the summit. I understood that I would have become a target for criticism if, after ignoring the warning from the mountain rescue team, I became lost on the snowfield near the summit and got stuck near the top in a dangerous zone.

In fact, the New Year season this year saw many missing people in high altitude regions when very wintery conditions hit Japan. Of course glamorizing mountaineering misadventures is a very imprudent thing to do. However, while locking yourself away at home may be a completely safe way to live one's life, I believe that each individual's inner spirit of adventure, as well as the willpower and stamina to achieve those dreams, are absolutely essential to every person leading a fulfilling and rewarding life.

For example, there are many adventurers from Germany and it is said that if you were to travel to any corner of the world you would be very likely to meet a German person there. We can perhaps hence presume that in Germany there are many people who are willing to bear some risk of death in order to achieve their adventurous goals, and also that society there is permissive in letting them follow that path. In Japan on the other hand, most people would question why anybody would want to attempt climbing a dangerous mountain at all. Rather than this negative attitude, we could think that a certain number of people exposing themselves to danger is actually quite a natural state of affairs; and the majority of people who lack an adventurous spirit, do not aim to reach faraway lands or high mountains and live a completely risk-averse life, are in fact, in a certain way of looking at things, the ones living in unnatural circumstances.

Dozens of people drown each week during the summer swimming season and around 40 people die in road accidents in one day in Japan. While there is a difference in parameters, considering these facts, and considering the fact that only incidents that occur rarely are reported in the news, for the number of people that expose themselves to danger through such outdoor activities in the mountains, it is completely natural that accidents should occur at some frequency. Rather, I believe that there is a high chance the people who merely watch these events on the news and criticize those involved are actually the ones leading an unnatural life.

I will return to the subject of weighing devices. I have already discussed this before, but the levels of precision of weighing devices are rising higher and higher in recent years and weighing devices measuring in 1 microgram units are increasingly being found in many locations, including on production lines in growing industries. Also for analysis work, microanalysis in micrograms is increasingly becoming the established procedure. With this in mind, particularly in developed countries, holding an advantage in quality could be thought of holding an economic advantage on a global scale, an inescapable necessity when considering the continued existence of today's corporations. Market demands regarding microgram level weighing capabilities on the production line started in Japan, but are already surging in foreign markets, focused around Asia. Future trends are being watched closely.

Six or seven years ago, Japanese makers had an approximately 80% share of the global market for lithium ion batteries. At that time, in order to maintain quality standards in the lithium batteries, total inspection weighing was started. A&D provided advice to many battery makers at that time, both in Japan and overseas, on how to incorporate a weighing device into automated equipment.

While there were many twists and turns, eventually Korean makers were able to rapidly introduce weighing devices into their production lines with readings with one extra digit on their Japanese competitors. While being surprised at the large number of devices ordered and the speed of their resolve in introducing this technological development, I also felt a strong sense of danger. This is because the number of weighing device units introduced was able to directly match with production quantities as they were, and consequently had an influence on unit price and could be thought to determine market competitiveness.

This kind of development has not been limited to batteries, but similar circumstances can also be seen in production systems for LEDs or liquid crystal displays as well. These technologies were nurtured over several decades by Japanese developers, but in the end Korean manufacturers cornered the market, and at a country level Korea has reaped a lot more profit than Japan. Unfortunately this danger to Japan is real, and if compared to a more historical example, reminds me of the trade friction between the U.S. and Japan over D-RAM in the 1980s.

However, for parts and components for assembly in production equipment or finished products, even now the global market is still completely dominated by those with a Made in Japan logo or a Japanese brand name on the side. In other words, you could say that even if Japan loses the competition for technology in assembling finished products, it is still number one for the parts technology which forms the basis of those finished products. Regardless of the size of the corporation, the cultivation of future engineers and scientists adept in this parts technology can be considered dependent on having senior veterans with a passion which continues to burn for their craft and a next generation greedy to receive this valuable knowledge. Corporations which keep their focus on maintaining this technological advantage will definitely remain firm in their market dominance.

For weighing devices as well, if the general purpose analytical balance market, most dependent on technology, alone is considered, there are presently about five companies in Europe and three in Japan which are making ground in the market. In America, there are no longer any weighing device manufacturers which are expanding internationally on their own, so dominance of the global market is presently split between European might and Japanese might. The only country with two analytical balance makers which operate on a truly global scale is Germany. Meanwhile, the fact that there are three analytical balance makers in Japan which are each expanding globally clearly demonstrates the high level of Japanese technology in the fields of precision tools and computerization of their devices.

This means that domestic competition in Japan is very fierce. It is well understood that maturing one's business in a tough domestic market is directly linked to improved international competitiveness. With the present downsizing of the Japanese market, the competition between Japanese rivals could be considered as stimulating the penetration of foreign markets with strengthened competitiveness. The Japanese makers had a late start in mechanisms and computerization (mechatronics) compared to their European rivals. However, they have presently overcome that late start and could be said to have caught up with the leading pack. Accordingly, how they can each follow their own independent courses from here onwards will be an issue for all of them.

The domestic Japanese weighing devices market has new areas of demand, such as one created by new needs associated with the aging of Japan's population. However, on the whole, the existing market related to weighing devices is moving on quite a low note. Therefore, as with other sectors, there is a necessity for weighing device makers to expand into new fields as quickly as possible.

For example, in relation to the societal shift mentioned above, the medical field is looking very promising in the future. The number one cause of death among Japanese senior citizens, particularly men, is not cancer, but pneumonia caused by dysphagia. Sufferers of dysphagia have trouble controlling the swallowing process and accidental swallowing can cause bronchitis, which in turn can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia can easily become a fatal disease in the elderly. Further, for gastric fistulas occurring with patients who find oral ingestion difficult, the massive reduction in quality of life for the patient, which can subsequently lead to them losing their will to live, is an extremely significant healthcare problem. In order to reduce dysphagia or gastric fistulas, there is a necessity to evaluate the swallowability of food products. To achieve this, viscosity management for food products which stabilizes rapidly and has good reproducibility is essential.

At the academic society of dysphagia, several research papers were published demonstrating the superiority of the tuning fork vibro viscometer, in this case meaning that other existing viscometers available have difficulty measuring viscosities in a low range. Even considering this fact, not becoming entrenched in use of earlier viscometers which dominated the market for a very long time, and instead enthusiastically assessing and adopting a measurement device in the research stage which employs a new method of measurement could be considered a very rare occurrence in Japan. The reason why I feel this way is that every time we went to potential customers to demo the tuning fork vibro viscometer immediately after developing the product, even though the customers could appreciate the high speed stabilization that the new tuning fork vibro viscometer could achieve, the customer was purely focused every time on the compatibility with their earlier viscometer.

But perhaps you could say that in the consumption and swallowing field their problems concern responsibility over peoples' lives, so they have some urgency in introducing a new measurement device that can certifiably address these problems.

To summarize the points above, I think one could say that the present economic conditions in Japan can be considered a result of a rise in a focus on stability within Japanese society, together with avoidance among Japanese executives, particularly in large corporations, of decisions which bear risks, taking maintenance of present conditions as their most important goal. Also, while Japan is a country of technology manufacturers, there has been a weakening of their technological orientation. Another factor is, as always, the conservative attitudes of the Japanese public as a whole.

At a glance, the present feeling of hopelessness in Japanese society and present economic circumstances seem to have no connection at all to the typical Japanese response to mountain accidents, but at the basis of both of these mindsets you can catch a glimpse of a common stance of self-preservation in a risk-free environment and an offering of nothing but criticism, as well as, sadly, a lack of a spirit of adventure or challenge.

Some say that in the past a political transition or transfer of power did not do the slightest good for the life of the average person. With people renewing their hope for a change in present circumstances to be handed to them from above with the recent change in government in Japan, I personally hope for a year challenging myself with some new theme, and plan to embrace all challenges that come to me, both in personal and work life, with renewed enthusiasm.

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