INTERVIEW

Masayuki Katayama

From when and how did the planning of walking bicycle club start?

In 2007, my father, Norio Katayama suddenly passed away so the following year, I had to return from our subsidiary company in the United States where I had worked for eighteen years and assumed office as the CEO. At that time, the automobile industry in Japan was moving forward with globalization and it became common for carmakers to move their factories to Asia and Mexico, thus drastically decreasing the volume of production in Japan. In September of 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers shook the world and an age of anxiety was born; no one knew what could happen. The following year in 2009, General Motors and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy. Our company has a history over 70 years with 500 employees manufacturing automotive parts in Ibara, Okayama. It is our duty to maintain this number and to do so, I strongly believed that we could not only rely on automobiles and had to seek for other business opportunities.

What made you consider this particular business?

In May of 2009, my friend and I were having a discussion about his father who at the time was in his late 80s and liked to take walks as a hobby. However, there was an issue of his father not being able to walk on his own in the near future. So then my friend thought of an idea and asked me, “Could you make a standing mobility aid at your company?” I received a sketch from him and after about 3 months, I started to wonder if we could actually make this a new business.

Do you mean that this vehicle was originally for elderly people?

It was so in the beginning. We considered a four-wheel vehicle in the beginning for stability but we found that this would be considered as a light vehicle, therefore requiring a driver’s license to ride. It was then when we started to study the Japanese road laws and decided to make it a tricycle. At that time, the only transportation devices available for the elderly were electric wheelchairs and scooters. The concept was to create a mobility which one could ride as if they were walking, but maintain the speed of a bicycle. I chose four engineers from our development department and launched the project in September of 2009.

How long did it take to make the prototype?

We were working with a design office in Hiroshima and took about 3 years.

How was the reaction of the prototype?

In the summer of 2012, the same friend who came to me with the idea introduced us to a well-known female producer. Right off the bat, she asked, “Is this a cultivator?” Because we made the prototype with a team of mechanical engineers, everything such as the gears and chain were exposed. She then offered to introduce us to a product designer who was drawing attention in the design industry. From there, we went back to the beginning and the development was completed in 2014. We held a press conference on April 30th and sales started from October 30th.

Has the concept changed compared to what it was in the beginning?

At the start of the project, the product was targeted towards the elderly. However, as the development progressed, I began to feel a strong potential for a different market. When you ride the vehicle, words cannot express how fun and exciting it is. On a normal bicycle, it is natural to sit on a saddle and lean your body forward. On a road bike, this position becomes more extreme. As for the walking bicycle, the rider must take a standing position to ride the vehicle. The handle is also placed in relation to your shoulders and arms. The ride is always effortless due to the natural posture of the rider and the movement. With all of these elements in mind, the vehicle also moves very smoothly so this is why the walking bicycle is for people of all ages. The design is also beautiful. From there, we decided not to target the product to the elderly, but to the younger generation who have an eye for fashion and culture.

Were there similiarities between the development of the walking bicycle and the manufacturing of automotive parts?

In the area of automotive parts manufacturing, Japan remains to be the best in the world. Despite the fact that many carmakers are shifting their production to other Asian countries, Japan will never lose in technique. That is how high the quality of Japanese manufacturing is. The same precision displayed in the automotive parts is displayed in the production of walking bicycle. The development of the walking bicycle and automotive parts is precisely the same in terms of monozukuri (manufacturing), but there is one more thing. Our company philosophy encourages us to have a challenging spirit; to never be afraid of failure, to always think positively, and to have the courage to accept a challenge. I believe that this philosophy was what set the mindset and drove us to complete the project.

Tell us about your plans of expanding overseas.

There is a hotel within the city where they rent out the walking bicycles and we hear that many of their guests from overseas enjoy them very much. There are some who wish to purchase the vehicles to bring back to their home countries. We think perhaps people outside of Japan have great interest and appreciate new ideas compared to those in Japan. Having this in mind, we would like to sell the walking bicycles internationally in the near future. My dream is to release a product no one has ever seen before from our city of Ibara, Okayama to the world.