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November 13, 2017

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Innovation reshapes Japanese companies

Kao Corp, Fijifilm Holdings Corp and other icons of Japan Inc are making the transition from traditional to contemporary by innovation and rapid response to changing market conditions.

Kao, a chemical and cosmetics company established in 1887, began as a producer of toiletry soap. In the 1960s, the company expanded into household, laundry and industrial products. It later added skincare and cosmetics, finally expanding into food this century.

“Creating new value through a consumer-driven approach has been the key principle of our company,” Ryota Ogawa, manager of Kao’s corporate communications, told Shanghai Daily.

“First, we have to be a bit ahead of the market to lead and even create a new market,” he said. “But we can’t be too much ahead or it would be difficult for the public to accept new concepts and products. Second, we keep applying key technology into new products. For example, Kao has been studying foam for over 100 years, and there is still space for further innovation, like to control the shape of foam.” He said when the company developed hand-washing liquid products for the Disneyland Resort in Japan, it created foam in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head.

“That proved to be extremely popular among children,” Ogawa said. “We further developed foam in the shape of a rose.”

Kao is continually searching for markets in need of new technology.

Ogawa cited Kao’s Merries diapers, developed in Japan but made for China in 2013. The strategy was based on the company’s research of thousands of Chinese families.

“Our research showed that Chinese mothers change diapers less frequently than mothers in Japan,” Ogawa said. “Therefore, the diapers require better absorption. Also, Chinese mothers tend to be more concerned about the risk of eczema in babies, so we enhanced the diaper’s air permeability by changing the shape of the product.”

Innovative technology in chemicals also contributed to the development of Kao’s new silica dispersion enhancer, which contributes to carbon dioxide reduction by balancing fuel efficiency with the wet-trip performance of tires. The company was also the world’s first manufacturer to succeed in developing a toner binder with polyester resin and a de-inking agent that reduces dependence on natural resources.

Kao is not the only company moving ahead with new products in new areas. “Value from innovation” is the motto imprinted on the name cards of Fujifilm staff.

Seeing the switch from traditional film to digital photography, Fijifilm expanded into businesses like the manufacture of artificial skin and organs, as well as the cosmetics industry.

According to the company’s global financial report, market demand for color film dropped by as much as 90 percent from 2000 to 2012. After restructuring, Fujifilm’s traditional business accounted for no more than 1 percent of revenue last year, compared with almost a fifth in 2000.

Fujifilm’s core technologies now include technology to change the molecular structure of organic compounds, the manufacture of low-molecular weight compounds, high-precision forming and coating technology, and processes used in diagnosis and medical treatment utilizing intrinsic functions of living organisms.

Its developments in producing collagen proteins, originally used for film-making, have been applied to the manufacture of artificial skin and organs. In the medical equipment area, Fujifilm has applied its laser control and image processing technologies to a system that enhances the visibility of lesions caused by diseases such as cancer.

“To make use of existing technologies, to inspire people and to empower the transformation of society is our move toward innovation,” Takahiro Taguchi, manager of corporate communications and corporate planning, told Shanghai Daily.

The trip to Japan was sponsored by the Japan Institute for Social and Economic Affairs and Shanghai People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries.


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