“The thinking behind all my projects is to create a society where everyone lives the way they want to live. Let’s end this education where we have to force people to fit into society and make one where more people live as they are with the characteristics their parents endowed on them. All my projects are heading in that direction.”
This was the first thing that came out of Kenryu Nakamaura’. With ‘ROCKET’, that unearths elementary and junior high school students ‘genius’ who tend to skip school, or ‘DO-IT Japan’, the university and social experience program to help children afflicted by disability or illness. Or perhaps ‘ArTech’, to open up the possibilities for children with disabilities through the use of PCs and IC recorders etc… While serving a post at the Tokyo University Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, the place for the development of cutting-edge technology, it could be said his projects are quite the opposite of science technology.
Basically, it is important to find out what is behind what they are facing. It was an experience Nakamura had that proved to be the catalyst to work on assistive technology. During his time studying psychology as a student, he met a person with a speech impediment.
“He complained of stomach pains because of the stress from being unable to speak. He could only muster an ‘uh’ sound, and I was at a loss on how to alleviate that stress. As I was experimenting, I realized that as making this sound produced a voice, a computer could respond to that voice too.”
What Nakamura made was a baseball game where the bat was swung by voice. He told us that when tested on the man, the pain in the stomach disappeared in an instant.
“That game allowed us to communicate just by saying ‘uh’ so we were at the same level. Technology had made us equals. It was through this experience that took me on the path of assistive technology.”
The problems represented with each handicap were different from the next, and the social problems of a shortage of human resources and funds, are to be solved through an interdisciplinary approach of “techno-welfare”. To set up innovative programs by way of new points of view and ideas while grounded in specialized knowledge and technology, which would become something to give back to society. This is what Nakamura sees assistive technology should be like.
Also, aside from conventional academic research laboratories, Nakamura is also challenging the management system too. Leaving his work as a professor last year, his current title is “Professor”.
He is not on the country’s payroll but employs himself through his own funding. It is a unique set up. Even with staff, he employs part-time staff who he wants to work with.
“The robot creator Tomotaka Takahashi called me out of the blue one day and asked me if I would like to come and work with him. He said I cou ld do whatever I liked (laughs). And that is what we are doing. They are stimulated more by works than by papers. The direction of my team is that we should be dispatched in the middle of writing a paper. Fortunately that is what I can do at this university. I am able to carry out my work that is focused on helping society I have to make the most of this opportunity. I believe that is also my work.”
As he describes that freedom and the responsibility that comes with it, Nakamura tell us with a smile tells us that “to work with them is simply a joy”. But behind that smile is another side to his source of energy. That is “anger”.
“In Japan now, there are people that while they are adults, many of them have nowhere to go and are hurt inside. What pushed them past the brink was the education system in Japan? Though displaying different characteristics that are innate in them, they get told such things like ‘why can’t you do it like that child’, ‘not enough effort’ or perhaps ‘you are probably sick so take some medicine’. They’re terrible stories. It is incredibly difficult to make people who have left the mainstream of society to return. However much support is given, there comes a point where they can’t take it anymore and disappear forever. To hound them down to the lowest point where death seems to be the only way out. It just makes me angry. That anger is the energy that drives me. It’s fine to be different. To not judge others is what makes innovation happen. Let’s create a society where we wholly embrace ‘eccentrics’ and where those people can live with dignity. That is how I would sum it up.”
As Nakamura explains, what is asked for is not an institution that acknowledges their existence, but a new system where diversity should not be questioned. It’s not for these two to confront each other, but to let the world know that they can co-exist.
“Of course I’m serious. A university professor might be judged on their papers, but for us, we want to be judged on how we change society. You need those kinds of people, right? We set this up for all kinds of purposes and we have been getting a positive response. DO-IT Japan has been going for 10 years now, where for example, we have introduced support tools for the university entrance examinations, greatly changing the entrance exam system. The only way for society from this point is to go forward.
Kenryu Nakamura collects Scandinavian furniture from the 1950s and ’60s in his spare-time. Considering that all furniture collected so far is actually used in his home and Nakamura even tends to repair them himself, his habit has long surpassed the status of a mere hobby. “It’s not really a photographer’s artwork, but…” were the words with which Nakamura introduced his book of choice to us: “40 Years of Danish Furniture Design 1927-1966”, a condensed record of the best in Danish furniture design.
“Of course, the furniture design is just incredible, but there’s a beauty to the monochrome images themselves, too. The book lets me understand the value of photography as a record.”
“40 Years of Danish Furniture Design 1927-1966” is a catalogue set consisting of four volumes, created by a group of Danish cabinet makers and edited by furniture designer Grete Jalk. It is a precious collection not just for its documentation of Danish furniture and room design but also for the quiet, serene beauty of its black-and-white photographs.
Previously worked as an Associate Professor at Kagawa University Faculty of Education, and a Visiting Scholar at The University of Kansas and University of Wisconsin. Assumed the position of Project Professor at Tokyo University Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology in 2005 and appointed Professor of Assistive Technology in 2008. He aims to create an open society through an interdisciplinary and socially-minded approach of not only in psychology, engineering, education studies and rehabilitation studies but also art and design. Books include ‘Technology to develop the ‘Uniqueness’ of Children with Developmental Disabilities’ etc…