The transformation of Japan’s healthcare industry

Government efforts combined with the innovation coming from the private sector in healthcare is becoming a catalyst for Japan’s economic expansion

The Japanese government has positioned the healthcare sector as a key industry for development, and is implementing various measures and reforms to encourage innovation, address the health issues brought about by its aging population, and to increase exports of Japanese-made pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

“Abenomics is catalyzing the opportunity for the healthcare sector to take a more prominent role in the Japanese economy,” says Motoki Ozawa, President and CEO of Nidek, a company that develops medical devices and lab equipment for eyecare.

The government’s focus on healthcare is a blessing for Japanese healthcare companies across the board, which are supporting the efforts to take care of the nation’s elderly, investing in R&D to develop innovative new products, and expanding their operations overseas in order to gain a stronger footing in the international healthcare market.

“Due to Japan’s aging society, the healthcare sector is turning into one of the fastest-growing industries in the country,” says Masahiro Urakabe, President and CEO of SEED Corporation, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of contact lenses.

One company that could greatly benefit from the new regulation on medical devices is Asahi Intecc, which manufactures guide wires for catheter treatments.

“Until now, regulations for medical devices were included in regulations for pharmaceuticals. However, due to Abenomics now they have created specific regulations tailored to medical devices. In fact, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stated that the medical devices sector is one of the areas that Japan should focus on within the healthcare industry,” says Masahiko Miyata, president and CEO of the company.

Another measure Mr. Abe has taken to foster innovation in the healthcare industry was the establishment of the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED) in 2015. AMED’s role is to engage in research and development in the field of medicine, establishing and maintaining an environment for R&D, and providing funding, in order to promote integrated medical R&D from basic research to practical applications. AMED fits into a wider government strategy aimed at improving and redesigning Japan’s healthcare system.

“We are extremely happy with the establishment of AMED and its support towards regenerative medicine, since we ourselves, are involved in the development of iPS cells,” says Eishi Fuyama, Representative Director and President of Fujimori Kogyo, which manufactures plastic wrapping materials mainly for the pharmaceutical and food industries. The company also sells automatic packaging systems and building materials.

Kazuhiko Kitao, President and CEO of Kyoto Pharmaceutical Industries (KPI) is also praiseworthy of government efforts to promote innovation and R&D in the healthcare sector. “The government is promoting the collaboration between the private sector and academia in order to foster drug discovery,” he says.

KPI itself is a prime example of a company that is investing heavily in R&D. It is focusing on the discovery of novel compounds and the creation of original formulations to develop innovative new drugs, particularly for Japan’s elderly population. “We are striving to come up with new innovations. For instance, we have successfully developed ODK (orally disintegrating tablets of Kyoto), which facilitates intake especially for the elderly,” adds Mr. Kitao.

Another company defined by its development of innovative new products is NOF Corporation. which has a long history as an oleochemistry (the study of vegetable oils and animal oils and fats) pioneer, and remains the leader in this field in Japan.

In addition to oleochemistry products such as fatty acids, their derivatives, and surfactants, the company has interests in the environment and energy, information technology, electronics and life science industries.

“We are involved in multifaceted businesses from functional chemicals such as fatty acids to life science products,” says NOF president & CEO, Akiharu Kobayashi. “Currently we are investing our resources in three business fields, and life sciences is among them. For instance, we have successfully developed a polymer (LIPIDURE®) with a wide variety of applications including eyecare and diagnostic agents, as well as DDS (Drug Delivery Systems) technologies among others.”

Lifestyle diseases are becoming ever more prevalent globally. One Japanese company innovating to address this issue is Omron. When it comes to conditions like heart disease, early detection is key. Omron’s products range from home-use devices such as blood pressure monitors, digital thermometers and body composition monitors, to professional medical equipment capable of detecting hardening of the arteries and analyzing visceral fat.

“At Omron, we are currently focusing on three medical fields which are lifestyle diseases, respiratory diseases and health promotion,” explains Isao Ogino, the company’s president and CEO. “Our goal is to provide our consumers with innovative products and services that help healthy people prevent illness and stay fit”

Like AMED, the National Center for Child Health and Development (NCCHD) is promoting advanced medicine and innovative research, but particularly in healthcare for infants and children.

“All of our resources are intended to support children’s health and R&D,” says president, Takashi Igarashi. “My top priorities as the president of Japan’s NCCHD is the continued development of state-of-the-art treatment for children.”

Development, production and distribution of optical frames, sunglasses and surgical instruments is the core business of Charmant, which is present in over 100 countries. Thanks to its experience in the optical eyewear industry, the company was able to apply this expertise in the medical field and successfully develop surgical instruments, says chairman Kaoru Horikawa. “We are an innovator in the field of titanium surgical instruments; and we are currently expanding our surgical instruments overseas.”

Expanding overseas is a key priority for many healthcare companies in Japan. Kyowa Hakko Kirin, an R&D-based life sciences company with special strengths in biotechnology, is pursuing aggressive global expansion.

“We are looking forward to expanding our business in the U.S., Europe and Asia,” says Nobuo Hanai, president and CEO of the company. “Currently our revenue coming from overseas accounts for 28 percent of total revenue. However, through our global expansion we are expecting this percentage to increase to 50 percent by 2020.”

The company is also collaborating with Pfizer in the field of immune-oncology, and is considering partnerships with other key players from the industry in order to develop new anti-cancer drugs.

Nidek’s Mr. Ozawa says his company is also focusing on the U.S., Asian and European markets, and explains the company’s overseas expansion strategy: “We define our overseas expansion as multi-domestic, meaning that we do not apply the same strategy to each country but rather create a tailormade strategy for each of them.”

One important factor that is helping Japanese healthcare companies expand their presence overseas is Japan’s reputation for high quality and attention to detail in manufacturing, which in Japan is known as monozukuri.

“I believe that the Japanese monozukuri spirit is very important to our nation,” says Kyowa Hakko Kirin’s Mr. Hanai. “For instance, in our R&D facilities, we are employing top-class researchers that are very passionately engaging in the discovery of new, innovative and high-quality drugs.”

Similarly, SEED Corporation’s Mr. Urakabe says, “I believe that Japanese products are acknowledged abroad because of their reliability, and that is because of our thorough quality controls, it’s within our culture.”

Jonathan Meaney

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