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Nagasaki firm develops nonslip, earless masks that anyone can wear

Kosuke Inoue is seen wearing a mask that can stay on without being attached to the ears while showing another one. (Mainichi/Atsuki Nakayama)

NAGASAKI -- Out of consideration for people who cannot wear regular masks, and in response to an inquiry from a customer, a garment maker in the city of Isahaya in this southwestern Japan prefecture has developed and begun selling a nonslip mask that can be worn without attaching it to the ears.

    The product, developed by Bisen Co. head Kosuke Inoue, 40, went on sale from the middle of November. It has proven very popular with people who previously struggled to wear masks, such as those with microtia -- a congenital condition in which the ears are much smaller than most people's -- and for individuals who found masks getting in the way of their use of glasses or hearing aids.

    At Kyushu Yamaguchi Venture Market, held Nov. 4 in the city of Fukuoka in the nearby prefecture of the same name, Bisen was honored with an award for excellence in the second entrepreneurial category -- a first for any business in Nagasaki Prefecture.

    Amid the success and praise for the new masks, the Mainichi Shimbun spoke to Inoue to find out the story behind their development.

    Mainichi Shimbun: So, how does the nonslip mask work?

    Kosuke Inoue: It's actually very simple. The part of the mask's inside layer which touches the nose has a small, silicon-coated triangular shape sewn into it; this then keeps the mask on by pinching the nose. Then you wind the attached hook with an elastic band around the back of your head and secure it to the other side of the mask. Doing so means that even when you take the mask down from your ears, it still stays on.

    MS: What led you to make it?

    KI: At the start of October, a customer who had come to us to buy some of our baby clothes told us, "I know someone whose daughter has microtia, and they're worried because she can't put on masks. Do you have any masks that you don't need to put on from your ears?" As a company, our specialty lies in making swimming caps and other products, but with the spread of the new coronavirus we'd also started doing masks, so we told the customer right away that we would make something, and by the end of October we'd finished the product.

    MS: Did the short development time generally go well?

    KI: It was a series of failures. When we only had the string stretching round the back of the head to secure it, the mask would keep falling down when moving the mouth. Putting something on the cheeks to stop the slippage also didn't work. The design gradually got more complicated and bigger in size, and we were just churning out these ungainly looking prototypes. Then, when I threw my hands up over my face and told myself there was no way, my fingers touched my nose, and it came to me then that we might be able to secure the mask to the nose.

    I sent a prototype to a representative for a group whose members include people with microtia. They sent me back comments saying, "To make it easier for even children to put the masks on, it would be better if the hooks on them were slightly bigger." After making the improvements, we sent them the final product. They then gave us the seal of approval and said "You could patent this." That gave us a confidence boost. We've already filed a utility model registration with the Japan Patent Office.

    MS: What are your aims for the future?

    KI: Already masks have become necessary items in everyday life. We need to have a society in which anyone can easily wear one. It appears that microtia affects one in every 6,000 to 10,000 people. All around the world there must be hundreds of thousands of people distressed by this, and I want to work to sell these masks even overseas, and make them more widely used.

    The masks come in four sizes and 18 colors. They cost about 600 yen (about $5.75) each. Bisen can be contacted on 0957-34-3213 (Japanese language only).

    (Japanese original by Atsuki Nakayama, Nagasaki Bureau)

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