15-yr-old in Japan turns hardship with hypersensitivity into fashion, support business
TOKYO -- What if just the brush of your clothes against your skin was uncomfortable to the point of pain? What if you couldn't enjoy a nice meal because the tastes and smells of the food so overwhelmed your senses? That is the world 15-year-old Jiei Kato has lived in since he was a small child.
But at the age of 12, the now first-year high school student from the city of Narashino, Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo, spun his experiences with "hyperesthesia" into a business connecting those with the same condition. Through these efforts, Kato aims to create a society where everyone can realize their full potential.
Kato has also launched a crowdfunding campaign (https://camp-fire.jp/projects/view/428761） to set up a line of hypersensitivity-friendly clothing he developed himself. The Mainichi Shimbun talked with the young company president about his endeavors.
The high schooler launched Crystalroad Inc. in 2018 with his mother Satomi, now 46, when he was in his first year of middle school. The two began offering support to parents and children seeking to start businesses together, like them, but the business failed to take off. Kato's father, an employee of a company, said, "As part of your work, maybe you should tackle the adverse circumstances you face." In January 2020, Kato founded Kabin Lab, an organization under Crystalroad that distributes information on hyperesthesia and develops products for those with the condition.
According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare website and other sources, hyperesthesia refers to a state of heightened sensitivity of the senses, including sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.
"As a child, I thought that everyone put up with the pain of wearing clothes," said Kato, who wears only a sleeveless undershirt and underwear at home the year round. "I try to choose undergarments that hurt as little as possible, and are comfortable to wear," he said. He added that he has so many undergarments that his mother bought for him but that he couldn't tolerate that they fill an entire cardboard box.
Hyperesthesia limits Kato's food choices as well. His go-to meal is rice and miso soup, and he eats shabu-shabu, or thinly sliced meat cooked in broth, five times a week. He says he can eat "karaage" fried chicken, depending on the parts used. But all this is not out of some extreme pickiness. Kato said, "Food smells and flavors are unbearable, and I just can't eat things."
Lunchtime during his elementary school years was also a headache. He found out from his friend's brother about a private junior and senior high school that allowed students to bring their own lunches, and passed the entrance exam. Although the problem with his own lunches was solved, he still suffered from the smell of his classmates' meals. He also found the high-pitched voices of female students unbearable, and was tormented by his tight-fitting uniform.
He confided in his school nurse during his first year of junior high, and was told that he may have hyperesthesia. Reflecting on the time, Kato said that when he looked up the condition after returning home, the symptoms matched his situation precisely, and that "at once, everything fell into place."
However, this did not lead to a real solution to his problems. He later dropped out of middle school and founded Kabin Lab. He first put out a social media call to others with hyperesthesia, and within days he had a group of 25 people. "Although symptoms vary by the individual, there were more people facing similar difficulties than I'd expected, which surprised me. I also learned that there were people having a harder time than I was," Kato said.
He currently runs an online community with around 480 members, including people with hypersensitivity to sound, taste, smell, and touch, as well as their families. Kato's job is to facilitate discussion while generating some form of support for their daily lives.
The coronavirus outbreak hit soon after he opened Kabin Lab. The first challenge Kato faced was dealing with masks. There are quite a few people with hypersensitivity to touch that find masks extremely uncomfortable. Kato designed signs to inform others of the condition, with descriptions reading, "Due to hypersensitivity, I struggle with wearing masks," and "I'm unable to wear a mask," and made them available for free download from Kabin's website. He also developed "sensu masks" which can be spread out like a folding fan and cover the mouth. They are available for purchase online.
Based on his own experience struggling to find garments that meet his needs, the young entrepreneur also planned to create pain-free clothing. While he has a hard time wearing clothes, Kato said, "I wish I could walk the streets dressed in the same way as young people of my generation, rather than wearing the same clothes over and over again to prioritize how they feel on my skin."
Kato studied dressmaking starting with its very basics, and tracked down a textile trading company staffer who introduces fabrics on YouTube. Once square pieces of sample cloth arrived, he spent over half a year testing out their texture by rubbing them against his skin, and set out to develop a special hoodie.
Kato's hoodie does not have the tags seen on usual store-bought clothing|. The seams are on the outside, and are designed to be stylish. The hood is large so that the flaps can cover the mouth like a mask. The first prototype was completed in December 2020, and many improvements have been made since.
The teenager's crowdfunding campaign to cover creating the hoodie as well as pants, T-shirts and other products runs through Oct. 25. Kato hopes to launch the apparel under the brand name Kankaku Factory next January, and begin online sales.
Kato returned to school at Kadokawa Dwango Gakuen's N junior high section, which offers online lessons, and entered the S high school section this past spring.
"Actually, I want to join in fun activities befitting someone my age. I want to go to amusement parks with friends, and travel to Osaka to eat takoyaki. I'd like to try these kinds of things. But I can't bear certain tastes and smells, and my friends would be forced to worry about that. So, I can't plan that kind of trip," said Kato.
He continued, "My motto is to live without giving up on the present. I'd like to move forward one step at a time, to develop solutions to everyone's concerns and problems. I'd be happy if many people could lend their support."
(Japanese original by Yuka Obuno, Digital News Center)