Once an avid skier and golfer, Mitsuru Haruyama saw his world change drastically in 1980, when he learned he had developed a severe form of muscular dystrophy, the muscle-wasting disease. He experienced another jolt five years later when ordering his first wheelchair. Only two models were available, and the salesman didn't even bother to measure Haruyama to make adjustments. That got him thinking about the poor state of health care in Japan -- at a time when its population was aging rapidly. "I realized this could be a golden business opportunity," he recalls.
The enterprising Osaka native hasn't looked back since. And in the course of his odyssey he has taught the Japanese new ways to think about the disabled, the elderly, and the country's entire approach to health care.
Today, Haruyama, 49, is president of the consultancy Handi Network International and one of Japan's leading health-care experts. He helps major corporations develop products and services geared for the handicapped. And he is the driving force behind Japan's first "mixed-living" community, which opened in a Tokyo suburb in May. The $220 million complex, financed by Orix Corp., comprises 740 homes and apartments for families, assisted living facilities, and medical and day care for everyone from toddlers to the elderly.
But perhaps Haruyama's greatest accomplishment has been changing the mind-set in Japan's health-care industry -- which had long been government-controlled and inferior in quality. Haruyama has authored nine books that offer advice on how the industry can become more profitable as well as develop services better tailored for the elderly and handicapped. Although at this stage he has little motor movement below the neck, Haruyama gives about 100 lectures a year.
Big business has beaten a path to his small Osaka headquarters. Haruyama's firm -- which had $11 million in revenues last year -- has worked with Toyota Motor Corp. to develop cars that are wheelchair-accessible. He helped Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co.'s beverage division create a "barrier-free" vending machine with disabled users in mind. He designed an in-flight wheelchair for Japan Air System Co. And Haruyama just finished developing a bed with Sanyo Electric Co. that can be programmed to roll a bedridden person over. The invention is giving Haruyama's own wife some relief: Until recently, she has had to turn him over several times each night.
Ironically, Haruyama's father, a real estate broker, wanted Haruyama and his brother to become doctors, and both were ready to comply. The brother entered a prestigious medical school, but Haruyama failed entrance exams two years in a row. After traveling around Europe and working as a ski instructor, Haruyama returned to Japan hoping to work for his father, later going into business for himself.
At the age of 24, Haruyama began to develop strange symptoms: He couldn't stand on his tip-toes, for instance. He ignored the symptoms for two years until, at the insistence of his brother, he went for the checkup that resulted in the diagnosis of MD. "I had to prepare for the day when I wouldn't be able to get around on my own," he recalls. "The most important thing was to build up my business." Although his disease progressed, Haruyama made enough money in real estate to move into health care by 1987 -- just as the property bubble was entering its final phase.
Today, the former real estate agent is working to convert bubble-era white elephants into retirement communities. Thanks to Haruyama's efforts, the country's first such community will open at a former golf resort in western Japan next year. Haruyama foresees a series of similar projects across the country. He believes that Japanese aged 65 and over, who have stashed away $6 trillion in savings, are ready to take the plunge. "Why should they take it to the grave?" he asks. Despite his disease, Haruyama remains a tireless entrepreneur.