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Seller of educational toys finds a niche

With imported products, Bornelund President Hiroko Nakanishi wants to change the way Japanese kids play

by Hiroko Nakata

With relatively few parks to run around in, many children spend long hours either at cram schools or playing their hand-held game consoles.

Hiroko Nakanishi, president of Bornelund Inc., is on a mission to change the way Japanese children spend their free time.

“Children should grow up with a good balance of heart, mind and body,” Nakanishi, 63, told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

Believing that children should have good educational toys to play with, Nakanishi’s company imports toys from Europe and the United States that can be used safely indoors.

Bornelund was established in 1981 by Masayuki Nakanishi, Hiroko’s husband, who had worked for a Japanese trading company and handled imports of European toys, including Lego blocks from Denmark. He was impressed by foreign toys and puzzles that help children learn about shapes and numbers.

The quality of these educational toys imported by Bornelund slowly became well-known among Japanese mothers over the past three decades by word of mouth.

In particular, the company got a boost when a newspaper ran an article in October 2003 featuring Nakanishi and her efforts to popularize quality toys.

Sales in the business year that ended in January stood at ¥3.69 billion, up about 30 percent from five years ago.

For example, one of the most popular toys is called Looping. The Dutch creation teaches children shapes and colors using small beads that can be manipulated on looped and twisted wires.

About 60 percent of Bornelund’s sales now come from imported toys.

The company has 82 outlets across Japan, including the latest one that opened in the Roppongi Hills commercial complex in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on April 18.

Meanwhile, the toy importer is steadily expanding its indoor playgrounds and business to develop and maintain playground equipment, which now account for 40 percent of the company’s total sales.

When Bornelund first set up an indoor playground in 2002 in Kitakyushu, many children in Japan were already obsessed with computer games or forced to attend cram schools. Nakanishi worried this unhealthy lifestyle would lead to obesity among children.

For this reason, the company came up with the indoor playground, called Asobi no sekai (The world of play), which is a safe and secure place at a time when kidnappings of small children are on the rise and many are injured by hard falls from metal playground equipment onto concrete ground.

In the indoor playgrounds, children exert 1.5 times the physical energy than at usual child-care facilities, according to studies by Kazuhiko Nakamura, an associate professor at the University of Yamanashi who specializes in childhood development.

The company’s indoor playgrounds are filled with good toys and safe equipment. For example, Cyber Wheel, developed with Per Kolle, a former Danish athletics champion and now an expert on children’s physical education, is a 1.6-meter-diameter inflated vinyl tunnel. Once in the tunnel, kids can easily roll around.

Rolling around stimulates the brain and develops a sense of balance and spatial sense, Nakanishi said. “An hour of exercise makes children sweat a lot,” she added.

There are four similar indoor playgrounds in Yokohama, Kyoto, Shin-Kobe and Kobe. Nakanishi said she plans to add two more this year.

On weekends, these indoor play spaces are busy with children and parents. The cost per child is ¥600 for the first half-hour and an adult pays ¥200.

But it was not easy for Bornelund to find its way.

In 1981, when the company started selling foreign toys that help develop a child’s intellect, most of the domestic products were plastic models of cartoon characters. Wholesalers had no interest in expensive imported toys.

Hiroko’s husband responded by opening outlets where sales staff explained the quality of the toys.

By the time Hiroko took over from her husband, who stepped down due to illness in 1994, toys imported by Bornelund were gradually catching on with mothers.

“I’m lucky. Because I am a woman, mothers feel more comfortable listening to me, and trust me,” Nakanishi said.

In Japan, female presidents are still rare.

But hardships continue. The recent surge in the euro has pushed up the cost of imported toys. The rising euro has forced the company to limit its profit margin to avoid repeatedly raising the prices of the toys, which would cool consumer interest, Nakanishi said.

Bornelund now looks to China, where it opened a playground in Shanghai in 2006. It plans to open 30 similar facilities in big cities in China over the next three years, she said.

In this occasional series, we interview entrepreneurs whose spirit may hold the key to a more competitive Japan.

Highlights of Nakanishi’s career

1981 — Bornelund is established.

1986 — First outlet is launched in the Shinsaibashi district in Osaka.

1994 — Hiroko Nakanishi becomes president.

2001 — Flagship store opens in Jingumae in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

2002 — Bornelund sets up first indoor playground in Kitakyushu.

2008 — Outlet opens in Roppongi Hills in Minato Ward, Tokyo.