UTSUNOMIYA, Tochigi Pref. — The delicate hands and intuitive judgment of Yoshimasa Katori enable him do what no precision machine has ever accomplished — polish glass into perfectly curved lenses.

Craftsman Yoshimasa Katori displays Canon Inc.’s stock of Newton gauges.

He can distinguish between 0.03 micron and 0.04 micron and can manually polish a lens with an irregularity of less than 0.06 micron. One micron is equal to one-thousandth of a millimeter.

“We tried several times to mechanize the (lens-polishing) process (of Newton gauges), but we didn’t succeed,” Katori said at Canon Inc.’s lens production factory here.

This stunning level of precision is a must when producing Newton gauges, which are used to check the spherical surfaces of lenses during manufacturing.

Including 59-year-old Katori, Canon currently has just five craftsmen who can polish Newton gauges. It also has a stock of 1,300 gauges that were manually produced by artisans such as Katori over the years.

Canon is the world’s top manufacturer of single-lens reflex cameras, lens-shutter cameras, lenses for broadcasting equipment, copiers, and laser-beam printers.

Without the gauges, however, the firm would not be able to produce any precision lenses or related optical devices.

A series of concentric light bands like rainbows, known as Newton’s rings, appears when a Newton gauge is placed on a lens if its spherical surface contains any irregularities.

Reading the signals provided by the rings, a craftsman then polishes the lens using a machine with a rotating plate.

The angle, power and duration of the polishing process is all determined by the craftsman’s judgment.

Katori is just one of scores of artisans who are gradually disappearing after supporting Japan’s postwar economic miracle.

“The method of lens-polishing hasn’t changed at all since I joined this company,” said Katori, who started working for Canon in 1957.

At that time, the firm — which now boasts annual sales of 2.87 trillion yen and 86,700 employees worldwide — was a minor player, with cameras being one of the few products Japan could export to earn foreign currency.

“My time card number was 1,161. So I think Canon had only around 1,200 or 1,300 workers then,” Katori recalled.

It is often argued that the flexible, high-quality manufacturing systems used in various Japanese industries have been supported by skilled workers employed at small factories.

But as young people exhibit an increasing reluctance to work at factories and firms shift their plants overseas to exploit cheap labor, the number of Japanese workers whose skills surpass those of machines appears to be declining.

In 1970, Japan stunned the rest of the manufacturing world by winning 17 gold medals at the World Skills Competition, an international event that celebrates skilled manufacturing workers from around the globe.

Japan’s performance at the competition has been in continued decline since then, winning just six of the 37 gold medals up for grabs in 1999.

In June, the government compiled its first white paper on skilled workers in the manufacturing industry.

It warned that the foundations of industry are being undermined as the skills of senior workers are lost to the ravages of time and younger workers shun manufacturing posts.

Fearing that Japan could lose a key source of international competitiveness, the central government, local authorities and the private sector have launched training programs to encourage younger workers to master pivotal skills.

In order to ensure the preservation of the subtle techniques required to create a perfect spherical surface, Canon has designated three lens-polishers, including Katori, as “meisho” (master craftsmen) and six workers in their 20s and 30s as their successors.

One of Katori’s main jobs now is to compile training materials for his young successors.

And, while the master craftsman will reach the retirement age of 60 in November, Canon officials say they cannot let him go just yet.

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