If you really want to work for a company that produces high-technology devices, you may have to brush up on your chopstick skills.

Optical equipment maker Mitaka Kohki Co., based in Mitaka, western Tokyo, is renowned for its unique employment examination: Would-be employees are asked to draw their faces, create paper planes and use chopsticks rather than take written tests.

“It is one of the best ways to find workers who are good with their hands,” said Giichi Nakamura, 72, the firm’s chief executive officer and managing director.

In terms of scale, Mitaka Kohki is nothing more than a small, back-street factory, employing a staff of 30 and capitalization of 10 million yen.

But its size belies its competitive edge on the global market.

The 37-year-old company manufactures state-of-the-art astronomical telescopes, surgical microscopes and optical devices for use in observation rockets and satellites. It boasts a long list of domestic and foreign customers, including the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Tokyo University Space Flight Laboratory and the Space Science Laboratory in Japan.

In 1978, Mitaka Kohki supplied monitor cameras for NASA’s space shuttles. Now, it provides optical equipment for surgical microscopes made by the Leica business group, including Leica Camera AG, the world-famous German camera maker.

“We are concentrating on high-quality products to compete with big, rival corporations armed with nationwide distribution networks,” Nakamura said.

The firm has nearly completed work on observatory equipment for the Selene satellite to be launched by Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science in summer 2005. The satellite is expected to collect scientific data as part of research into the moon’s origins.

The company places great importance on the skills of its engineers, claiming its workers can polish lenses to within a nanometer of specifications.

“We do not need students who studied the theory of the latest technology on a university campus,” Nakamura said. “We need workers capable of mastering necessary skills to produce our products.”

He said employees must master at least three skills out of four: lathing, fraising, electric welding and computer software operation.

Nakamura said the outbreak of World War II prevented him from completing elementary school, forcing him instead to work in an Imperial Japanese Army weapons factory.

“I cannot read enough Kanji characters,” he said. “But I have imagination and ideas, which are necessary to create products that can attract customers.”

Mitaka Kohki has also modified other firms’ designs, such as a surgical microscope for use in neurosurgery. The microscope project involved creating more space between the surgeon and patient, reducing congestion in operating rooms.

Nakamura said his firm is competitive enough to survive, even at a time when large companies that employ graduates of famous universities are suffering losses in earnings.

“We have a large backlog of orders from our clients, equivalent to more than one year’s work,” he said.

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