National / Social Issues

Limbless writer Hirotada Ototake blazes trail of hope with artificial leg project

Kyodo

Hirotada Ototake, a writer born without arms and legs who is best known for his 1998 memoir “No One’s Perfect,” has embarked on a project to develop electrically operated “robot” legs that will enable him and others like him to walk.

The 43-year-old Ototake, who writes about his challenge in a new book released on Friday, said he hopes to give hope to people who have lost their legs due to disabilities or accidents.

Recently in Tokyo, Ototake took another try at walking with the devices, which were developed by Sony Computer Science Laboratories Inc. Each one, including the shoe, weighs 5 kg. While attempting to keep his balance, he walked cautiously but twisted his face in exhaustion after finishing the exercise.

“After much practice and walking just a short distance I can see that there are many difficulties in using this,” Ototake said. “It’s not just walking. I can’t even stand properly. It’s like taking three steps forward and two steps back.”

Ototake, who also attaches artificial arms during the routine, practices with the artificial limbs once or twice a week. Including time for stretching, each session takes about an hour.

As part of his training, Ototake climbs up and down the emergency staircase in his apartment building on his stumps. He had to have the sockets for the artificial legs reworked to fit his muscular thighs.

The farthest he has walked in an exercise with the artificial legs is 20 meters. But Ototake, who is accustomed to using an electric wheelchair in daily life, said he is not involved in the project just for himself. It is more a matter of helping others.

“There are many people who lost their legs after they were born but hope to walk. I am assisting with spreading the word to people that there is technology that can help them walk again,” he said.

Ken Endo, 41, is the project leader at the Sony laboratory in charge of robotic legs, which come with motors and computers in their “knees.” Endo, who launched the project with Ototake in fall 2017, said the goal is ultimately to have people use the legs to climb steps, stand and walk as naturally as other people. But there is still a long road ahead.

“Human beings’ legs are very well developed, so replacing them with artificial limbs is difficult. But I believe we can develop ones in which the movement is not awkward and eventually have a society where there is no difference between people with disabilities and those who don’t have them,” Endo said.

Ototake said it is all about hope.

“For people who have given up on things in life and are going through hardships, I want them to feel that there is a ray of light that society is changing little by little for the better.”

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