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 KUSHITANI - Sixty Years of Total Protection by Alan Cathcart.

Few aspects of bike riding have changed as much in the past quarter of a century as rider protection. It's remarkable how much we take features like body armor, back protectors, knee sliders and carbon/Kevlar for granted nowadays, but 25 years ago the level of safety offered by personal motorcycle attire was much poorer. Arguably, no one company has played such a key role in the development of this vital sector as Kushitani, the prestigious Japanese leather suit manufacturer which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary in business.


I'll own up here to a vested interest in the excellence of products adorned with Kushitani's trademark emblem of a snow-capped Mount Fuji, because I've personally been using them without interruption - or, indeed, being paid to do so - ever since 1984, the year in which I crashed out on oil at the Bol d'Or 24 Hours, then held on Europe's most punishing engine-killer of a track, Paul Ricard. Its mile-long Mistral Straight ends in one of the world's fastest turns, the Signes right sweeper, and it's there that the lubricant from someone's expired motor caused me and 12 other riders to slide off at speed, in my case with my hand trapped beneath the bike. My thin leather gloves from another manufacturer gave no protection against having a couple of fingers worn away before I eventually ground to a stop − after which, once I'd realized that I'd fortunately still be able to grab hold of a handlebar in future, I promised my body to make sure that from then on I wore only the best riding equipment available, offering the greatest protection possible. Back then, as now, that meant Kushitani.

The company dates back to 1947 when, arising from the ashes of postwar Japan, Toshiko Kushitani founded a women's leather garment store in his home town of Hamamatsu.  From 1953 onwards Kushitani-san began satisfying the requests of his friends working for the local bike manufacturers to make special protective clothing for them to wear in testing the bikes, as well as to go racing once a year in the Mount Asama dirt-track race around a semi-active volcano. These quite primitive garments were the first step along a path of deeper involvement in motorcycle sport that saw his son, Hisashi Kushitani - today the president of the company - become an active competitor in off-road bike races, before taking over the control of the company in 1990 after his father's retirement/sad death. Today, he still has the support in running the company of his mother. Mrs. Toshiko Kushitani, a spry, sharp, eighty-something who comes to the company's Hamamatsu headquarters twice a week, where the staff of 35 highly skilled workers is employed carefully crafting the custom-made leather suits they create each year. Kushitani's off-the-peg suits are made in a modern factory in adjoining Saitama province, serving the company's 36 shops dotted throughout Japan, as well as the Kushitani USA store in Los Angeles run by Junichi/June Kushitani, grandson of the founder, and their European importers, MotoPort (www.motoport.nl and click on to 'Kleding') in the Netherlands. 

One of Kushitani's early customers back then was factory Suzuki rider Mitsuo Itoh, who in 1963 became still the only Japanese rider ever to win an Isle of Man TT race. In the early '60s his teammate Morishita had acquired a classic British set of black one-piece Lewis leathers, which Itoh asked Kushitani to copy for him. The result was so successful that he ordered suits made for the entire Suzuki team of test riders and racers and, as word spread, for rival Hamamatsu-based manufacturer teams, too. "Kawasaki test riders used to ride from Osaka to Tokyo and back again for testing new models on the highway," recalls Mrs. Kushitani. "They always stopped at our shop in each direction for some rest and tea, and of course they all wore Kushitani products. But then the Honda and Yamaha and Suzuki riders began doing this, too - we became very popular as a tea-house, as much as a leather suit manufacturer, and of course they would always boast to each other about how good their company's new bike they were riding was. Just possibly, sometimes they tried each other's bikes to see how true that was….!"

 This Oriental version of the Ace Cafe´ became the hotbed of development in rider protection, especially after Kushitani began selling customer riding suits in 1968. "My mother played a big part in the development of our company, because she concentrated on design and materials, while my father ran the business," says Hisashi Kushitani. Which means that, however improbably, this kimono-clad Japanese grandmother is a person who played a key role in the development of the modern riding suit, introducing several features we now take for granted. Under her direction, Kushitani was the first company to fit knee protectors as standard inside all their suits.  Next came knee sliders. "We saw riders attaching hard plastic skids with tape to the outside of their knee pads," recalls Mrs.K, "so we decided to incorporate this in our suits, but it was very difficult to make sure they didn't get knocked away if they grounded their knees hard. But then we found Velcro, and this was the solution to our difficulty, so from then on we fitted sliders to all our suits, and were the first manufacturers to do so."   Kushitani was also the first to install proper protection − originally plastic, later special compression padding - for elbows and shoulders in road racing leathers.

A visit to the company's Hamamatsu factory gave me a unique chance to watch my latest Kushitani custom race leathers being created from the ground up - although only after Mrs. K had checked my measurements that they keep on file, complete with knowing smile as she double-checked my waist. It was all that Sapporo beer they'd fed me at lunchtime, see….

Arguably the single most important person in the entire process of hand-crafting a new bespoke suit of Kushitani race leathers is Yukiko Imada. She's the lady who consults the measurement chart for the customer and the CAD drawing showing the chosen design, then uses an array of scissors to cut out the paper templates by hand for the more than 100 leather components in each suit, including the net lining which every set of Kushitani leathers carries. One mistake and the error will be carried through to the finished suit, conceivably making it unwearable by the customer, so this is a crucial task.  She's supervised by her boss Takashi Minami, seventeen years in the job whose sole task now is to pass on the fruits of that experience to younger artisans. "Cutting a leather suit or jacket is not like working with cloth," says Minami-san. "It requires a quite different technique which has to be learnt from the ground up, so this is the only way to pass down the skill from one generation to another."

With the templates now created, the next task is to trace out the pattern of each one, then cut the piece out.  Kushitani has always exclusively used Holstein leather sourced from cows bred in Japan specifically for the company, which is the key to getting the leather so smooth and supple, yet extremely strong and abrasion resistant in a crash. The skin of 11/2 cows is needed to produce a single leather suit, since only the best parts of the hide are used to make it - around 60% in total.  One reason Kushitani leathers are so extremely comfortable to wear is that they match the parts of the animal's hide to an appropriate part of the suit. So they use softer parts of it for under the rider's arms, behind his knees, and other areas which require flexibility but aren't likely to come into contact with the ground, so don't need to be so abrasion-resistant, while employing thicker-skinned sections like the animal's back for parts that are likely to be put to the test in event of a crash. Stretch is an important issue, too, according to Fumiko. "That's because human beings bend over rather than twist from side to side," she said. "This means that we must pre-stretch the suit components before they're sewn together, because otherwise they'll stretch when the suit is worn for the first time, and won't recover their shape. “

The various component parts of the suit are now ready to be taken to the assembly room, where a total of seven people work as a team in sewing it together. Zylon inserts are placed behind the knees and under the arms to provide optimum freedom of movement consistent with durability.  A decade ago, Kushitani would have used Kevlar inserts here, but then Zylon came along in the mid-'90s and has since supplanted it. A light, flexible product of Toyobo in Japan, Zylon has the advantage of being five times stronger than carbon fibre, and more durable and stronger even than Kevlar, while breathing better. Now the suit is taking shape, and you can see the way it's going to turn out. Looking good!

Now comes the moment to attach any logos or lettering to the suit, which in Kushitani's custom products is invariably done in leather as a mark of quality, rather than being digitally incorporated in the design, as on the volume production versions. Next it's time to attach the elasticized stretch panel in the back of the leathers, another Kushitani invention which they were the first to offer commercially.

Now that the suit is all but completed, it's time to add in the body armour which is a ubiquitous part of any suit of leathers today, for road or race. Kushitani is almost alone in not including a hard plastic back protector in its products, instead leaving it to their customers to wear a separate such accessory garment, if they really want to - and I personally will admit to doing so! "We don't use a hard protector on its own, because it has no shock absorption function, which we believe is necessary to deliver full rider protection," explained Fumiko Okada.

And - that's the suit!  Coming to a road or race track near you.  Kushitani makes around 1,000 full leather race suits every year, of which 90% are custom made-to-measure, with just 10% the less costly off-the-shelf versions. Around 150 in total are sold in the USA, where the latest type Kushitani innovation will soon go on sale − the Proto-Core suit. "We've been testing this product since the 2004 Suzuki 8-Hours," says Jun Kushitani, "and it's been shown to have great liquid resistance properties, so it doesn't absorb either the rider's perspiration or rainwater, as a conventional leather suit always will, which means it becomes heavy in use and stiff after drying out. We're continuously creating new technologies in order to keep riders safe, and yet provide more and more comfort and mobility," says Jun-san. "Also, we keep researching the best use for our newly developed materials. Our basic philosophy is to keep the rider safe, yet most comfortable and with a light weight of clothing."  22 years as a satisfied customer tells me they've consistently achieved their goal.

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