2011 disaster inspires life-saving app for mountaineers

FUKUOKA – Yoshihiko Haruyama’s experiences, which may seem erratic, have come together to create a smartphone app that has captured significant market share in mountaineering and other outdoor pursuits.

The application, called Yamap, allows its users to know precisely where they are on a map, even when they are outside the coverage areas of mobile networks, by downloading the necessary maps in advance.

In July, app downloads totaled 3.2 million, or about two-thirds of the mountaineering population in Japan, about nine years after Haruyama launched the services.

Tired of listening to lectures in huge classrooms, Haruyama, then a freshman law student at Doshisha University in Kyoto, took a bicycle trip around Kyushu in the spring of 2000 and visited the island of Yakushima. , about 60 kilometers southwest of the southern tip of Kyushu.

He worked at an inn as a home-based employee and received free driving and fishing lessons from the owner of the inn.

“The lure of nature might have remained lost to me if it weren’t for what I experienced in Yakushima,” recalls Haruyama, now 41, founder and CEO of Yamap Inc.

After graduating from college, Haruyama chose not to enter the workforce and traveled to Alaska, as if following in the footsteps of the late Michio Hoshino (1952-1996), a photographer he admired and respect.

He studied at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. When he went seal hunting with native Inuit, he was surprised to learn that they were using state-of-the-art GPS devices.

“They made no distinction between their tradition and cutting-edge technologies as long as they are useful in saving their lives,” he said. “I was impressed with this solid approach they had towards the tools.”

In March 2011, Haruyama was shocked by the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“I felt the tragedy was a consequence of the disconnect between man and nature,” said Haruyama, who was 30 at the time. “I thought I would have regrets later in life unless I did something that would have a positive impact on society.”

Only he had no idea what that “something” was.

One day in the spring of that year, he went hiking in the Kuju Mountain Range in Oita Prefecture.

A shiver ran down his spine as he opened his smartphone to find that a blue dot, which indicated his location, continued to move across an entirely blank screen because there was no cell phone signal.

“That’s when the experiences I had gained in my 20s all came together,” he said.

“I thought that if smartphones could be used as GPS devices for mountaineering, it would help reduce the number of stranded climbers and also could reconnect city dwellers with nature through an app. That’s when I decided to start a business.

Haruyama’s business plan faced opposition from investors. One said paper maps and a compass would suffice, while another warned that the potential market was too small.

He defied these skeptics by launching Yamap services on his own in March 2013, relying partly on funds advanced by his father and partly on his own savings.

Yamap Inc., based in the Hakata district of Fukuoka, now has about 90 employees.

“I have never once embraced the desire to be president of a company or earn tens of billions of yen,” said Haruyama, who is from Kasuga, Fukuoka Prefecture.

Yamap, a portmanteau, combines “yama”, the Japanese for mountains, and the English word “map”.

Users also appreciate the app’s community features, where they can upload their mountaineering records and share tips.

Yamap now evolves well beyond the smartphone screen.

The app operator offers a points system that can be used to keep mountain trails in good condition and also offers collaborative programs with other businesses and local governments to develop regional communities.

Rescue teams have used location data from Yamap to successfully rescue stranded climbers in many cases.

Haruyama quoted the words of Kazuo Inamori, founder of electronics maker Kyocera Corp. and predecessor of telecommunications operator KDDI Corp. : “I wonder if my motivation is goodwill and altruistic.”

“Always keeping this issue in mind, I will do my best to work on projects to connect people to the mountains,” he said.

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