This is the story of a clear-headed young man who suffered physical paralysis. Notwithstanding becoming quadriplegic at an early age, he was decisively free from the more common ailment known as “decision paralysis”, a neck-up condition that leaves those afflicted unable to choose between two or more good choices.
Kentaro Iemoto developed a brain tumor in 1992 when he was 12 years old. His surgery to remove that tumor went horribly wrong and left him paralyzed from the neck down. Faced with the prospect of being wheelchair bound for life, the then 14-year-old Kentaro jettisoned his plans to become a professional baseball player and instead decided to start CLARA ONLINE, Inc., a company that grew to be a midsized firm in its field.
Recounting his thoughts and feelings after the botched brain surgery, Kentaro said, “During the first six months there wasn’t any sense of optimism or motivation. My dreams of playing professionally were gone. I felt I would be better-off dead.” He had already undergone eight other surgeries to remove tumors that had spread to other parts of his body before the final and ninth brain operation left him quadriplegic. “Someone had to do everything for me − to shower, to use the bathroom and to dress.” Emotionally, Kentaro was completely at the bottom.
In 1995, when the Internet was brand new, Kentaro discovered that he could start moving some fingers. With a BITNET connection (the bulletin board system that was an early forerunner of today’s Internet) Kentaro could tap out replies to people who had sent him messages during the period of his surgery. “It was the only way I could communicate with people on the outside and make friends,” said Kentaro.
He started to spend all his time on the computer as he regained control over his hands. “I began to realize that, through the Internet, I could do all sorts of things that I hadn’t thought of before. That’s what got me interested to live a proactive life again.”
With rehabilitation Kentaro regained the use of his body from the waist up. Still, the doctors told him he would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and issued him a permanent disability certificate.
From his hospital bed, Kentaro went to “school”, although he didn’t get much studying done. Instead, he wrote articles for computer magazines and he designed software programs. One program he wrote, a database containing technical specifications of electronic components sold by shop owners in Akihabara’s electric town, attracted so much buyers’ interest that he was able to sell it for a profit.
Kentaro wanted to lead a productive life by contributing to society as best he could. But his job prospects were limited by his disability. “In Japan, it is not easy for someone with a disability to go through the normal employment process,” said Kentaro.
Kentaro enjoyed computers, the internet, and business. He reasoned the best way to lead a fulfilling life was by doing work he enjoyed. With the above in mind and a positive attitude, Kentaro decided to start a computer/Internet business.
But there was a snag. Upon investigation he discovered, in Japan, you can’t start a company until you’re 15 years old. Kentaro was only 14 years old at the time. “There are no laws preventing you to start a business, but there are various little rules that add up to that in effect,” said Kentaro. So patiently he waited, preparing for the day he turned 15.
In 1997, with one million yen in capital (about $ 12,000) he had saved from selling articles and software, the wheelchair bound Kentaro started CLARA ONLINE. The company was to specialize in providing hosted computer services to Japanese firms. For the uninitiated, hosting companies manage the servers that run companies’ websites.
At first Kentaro resold the hosting services provided by an American company. Then he bought the servers outright, installing them into rented premises here in Japan.
Several years passed. Kentaro ran the hosting business as best he could, given his physical limitations.
As he approached the age of 18, Kentaro experienced a small miracle. He realized he could move the little toe in his left foot. He could not feel the toe, but he could move it. He went to the doctors. With rehabilitation, the doctors told him, there was a chance he might recover.
So Kentaro entered rehabilitation.
Now aged 31, Kentaro has regained most of his motor skills. “It was quite a rare occurrence to be able to complete the therapy and to be able to walk again,” said Kentaro.
He even surrendered his permanent disability certificate.
No longer confined to his wheelchair, Kentaro built CLARA ONLINE into a mid-sized hosting firm. The company now employs about 70 people with offices in Tokyo, Singapore, Taiwan and China.
Kentaro is bursting with enthusiasm, determined to give back to society that which he feels grateful for having received from others and from life itself. Now married and with three children, he has grown concerned that Japanese fathers are not spending enough time with their children. To address his concern, Kentaro supports “Fathering Japan”, a not-for-profit organization that encourages fathers to spend more time with their kids. He is also a board member of “The Tiger Mask Foundation”, an NPO set up by Fathering Japan to benefit children in orphanages. The foundation is based on the popular Tiger Mask Japanese comic book series where the protagonist does good deeds.
What could possibly have been going through the mind of the wheelchair bound 14-year-old to cause him to launch a business by age 15? Beacon Reports put the question to him. Kentaro gave pause, then replied, “If I think back, during the time of my illness, I almost never went to school. Mostly I wasn’t physically present, and when I was, I wasn’t listening very much. I did not follow the traditional educational path − to become a company worker, a policeman, a fireman, or a baseball player. When I finally decided to do something with the Internet, the only thing I could think of was to start a company. And so, I did it.”