Protection above all else

From the outside, Arai looks like a company frozen in time – but step inside you’ll find and the truth is very different.

There’s a remarkable calmness, steely confidence, and evident joy of life all simultaneously emanating from the unblinking eyes of Mr Michio Arai, President of the world renowned firm since 1986, as he sits across from me in the boardroom of Arai’s Omiya headquarters.

Most 75-year-olds would be working hard to enjoy their retirement, but immaculately suited ‘Mitch’ – as he was dubbed by the Americans while studying in the States in the early Sixties – shows no sign of stepping down, or slowing down.

“I don’t ever want to hear someone’s family say ‘If only he’d been wearing a different helmet’ about an Arai. What we do is a great privilege, and we must strive to provide protection above all else,” he says. It’s a mantra repeated by every member of staff I meet in my two days at the factory.

As the firm rapidly developed in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Michio Arai used his race contacts to establish their first ‘factory rider’, Skip Aksland, a vocal young American who tested the firm’s early Styrofoam-lined helmets to destruction. But he kept getting up after every crash, providing the globally emerging Arai brand with a walking, and loud talking, brand ambassador.

It was at this point that Michio took the decision that Arai would never make bespoke helmets for racers. “This was good for quality control, because each and every person making helmets in our factory knew that any one of the helmets they made could be worn by a top-level racer. The same is still true today.”

It’s easy to criticise the iconic brand for standing still, for failing to innovate or follow the latest trends and fashions in helmet design. Its RX-7 has looked fundamentally the same for almost two decades, and is considered by many as archaic in shell shape, devoid of the latest features common elsewhere, and all at a premium price, too.

But time inside the factory demonstrates Arai’s unswerving commitment to development. They boast the latest manufacturing technology, materials research, impact testing, and phenomenal attention to detail and quality control. Every helmet is handmade, each taking an average of 18 man-hours to complete as it journeys through the factory.

“We are fine-tuning now,” says Michio. “The basic design of helmets has not changed since the very early days of Arai. It is still a shell, with an EPS, but what we do now is develop materials. The fibreglass we use has much improved energy management characteristics. It is six times more expensive than normal fibreglass, but we use it because it delivers better protection.

“Our multi-density EPS is now very advanced, too. In a crash your helmet must be able to cope with multiple impacts, it must act like a shock absorber for your head. This is why we use the R75 shape [Arai’s trademark domed shell], because the helmet must slide smoothly as you scrub off speed. Lots of designs now have ridges and lips, and these can cause the helmet to grip in a crash. The R75 shape does not do this.

“When the global economic crisis hit five years ago, many helmet manufacturers looked for gimmicks to sell their helmets, or looked to save costs. If we can make a helmet cheaper this is good because it is welcomed by buyers, but if in making a helmet cheaper you forget about protection, this is a bad thing. If Arai were making cheap helmets like this I wouldn’t be able to sleep, I would quit."

“We did nothing like this. We missed some progress, but we did not go backwards either. Take our helmet from five years ago, and from now, and today’s will look the same but perform better. Our development is inside, it is invisible.”

So what of the future for Arai? “The market is now picking up, we are developing new helmets, and when we think of the future, motorcycling will be ok. Growth will come because people strive now for a better quality of life, and motorcycles can help them achieve that. Riding a bike brings freedom, and escape from the busy world we live in.”


“What We do is a great privilege, and we must strive to provide protection above all else.”

Contributo di Arai

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