Education About Asia

Honda Sōichirō and the Rise of Japan’s Postwar Motor Vehicle Industry

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Later dubbed the “Henry Ford of Japan,” Honda argued that limiting foreign auto imports would only perpetuate the inferiority of Japanese products and assure the nation’s defeat in world markets.

For a manufacturing company to achieve success on a global scale, it must be willing to see past its domestic rivals and set its sights on challenging the world’s leading firms. In Japan in the late 1940s, however, few company presidents could foresee a time when their products would outperform Western designs, and almost none could yet compete directly against foreign wares. Many of Japan’s industries were badly crippled by US bombing campaigns late in the Second World War (1939– 1945), and as the country struggled to regain its economic footing during the seven-year period of Allied Occupation (1945–1952), many Japanese industrial associations called for tough protective tariffs against superior foreign imports.

One of the few industrialists who resisted this call and argued instead for the technical benefits of open markets was Honda Sōichirō (1906– 1991). Later dubbed the “Henry Ford of Japan,” Honda argued that limiting foreign auto imports would only perpetuate the inferiority of Japanese products and assure the nation’s defeat in world markets. No stranger to failure himself, Honda’s experience had taught him that in order to succeed, motor vehicle makers had to amass significant technical skills that could only be earned through unrestrained competition against the world’s top firms, both in the showroom and on the racetrack. Though his tenure was long and he remained at the helm of his company until 1973, the most important lessons of Honda’s career were learned during the turbulent wartime and early postwar eras.

From Master Mechanic to Precision Manufacturer

Honda Sōichirō was born in 1906 in Hamamatsu, in Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture, some 150 miles from Tokyo. His father, Honda Gihei, was a blacksmith who ran a small bicycle repair shop. The younger Honda was deeply excited about motorcars and airplanes as a boy, and he would occasionally trek by bicycle to see the motor races, which were hugely popular at that time. Keen to pursue a career as an auto mechanic, Honda moved to Tokyo in 1922 at the age of fifteen to take a position as a mechanic’s apprentice at a shop called Art Shōkai. Given little training at the outset, Honda’s prospects took a sharp turn when the Great Kantō Earthquake struck Tokyo and the surrounding region on September 1, 1923. The massive quake destroyed the repair shop, along with thousands of other regional businesses, and prompted nearly all of Art Shōkai’s employees to resign and return to their native homes. Left alone with the owner and the senior apprentice, Honda quickly received very thorough training in auto mechanics and put his skills to use designing and building race cars on the side.1

NOTES

1. Ikeda Masajirō, ed., Sōichirō Honda: The Endless Racer, trans. Kazunori Nozawa (Tokyo: Japan International Cultural Exchange Foundation, 1993); and Ikeda Masajirō, ed., Honda Sōichirō: gurafiti yume no wadachi [Honda Sōichirō: Graffiti Dreams of Wheel Tracks] (Tokyo: Prejidento-sha, 1992).