What the Japanese Bayberry Trees Have Seen Stories from the Early Years of Yamaha Motor
Introducing the stories behind Yamaha Motor's technologies.
11After the War
After the war, Nippon Gakki made a model transition to peacetime industry. In an ironic twist of fate, while most of the machinery used for propeller manufacture that had been relocated to the Sakura Factory survived the war intact, the woodworking equipment and facilities for making musical instruments—the company’s original business—had been totally destroyed by the fires.
To restart the production of musical instruments, we had to begin by rebuilding or repairing all the woodworking machines. The damaged machines were transported for repairs to one of our small nearby branch factories located near what is today’s Hikuma Station on the Enshu Railway Line.
I was put in charge of this factory for a short time. I was lucky in that we had a number of very capable engineers from when we were making propellers who were of great help in fixing the machines. The repaired machines were then transported to the headquarters factory at Nakazawa and lined up on the east side of what we called the “new factory.”
It was in fact mostly ruins, but we somehow managed to restart production. All the windows in the buildings were shattered and you could see the blue sky through the holes in the roof. Our first products were chabudai (traditional round and low-set Japanese dining tables) and xylophones. At Nippon Gakki’s Tenryu Factory, we had built some simple housing for the many citizens of Hamamatsu left homeless by the war—we nicknamed it “The 1,000-yen Barracks.”
Although Nippon Gakki was able to quickly recover and shift to peaceful industry, post-war Japan was still very unstable. Food shortages persisted and rampant inflation meant our base salaries either stayed where they were or were lowered; our daily lives were incredibly difficult.
This was a time of poverty when people would raid their dressers for precious kimonos and other belongings to sell off to buy food. Survival was so difficult that we called this the “bamboo shoot life” because we were forced to strip away our material possessions in order to stay alive. I learned anew both the hardships as well as the irreplaceable value in what it takes to live.
Even getting to work itself was an ordeal; we commuted on small electric trains, packed like sardines into putrid windowless boxcars and endured the 30–40 minute ride day after day. Sometimes, we would be “blessed” with roofless freight cars instead, but the dubious advantage of ample fresh air was offset by the sparks raining down onto us from the train’s overhead power lines. Many passengers deployed umbrellas to ward off the sparks—it was right out of a comic book.
For about six years, I was in charge of the machines in the woodworking division where I oversaw wood cutting and processing. I was also chosen to be on the executive committee of the workers union and occasionally took part in collective bargaining. There were times when labor–management relations were stressed to the breaking point as if they were directly reflecting Japanese society after the war. However, the lessons learned during Nippon Gakki’s big strikes at the end of the Taisho Era helped us get through crises whenever they would occur.
12Machines Removed From War Reparations
Piano production was restarted in 1947 and on September 15, 1950, Genichi Kawakami took over as Nippon Gakki’s president from Kaichi Kawakami, marking the beginning of a new era for the company.
In November 1952, I was made manager of the Technology Division’s efficiency department and we got to work implementing President Kawakami’s factory modernization policy of discarding earlier cottage industry-like methods of manufacturing, and engaging in more modern methods instead.
It was around this time that the machines that had been impounded at the Sakura Factory and designated as war reparations were freed from these restrictions and could be used for peaceful industry. However, the machinery was of no use for the work we were doing at Nippon Gakki at the time, so President Kawakami was constantly deep in thought about new ways to utilize them.
Although the topic of entering the motorcycle industry had yet to spring up, we toured Honda’s Sumiyoshi Factory in October 1953. This was the factory Honda used before building their present Hamamatsu Factory. It actually used to be a tea processing facility, but it was now producing engines for the Honda Benly.
The factory guide proudly showed us the Georg Fischer high-speed copy lathe—they were rare back then—and showed us engines attached to simple mounts on the dirt floor where they sputtered to life as they were test run. Those sights made such a deep impression on me that even today I can still recall them clearly. There were about 350 workers at Sumiyoshi producing 70 engines a day. I heard that their production target for October was 1,645 engines. That factory was one clear piece of evidence telling us that Honda had rocketed upward to become the leading Japanese manufacturer at the time.
13Deciding How to Use the Machines
On November 7, 1953, I heard about President Kawakami’s intentions from Takai-san, the head of the Technology Division: “I’d like to build some prototype engines. We ought to make five or six different types and choose the best one from among them. I expect we’d be able to start full-scale production about a year later. We need to start using the machines from the Sakura Factory while they’re still in good shape.”
Of course, this subject was highly confidential and one that turned those who heard it tense with anxiety and inspiration. In retrospect, this was the fateful moment that we stepped on the path towards creating what would become “Yamaha Motor.”
Four days later on November 11th, a secret meeting was held in the Technology Division to see what we would have to do to carry out what the president had in mind. In attendance were Takai-san, Ono-san (the current President of Yamaha Shatai), Nemoto-san (currently Managing Executive Officer at Yamaha Motor), Shuin-san (currently a director at Nippon Gakki), Ito-san (currently a director at Sanshin Industries), Takeuchi-san (currently stationed at Tokai Seigi) and myself. After much discussion between the seven of us, we came up with a tentative plan to move forward with.
Though I’ve left out the details, the main points are listed below.
- 90cc 4-stroke engine
- Scooter design
- Wheels like those on the Baby Lilac
- Price of around 100,000 yen
- Cylinder with a liner
- Employ women workers for production
Looking back on this however, the actual bike we ended up producing was quite different from our original plan. What’s really interesting is that our initial plans called for women to assemble our first motorcycle and that’s exactly what we have today with our all-women production line for the Passol.
14Trial & Error
At the time, there were 42 motorcycle manufacturers in Japan. Honda was at the top, producing 3,200 machines every month, followed by Tohatsu with 1,500 bikes a month.
We had been hearing some troubling rumors that many of the motorcycle manufacturers in the Hamamatsu area that had seen so much success during this pon-pon (the local word for a motorcycle) boom were going out of business one after another. Product planning is relatively simple when you’re jumping into an industry already on the up, but we were trying to enter one that was starting to contract and this sobering reality made us very uneasy.
On November 16th, a meeting was held for division heads and above where the plan to produce motorcycles was approved once more. In addition, President Kawakami expressed interest in producing 3-wheeled cars as well. Those involved visited factories producing 3-wheelers or investigated a number of possibilities, but came to the conclusion that these companies had much larger and more extensive manufacturing systems in place. We soon realized that we would be facing a serious uphill battle if we were going to make it in this industry.
On December 17th, I went together with Technology Division General Manager Takai to report these matters to President Kawakami. “It’ll be too taxing for us to start with 3-wheelers,” he replied. “It’d probably be hard enough just to get up to the current level. Stick to the plan for building a motorcycle or scooter.” Shortly thereafter, Takai-san and Research Department Manager Ono were directed to pack their bags and head for Europe to tour motorcycle manufacturers and assess the industry overseas. Their first stop was Germany.
The two departed Japan on January 21, 1954 and returned on April 1st. During this extended 70-day trip, they visited many European motorcycle makers and investigated European machine tooling and other related matters.
I was put in charge of the Technology Division during their absence, and for a time, every day presented struggle after struggle. This was because although we had finally completed the new layout for the production line for painting sewing machine tables, something that required the whole division to achieve, it still wasn’t working as hoped and we were at our wits’ end in search of a solution.
Although we learned a lot, the end-result was that we’d invested a lot of time and money in the project without meeting the president’s expectations. And since I was in charge, I remember I felt responsible and reflected on my failure while being tormented by pangs of regret. That’s how I was spending my days so motorcycles were on the back burner for me at the time.
However, when Takai-san and Ono-san returned from Europe, things suddenly got very busy and motorcycle planning moved forward at a white-hot pace. Since it was extremely rare at that time to get any news regarding conditions in Europe, we absorbed every word of their reports with intense interest. But by mid-April we still had not decided what to produce. We were torn between what product we should use as a model for our first venture into motorcycles; the candidates were a 175cc DKW, a 150cc Hercules and a Vespa scooter.