What the Japanese Bayberry Trees Have Seen Stories from the Early Years of Yamaha Motor
Introducing the stories behind Yamaha Motor's technologies.
32We Win at Fuji
Racing has the power to excite, fascinate and mesmerize its many spectators, but what is seldom seen and must be remembered is the enormous amount of dirt and sweat that create a successful team: the endless hours of Spartan training even naturally talented riders have to do to hone their skills, the engineers that work their magic to transform a machine’s raw performance into on-track competitiveness, and the team staff that coordinate it all and arrange for whatever may be needed.
The day for the 3rd Mt. Fuji Ascent Race finally came on July 10th. It was Japan’s biggest motorcycle race at the time and a major event on the calendar. As such, the country’s motorcycle enthusiasts had all swarmed to Mt. Fuji. Large groups of employees from Nippon Gakki and Yamaha Motor had come to cheer on and support the team. Other groups of supporters had also arrived from the Tokyo branch and other Yamaha branches and dealers.
Yamaha entered twelve machines, eleven solo bikes and one equipped with a Minato sidecar. Our riders were clad in eye-catching white-cotton riding suits that contrasted starkly with the black leathers worn by the Honda riders. While some may have thought the white outfits made them look like amateurs, the Yamaha riders were determined to win at all costs.
The first bike blasted off at 9:30 in the morning from the starting point that was near Mitarai Bridge running over the Kanda River next to Sengen Shrine. It was followed by the remaining machines at one minute intervals, and it wasn’t until after 11:00 that the final machine set off.
Even today the Kanda River is famous for its crystalline waters and trout fishing. Yamaha’s race headquarters was located in the Tenjinrou Inn next to Kanda Bridge downstream from the starting point.
Next to the starting point was a two-story teahouse called Moon. We rented the entire second floor and the roof, which was covered in wavy sheet metal. From the rooftop, Yamaha’s radio team stayed in contact with the other members stationed at the first and second stages on the mountain with handheld ultra-shortwave radios, keeping tabs on how the race was going.
Honda’s Cessna circled above the starting point over and over while dropping flyers, and everything was bringing the excitement of the spectacle to a fever pitch. As part of the pre-race activities, two men wearing traditional hunting attire once used on the plains around Mt. Fuji rode big Rikuo motorcycles covered in chestnut-colored papier mâché and performed a tsuyuharai ceremony to purify the course prior to the race.
One by one Yamaha’s Red Dragonflies and their white-suited, white-helmeted riders shot off the starting line, accompanied by the high-pitched exhaust note of a 2-stroke. Most of the other machines were almost completely black, so the Yamahas were very conspicuous. Those in the starting area and most of the spectators had no idea who was winning and the tension and uncertainty were palpable. Then at 11:40 in the morning, the news came in that Yamaha had taken the win and the team broke out into wild cheers and triumphant shouts. “We won! Yamaha won! Banzai! Banzai!” Tears of joy streamed down the faces of the team and the supporters as they realized that the victory we had hardly dared to dream of was finally a reality.
The winner was Teruo Okada with a time of 29’07. He was followed by teammate Keiji Nagata in 3rd at 29’44.2 (this was actually Noboru Hiyoshi who had raced under the Nagata name due to personal reasons); sharing 4th were Kenzo Yamahashi and Satoru Suzuki with an identical time of 29’53.4; 6th was Mitsuru Masuko at 29’59.8; 8th was Teruo Ishii at 30’47; and coming home 9th was Taneharu Noguchi at 30’49.9. All of the top ten finishers receiving awards were Yamahas with the exception of the 2nd and 7th place finishers on Honda Benlys and the 10th-place finisher on a Suzuki Koreda.
Such a stunning victory in the Mt. Fuji Ascent Race for motorcycle industry greenhorn Yamaha cannot be overemphasized. It was a PR feat of unparalleled value and effect, and a national declaration to the industry that Yamaha was now a major player.
As the winning machine accompanied by the seven victory flags returned to Hamamatsu, a report of the historic victory was to be given to Chairman Kaichi Kawakami, who was recovering from illness at his home in the town of Hirosawa. The winning machine and the seven flags were lined up on his front lawn and President Kawakami personally gave him a full report on how Yamaha had won the race.
“Well done!” said the Chairman, looking at the display in the yard from his room and praising the president and everyone else involved. He was clearly very pleased with the news and grateful that we had covered the company in glory. After all, if you’re going to race, you must race to win.
33Tighten Your Helmet Strap After a Victory
The race win gave a huge boost to our sales front and this winning mood permeated the entire company. However, in spite of the victory, I think the race also caused the president and management to deeply reflect on our lack of knowledge and experience in improving a motorcycle’s performance. They realized this situation had to be rectified; they felt that we had to theoretically and statistically investigate the fundamental qualities of engines.
At a meeting on July 13th for department managers and above, we discussed more than 20 items concerning R&D, etc., that we basically had to engage in, and then divided the tasks up and set about putting things in motion.
To further strengthen our organization, Research Department Manager Ono was transferred from Nippon Gakki to Yamaha Motor, and research and development on racing engines was to be accelerated.
It was only much later that we realized the decision was President Kawakami’s way of chastising us for becoming drunk on the high-grade sake of victory and to dampen any tendency to become arrogant and overconfident.
It was because the Asama Highlands Race would be held that autumn, and only by strengthening our research group immediately after the race at Fuji would we be able to bring our very best to that next battle. This was a perfect practical example of the saying, “Tighten your helmet strap after a victory.”
On July 19th, President Kawakami announced another round of personnel changes for Yamaha Motor. The new appointments were as follows: General Affairs Department Manager Sakuro Takahata, Design Department Manager Yoshiro Takai, acting Design Department Manager Fumio Nemoto, Research Department Manager Shun Ono, Manufacturing Department Manager Juichi Aisa, myself as acting Manufacturing Department Manager, and Inspection Department Manager Fukuji Murakami. This was the company’s management team when it was founded.
Given the relatively small number of employees at about 150, we all felt like part of a large, extended family—like the crew of the ship Yamaha-maru setting off across a stormy sea.
We had absolutely no idea what the future held in store for us, nor did we have any way of predicting it. We just had a single conviction that we had to grow this newborn company called Yamaha Motor. And, I could see the ship battling through endlessly rough waters with every one of us doing our jobs to the best of our abilities.
The company produced 260 machines and shipped 250 in July. In Japan, many motorcycle companies were going bust and falling into bankruptcy. Would we survive?
34Act According to Your Principles
The comments and opinions of men of experience are very persuasive; you admire their leadership qualities and it seems only inevitable that you want to listen to and follow them. Conversely, those of very modest abilities are often the ones criticizing others and quick to make excuses.
None of us at Yamaha wanted the latter type, and I always felt that it was those very select few who exhibited the former qualities that President Kawakami chose to be managers—though this may be an entirely arbitrary conjecture on my part. But, when the situation called for it or something needed to change, President Kawakami was a very strict disciplinarian to his subordinates.
For example, the following occurred shortly after I returned from training at the Hitachi Seiki factory. There were no offices at the Hamana Factory so the desk where I worked as the manager of the Manufacturing Department was located in a small corner of the work area where engines were assembled.
However, President Kawakami later directed that no desks be located in workplaces. There was more to the story than this, but the end result was that I lost my desk. I was forced to put documents in my bag and live like a gypsy. For someone as thick-headed as myself, the point of this directive was very hard to understand. In fact, it took several months before I understood the reasons:
1. When you’re sitting comfortably at a desk and putting on a big face in front of people who are working hard and drenched in sweat, do you think that’s going to inspire them to do their best?
2. If you’ve got time to spend sitting at a desk, be a proper manager and make rounds in the workplace to ensure that everything is functioning properly with your own two eyes.
3. We don’t have that many factory workers as it is. Think harder; find ways to simplify your office duties so as to spend as little time as possible at your desk.
Once I eventually figured out these reasons on my own, I was finally allowed to have my own desk in an electrical room. But even then, when on the factory floor we stood at simple wooden desks to do our paperwork.
On the afternoon of June 24th, 1955, with the race at Fuji fast approaching, President Kawakami was making his rounds of the factory when he pointed out to me that a 1-ton press in the engine assembly area was leaking hydraulic oil.
“I told the machining department about it, but they haven’t fixed it yet...” was the silly excuse I made, and sure enough, it was just the sort that infuriated the president. “What, you think you’ve done your job because you asked them to fix it?!” he yelled. “It’s leaking oil right now, right in front of you! If they won’t fix it, then fix it yourself! You can ask some of the office staff to help, but never take workers off their jobs to do it.”
Ito-san, Kawai-san and I immediately went to work to repair the press. Needless to say, the workers were surprised to see department mangers repairing a machine! While we thought it would be hard to fix at first, it proved to be a rather simple task once we got to it.
We finished up at around 7:30 that evening and phoned the president to tell him we were done fixing it and apologized for our negligence. “Okay, as long as you learned something,” was all he said, which we took to mean that he’d forgiven us.
Another rule was that prototype machines be assembled by managers and engineers. Since they were the ones designing them, they would have the best insight into possible problems. It was an excellent approach in terms of problem solving as well as worker development.
For a latecomer to the motorcycle industry like our company to be able to catch up and outdo long-established large manufacturers, members of management first had to have a wealth of hands-on experience. I think this was one of the key factors in fostering the Yamaha spirit.
35Testing at Norikura
Efforts to improve the quality of our bikes—especially performance—continued without end. We were constantly asking ourselves what quality means in a motorcycle. At the time, few people rode motorcycles and little market research had been done, so it was a given that manufacturers had to go out and get a grasp of actual market conditions themselves.
It was at times like these that President Kawakami always took the lead. Determine what the customers want, ascertain if a Yamaha YA-1 could meet their needs, and come up with a strategy to implement; the president would mobilize and “lead the charge” to stunning results.
One of the steps taken was doing riding tests on Mt. Norikura. We started doing them because in those days, the roads up Norikura weren’t paved yet so riding the bike there and back was an effective way to determine its performance, as any weaknesses would soon be revealed. Members of the testing team were Takai-san, Ono-san, Nemoto-san, Yasukawa-san, Takeuchi-san and Hiyoshi-san, with Kashima-san driving the support van with the president.
On August 7th, 1955, after spending the night in nearby Takayama City in Gifu Prefecture, we set off on the motorcycles at around 4:00 in the morning to head up the mountain. As I said earlier, the roads on the mountain weren’t paved so the bikes kicked up lots of dust. On top of that, there was little room for error because one side of the road was a rocky cliff face and the other side dropped off into a steep valley, so we really had to pay attention. But in spite of that, we were all very impressed at how skillfully the president rode and how he seemed to be enjoying himself right from the start.
After about two and a half hours we all arrived safely at the top. From there we rode through Kamikochi valley and had a look at the area to be used for the Asama Highlands Race, and then followed the course to its end point in Karuizawa, a total distance of about 300 km.
On the way, we ate some Shinshu soba noodles at the remains of Komoro Castle in Nagano Prefecture, and everybody who was there remembers how incredibly delicious those noodles were. With the president and so many heads of our engineering departments taking part in this mountain climb and road test, we were able to understand the nature of motorcycles and their performance in a much, much shorter amount of time.
36 After the Mt. Fuji Ascent Race
It wasn’t until August that production finally began going smoothly and we successfully shipped out 350 machines. This figure quieted the persistent requests from marketing for more inventory.
However, the YA-1’s high cash price of 138,000 yen and only a modest profit margin meant there weren’t that many dealers on board with us and the hurdles for convincing others to handle the bike were quite high, so the sales team was working just as hard as the factory to sell our bike.
Even though Yamaha was a known and respected brand name for musical instruments, it was still virtually unknown as a motorcycle manufacturer. To convince customers rightly doubting that a musical instrument maker could actually build good motorcycles, our victory at Fuji was our only real attention-grabber, and with a firm resolve that a Yamaha-brand bike could win any customer’s praise, the sales team continued working to win people over and to boost our potential market.
As our product somehow managed to make its way to storefronts and the number of them in use increased, so too did the warranty claims and requests for improvements. This was particularly true in the area of heat treatment. At the time, we didn’t have the gas carburizing method like today and instead used solid carbonizing and liquid carbonizing. Our heat-treatment equipment wasn’t exactly cutting-edge either, and this made it difficult to attain ideal levels of hardness and strength. This was one technical area we were particularly lagging behind with.
Carburizing nickel-chromimum-molybdenum steel in particular required a very high level of precision, and I can clearly recall Harada-san and Group Leader Atsumi (they have both passed away) struggling with this problem through repeated trial and error.
There’s a “story” about the production manager rushing around to haul off a small batch of parts that they’d finally managed to produce with the desired hardness to the next step in the production process. That story is from around this time.
The piston was made of “Lo-Ex” aluminum alloy and we had tremendous problems with piston seizures that spawned some serious complaints, and the seizures also led to customers calling about gearshift levers breaking and shifter springs snapping. But these issues are too technical for our present discussion so I’ll leave them out.
In any event, a research department was formed with a secret workroom set up at Nippon Gakki in Nakazawa, and things proceeded there with great intensity. The room was located in the warehouse that now sits next to the office building at Nippon Gakki headquarters today. It was called the Hachiman Warehouse and had only a few small windows, making it a rather unpleasant place. But because it was completely cut off from the outside world, it was an ideal location to keep secret research and things of that nature away from prying eyes.
It was here that R&D started on how to improve the performance of our racing engines. The small three-man team consisted of Research Department Manager Ono, Naito-san and Ishikawa-san.
Around September in 1955 they began development of a 175cc prototype. This machine was modeled after the 175cc DKW and was called the YC-1. It would be the second Yamaha motorcycle and production began the following year in 1956.
On September 10th, a planning meeting was held to discuss how to increase monthly production to 1,000 units. It was on this day that a piece of news arrived that stunned us all. At around 2:30 that afternoon President Kawakami had an accident when he was riding a motorcycle near Enshu Railway’s Hachiman Station. He’d broken his leg and was in the hospital in critical condition.
Even though he was the president, he really loved motorcycles and was riding the bike himself to look for other ways to boost its quality and performance ahead of the Asama Highlands Race. We all felt terrible that his good intentions for the bike had resulted in an accident and wished for his speedy recovery with all our hearts.