In every era, there is always the going rumor among locals and it seems the more peculiar it is, the faster it spreads. Like a windblown flame, talk that a musical instrument company was building a motorcycle spread rapidly through town.
“Hey, did you hear? Nippon Gakki (today’s Yamaha Corporation)’s gonna start building pon-pon!”
“Really? Seems pretty out there for a company like that.”
“You think the exhaust will sing do-rei-mi?”
In 1954 in Hamamatsu, people everywhere were still living in primitive housing—often called “1,000-yen barracks”—during the recovery and commuting to work on trains packed like sardines in windowless boxcars or open-air gondolas. Pon-pon was the slang term for “motorcycle” among the area’s locals, and the word that was going around on mornings aboard those uncomfortable trains was about one of the town’s standout companies, Nippon Gakki Co., Ltd. (today’s Yamaha Corporation). The eve of the YA-1’s birth would arrive not long after these rumors began circulating.
It was all illustrative of how Hamamatsu and its people were putting the region’s deeply embedded culture of craftsmanship and spirit to work toward the post-war recovery.
The birthplace of the Yamaha brand is in an area of western Shizuoka Prefecture. This locality fostered its own unique culture over the centuries as various manufacturing industries were concentrated there.
The area had been a center for cotton cultivation since ancient times. As the textile industry began to prosper thanks to the region’s specialty cotton, automatic looms were invented in the surrounding areas. The machining technology and knowhow amassed during the development and production of these looms later found its way into automobile manufacturing.
Also, the mountainous regions of northern Shizuoka are covered with beautiful forests of Japanese cedars. A lumber industry sprang up there, bringing with it the growth of woodworking technology and skills. The advancements in woodworking equipment helped spur the rapid rise of Japan’s musical instrument industry. In a similar pattern, the process of manufacturing instruments led to new metalworking techniques and technologies.
Blessed with a mild climate, the locals cultivated their own specialty crop and used it to manufacture consumer products. Even the tools and technology needed for that manufacturing were created locally and were eventually repurposed, giving birth to new industries. This repeated process of innovation and spinoffs led to the unique culture of craftsmanship that took root here, and the driving force behind it was the time-honored Yaramaika spirit. Yaramaika means, “Let’s give it a shot!” in the local dialect.
Around when Nippon Gakki began working in secret to develop a motorcycle, Japan was also taking its first steps in its period of rapid economic growth. Striving to rebuild the nation through manufacturing, new industries were springing up across the archipelago.
However, Nippon Gakki was a musical instrument company; it had zero experience building motorcycles. So to get started, they invited a respected engineering professor and expert on 2-stroke engines from Tokyo to visit the company and give his advice. After closely examining the company’s plans and equipment, the professor estimated that it would probably take about two years to produce the first product. But President Genichi Kawakami firmly believed that “To work carefully is to work quickly,” and with these words, he took charge of the project himself. The team managed to bring the YA-1 to market about six months later.
The model the YA-1 was based on was the West German DKW RT125. Only five had been imported into Japan and fortunately for Nippon Gakki, one was owned by a medical doctor in a nearby town. The doctor undoubtedly drew considerable attention in the small provincial town, making his rounds with his examination instruments strapped. Before long, the rumor that Nippon Gakki was building a motorcycle reached his ears. “They say it’s gonna be just like yours.” Hearing this, the doctor kindly offered the DKW he liked so much to Nippon Gakki and asked that they make their machine even better.
In the company’s prototyping workshop, things were heating up and this was not entirely due to the hot weather, although the summer of 1954 in Hamamatsu was one of the hottest on record.