Soichiro Honda – He made the best of being different (and became successful for it) (P1)

 

There is no reason why, I thought, something which could be done by foreigners could not be done by Japanese.” [1] So said Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda Motor Company.

At the time, the man was then telling a writer how he felt the first time he attended the 1954’s Isle of Man’s T.T. motorcycle race. Put in perspective, that single sentence was also a reflection of a problem Soichoro experienced most of his life: being denied the right to succeed at something for being different from others (ex. not old enough, not educated enough, not rich enough, etc.). This was the opposite of what Honda grew to deeply believe in: that when one takes the time to get to the root of a problem and then puts his (or her) imagination at overcoming it, anything is possible. His favorite way to prove the naysayers wrong would be by using technology to provide affordable and innovative transportation solutions.

History showed that Soichiro Honda became very good at succeeding like foreigners did but the journey wouldn’t be a straight line.

More than once, actually, Soichiro’s deepest belief didn’t go along with the values of the society he grew up in. One where conformity, as in “fitting the norm”, was expected from everyone. Where the social class you were born in would set both the schools you could attend and the type of work that would later be accessible to you or not. Where your age would somehow determine if you were trustworthy enough to become a decisions maker; let it be a public official, a manager or even an entrepreneur, for instance. So that was, only in part, Japanese society’s reality during the early 20th century.

THE SON OF A BLACKSMITH

Born in November 1906, Soichiro Honda was the eldest of nine children, out of which only four survived. The others being taken away by various children diseases. [2] At the time, Soichiro parents had a small house in Komyo, known today as Hamamatsu. Located on the southern coast of Japan, between Tokyo and Osaka, Komyo was then a small community. Honda’s father was a blacksmith, repairing farming equipments and mending bicycles. [3, 4] Not much information is available on his mother, though.

Even if the father had his own shop, it was too small to bring much revenue. Which in part forced life to be simple but hard for the Honda family. Poverty was then a constant. [5, 6] The same for health issues, as mentioned above. This had its toll on young Honda. Even more during festive times, where others kids would prevent Soichiro to take part in some of their activities. Why? Because he was a poor “dirty boy”, as he was once told. [7] That one time had much impact on him. “To this day, I have not forgotten how miserable I felt then. Why do people discriminate against one another for reasons of wealth, I used to wonder?” [8]

It was still possible for Soichoro to have is share of joyful moments. A lot of them when helping his father at the shop. As Sol Sanders writes in his book “Honda. Then man and his machines”, Soichiro “enjoyed making unidentifiable shapes from bending the metal that came out of the forge. And he was given small jobs of helping to repair farm implements (e.g. equipments), which was his father’s main business.” [9] He did such repairs before he was even in age for school. When he was actually sent to school, a lack interest for any formal learning became very clear to him. “I was hopeless as far as examinations were concerned. I did not like reading and writing – because I found writing things down very troublesome. (…) I can understand things much more ‘efficiently’ through my ears and eyes.” [10]

Learning through experimentation and tinkering would then become very important for Soichiro. So his love for engines. Something he picked up very early with his grandfather. “There was a rice-polishing mill about four kilometers from my house, and the mill was a motor, a rare object in those days. I was often taken there on my grandfather’s back, and I found the sound of the motor and the blue smoke with its peculiar smell of oil fascinating. About another kilometer away from the rice mill was a lumberyard where saws made their loud whirring sound and I loved to watch them in motion. From those days, I have always had a sense of exhilaration just to look at and listen to motors and engines.” [11]

Seeing a car for the first time in Kyomo, between the age of six and eight, only deepened his interest for all things mechanic. As he recalled “Forgetting about everything else, I went running after the car. It was a calash-topped sedan or those days, and it was staggering along the narrow village street. I caught up with it for a while and hung onto its rear. I was deeply stirred. That was my first encounter with any kind of motor vehicle. When the car stopped, oil dripped down to the ground under it. I was literally intoxicated by the smell of that oil. Then I rubbed it over my hands and arms. I think it was from that moment, even though I was a mere child, that the idea originated I would one day build a car myself.” [12] After that one time, for every other car that would come to his village, Honda would make an obligation to himself to go and see it. He would get much exhilaration from it. The sight of his first airplane in 1914, sometimes after he had seen his first car, reinforced this love for engines. [13]

Enough for Soichiro to dream of working in an automobile repair shop, one day. [14] He would first have to deal with what other kids thought of his family’s poverty and the way he dressed. At about ten years old, there was a special ceremony at school where everyone had to put on their best clothes. “I went to school feeling elated that for once I was wearing a clean attractive kimono, even though I had had to borrow my mother’s sash. Classmates soon found out the secret and teased me, saying ‘Hey! That’s a woman’s sash’. I went home crying. (…) It’s not fair that there should be a distinction between colors for men and women.” [15]

By the time Honda had completed elementary school in 1922, at age fifteen, his father’s had transformed his blacksmith shop into a bicycle one. Going through a trade magazine his father had received; The World of Wheels, an ad caught Soichiro’s attention. The Arto Shokai, an automobile repair shop located in Tokyo, was looking for help. [16] “I wasted no time writing them to apply for the job. ‘You are hired, so come up to Tokyo at once’ came back the reply.” Soichiro managed to convince his father to let him go. So just after graduation, in March 1922, he left for Tokyo. His goal? “To seek my fortune in the big city” as he later told [17].

AN APPRENTICESHIP

Tokyo had grown as a collection of smaller villages. Trains, buses and “jinricksha” (e.g. the man-pulled chariot) were the main transportation modes in town then.

Accompanied by his father, Honda was able to find the location of Arto Shokai (or the Artistic Commercial Company, in English). Soichiro had high expectations. That is, thinking of becoming an expert car mechanic after a period of apprenticeship. Reality would be somehow different. As for a little more than a year, his main task was actually to nurse and carry around the shop owner’s baby child. Which wasn’t uncommon. As Sol Sanders explains in his book: “Even as late as the 1950s, many small Japanese firms drew no distinction between the duties of a new employee to the owner’s household and to his business.” [18] For a few months Honda tried to cope with the fact he wasn’t doing anything mechanic. Older apprentices would make fun of him. At one point, he started losing faith. Even more as the shop’s business was growing. One day though, the shop owner; Yuzo Sakakibara, told Soichiro they were very busy at the shop and that he should come over to help the other mechanics. [19] Soichiro later said this waiting period was maybe the most demanding experience of his life, but it gave him courage to face greater difficulties in later life. [20] One of these difficulties was actually around the corner.

THE GREAT KANTO

Honda had been in Tokyo a little more than a year when, on September 1st 1923, a major earthquake hit the city and part of the main island. It’s estimated that, in Tokyo itself, about 75 000 people died from it. [21] On the days that followed, Honda used his time off from work to carry passengers to different places in town, using a sidecar motorcycle Arto Shokai’s people managed to save from the earthquake. Soichiro’s goal was to make money. Because, as he said,”I needed it to buy rice for my owner and his family and myself. But mostly I enjoyed myself riding around Tokyo at what seemed breakneck speeds on the motorcycle.” [22]

The earthquake also had an impact on the shop itself. As all Arto Shokai’s mechanics left the shop to go back to their families. Only the senior apprentice and Soichiro remained to work. With the owner, their main task was to repair by hand a number of cars that had been damaged in a post-earthquake fire, in a nearby town’s car-production facility. About the repairs he and the others were able to do, Honda says that “given the shortage of materials and their poor craftsmanship, (the repairs) were pretty bad. But somehow they made the cars look like new, cannibalizing parts and coating them with paint.” [23] Which in the end made Soichiro learned to do things the hard way. Having to use his imagination to make up for the shortage of parts. Overcoming such hardships started to pay off.

A racer with a Curtiss aircraft engine, This vehicle was built by 18 years old Soichiro Honda when working as an assistant to Art Shokai shop's owner, Mr Sakakibara. (Source: Honda Motors)
A racer with a Curtiss aircraft engine, This vehicle was built by 18 years old Soichiro Honda when working as an assistant to
Art Shokai shop’s owner, Mr Sakakibara. (Source: Honda Motors)

As he gained skills and experienced Arto’s shop owner asked Soichiro if he was interested in racing cars. Honda must have said yes because Mr Sakakibara then suggested his apprentice to help him build one in the shop, after working hours. Out of abandoned parts, Soichiro managed to tinker three different racers. They were built well enough for Sakakibara won a racing meet with the third car (and Honda as his co-pilot). Soichiro later took part in others races as a pilot. [24, 25]

OWNING HIS REPAIR SHOP

In 1928, after a six years apprenticeship, Honda went back to Hamamatsu and opened his first car repair shop. He did so, in part, with the help of his former boss (Mr Sakakibara), but also his authorization to name it “Hamamatsu Branch of Arto Shokai” (HBAS). [26] Which was a sign of great confidence, as Honda later recalled.

There were already two or three auto repair shops in Hamamatsu. At 22, Honda was considered by many potential clients as too young and unqualified to do car repairs. The other shops were somehow successful because owned by older men. Yet, by the end of HBAS’s first year, Honda had managed not to make a deficit. [27] More importantly, he now had the reputation of being able to do the repairs his competitors either didn’t want of failed at. [28]

A PROBLEM-CENTERED MINDSET

Being able to outperform the competition was somehow the fruit of both, Honda’s mechanical originality but more importantly, of his belief “that the solution to any problem should be sought at its very root.” [29] Something the time spent in his father’s shop and at Arto Shokai thought him. Soichiro’s approach proved to be useful when he found a way to solve a recurrent problem with car wheels of the time: their spokes were made of wood and were hard to repair when damaged (by either fire, as during the Great Kanto earthquake, or poor road conditions). Honda’s solution: to build wheels with cast-metal spokes instead. Soichiro actually received a patent for the idea.

If chasing geishas was part of Soichiro‘s activities outside of work, he used most of his spare time to learn how to design engines, build and race cars himself. It would play a big part in his later business successes. [30] Meanwhile, competition was growing in the car-repair business. Honda’s own apprentices were leaving him, once in awhile, to open their own shops. The problem was that the number of cars in need of repairs didn’t increase at the same rate. Soichiro was well aware of that. War with China and later WWII would somehow help him deal with it.

THE JAPANESE SPIRIT OF PERSISTENCE

Japanese authorities had wanted for a long time to expand their access to raw material reserves and economic resources – like food products, livestock and labor. Because it was a set of islands, geography limited the expansion possibilities. China’s territory offered these possibilities and resources. Using an aggressive approach, Japan intentionally caused “military incidents” with China to gain such accesses. The first incident happening in 1931.

In reality, each incident was an attempt from Japan to invade China. So up until 1937 – when the war was officially declared between the two countries – there had been an increasing shortage of materials and parts to use for repairs in Japan. The Japanese economy was more in a “build something new / war effort mode” than a “repair something old / rebuild” one. Leading Soichiro to think that instead of being other people’s repairman, it might be better, even more ambitious for his company to start manufacturing instead. In his typical way – which had much to do with “yamato damashii” aka the Japanese spirit of persistence – he set out to learn more about casting. [31] All for the purpose of manufacturing piston ring; which were important in building any type of engine. Something the army and other manufacturers needed very much.

The business change wasn’t easy; almost running out of money, being told his rings lacked important basic characteristics and having to go back to school (to get the mechanic engineering knowledge he didn’t have). Honda was almost 30 and married then; having met a woman named Sachi Isobe. The new Mrs Honda was a good match in many ways for Soichiro; being unconventional herself, forceful, having learned to pilot airplanes, atop of having a good sense of humor and imagination. [32] Yet, Honda’s motivation to keep on trying turning his business around went beyond wanting to become a piston rings expert. “I could hold out only because I knew that all of us would starve if I gave up.” [33]

After much effort, Soichiro and his small team were able to produce their first “more or less acceptable” piston rings in November 1937. [34] Bringing the rings to mass production and making sure they would meet the engine manufacturers’ requirements proved to be even more difficult. In 1938 things went well enough for Honda’s new manufacturing plant to be able to supply Toyota (then a subsidiary of Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, founded in 1926).

Even though he failed the army’s physical entry exam – for being colorblind – WWII somehow offered new opportunities to Honda. As Japan was more than ever in need of other things than piston rings. So he added airplane parts to his company’s production lines. Without the qualified manpower he had access to before the war, Soichiro had to think of new ways and equipments for unqualified workers (mostly women) to do the work. Again, his ability at thinking a problem differently came into play. For instance, he designed a machine that cut to 30 minutes a job that took more than a week to do by hand and was important in making airplane propellers. [35]

A POST-WAR DRIFT

With the end of the war, the piston rings and airplane parts businesses declined. Even though Soichiro was offered by Toyota to keep on being one of their engine parts suppliers, it wasn’t enough for him anymore. So he sold the company to Toyota in 1945.

At the time, the defeat and occupation by the Americans brought a mood of apathy and lack of purpose in the Japanese population. After a while, Mrs Honda started to worry about her husband, as he too began to experience the same negative drift.

Tokyo was in rubbles. Bombardments had made many roads impractical. So buses and cars weren’t the best options for transport. Trains were overcrowded and not rolling with the same inventory of wagons as before the war. The same for the buses. There was also a shortage of fuel, which forced the government to start rationing its distribution. Rice production had fallen by half (compared to its production during war time), inflation was rising, and people had to go further out of Tokyo to gather the food they needed to survive. Which made “any kind of transportation desperately needed”. [36] Soichiro was somehow looking for a way to be useful again. His drift wouldn’t last that much longer.

THE “A-TO-B” PROBLEM

No matter how hard was the situation, Honda still needed to go from point A to B, either to buy food or else. By foot or bicycle? Too slow or not good enough to cover long distances. Driving his car? The gasoline shortage made it too expensive. The overcrowded trains or buses? Not the best of options neither.

The solution came to Soichiro in a very simple way. It was almost too obvious for him to consider. “I had the idea of fitting an engine to a bicycle simply because I did not want to ride the incredibly crowded trains and buses myself.” [37]

What type of engine could be small, powerful and fuel-efficient enough to do so? As Sol Sanders wrote, it was “a small gasoline­powered motor that had been utilized by the military during the war to operate generators for radios”. [38]

Engine-powered bicycle designed by Soichiro Honda. It used radio generator engines developed by the Japanese army during WWII (Source: Honda Motors)
Engine-powered bicycle designed by Soichiro Honda. It used radio generator engines developed by the Japanese army during WWII (Source: Honda Motors)

Soichiro’s engine-powered bicycle was an instant success. People were coming from all over to buy one from him. It was an affordable and innovative solution to a costly problem; not being able to go from A to B in the most timely-fashion and efficient way possible. Again he found himself in a situation where he was limited in the quality of possible options, in the quantity of available resources too. Again he bet on what he had plenty of; his ability to get at the root of a problem, his imagination and tinkering skills. How Soichiro solved this transportation problem would become his trademark. It would also become the one of his next company: Honda Motors.

In this entire venture though, making money wasn’t Soichiro’s primary motivation. Even though it helped making life easier for his wife and him. Trying to solve a problem and, indirectly, improving the lives of others was his main concern. Reflecting on that specific period Honda will say, “since I found pleasure in the fact that a thing of my own contrivance was proving (to be) useful and was appreciate by people, I was not paying much attention to profit.” [39] His vision of technology might have helped him dealing with his main concern: “Technology is a tool to serve mankind (…) Its by-products created by men are nothing more than the means and tools for achieving a better life for men.” [40]

At some point, the army’s engines inventory dried up. Soichiro then started to build his own engines. The one he then designed could actually run with any kind of fuel. Which somehow helped tackle the still very present shortage problem. One very popular gasoline replacement back then was a resin-like substance made out of pine tree roots. Either mixed or not with regular gasoline, it could easily power Honda’s new motorbike. [41] If this new engine-powered bicycle proved to be affordable and innovative, it soon showed its limits. First in terms of distance coverage, then in polluting emissions. The resin-like substance and gasoline mixture actually earned the bike a visual nickname: “The Chimney”. [42]

It inspired Soichiro to think of a better option. His answer was introduced to the market in 1949: the “Dream”. The first full motorcycle Soichiro designed and built with his team for a company he founded for the occasion: Honda Motors. [43] Why the “Dream” name? Because as Soichiro would say “I was trusting my aspirations, my dreams, to speed.” [44] A “Dream” that would spread beyond Japan. How? With a man who will help Soichiro make Honda Motors as innovative on its business side as it was on its engineering one.

At least, that’s one of the things you’ll learn in the 2nd and last part of this series on Soichiro Honda.

Either at work or in your personal life, in what situation your imagination became very handy at solving a problem?

Signature PF

_ _ _ Sources _ _ _ _ _

[1] “Honda. Then man and his machines” by Sol SANDERS (Little, Brown & Company, 1975)

[2] “Honda Motor _ The Men. The Management. The Machines” by Tetsuo SAKIYA (Kodansha International, 1982)