Honda: love of craftsmanship
Most of the automotive companies that exist today, have their roots in the late 19th or early 20th century. The first Honda did not roll off the assembly line until 1963. What have been the sources of the Japanese giant’s relatively late success?
Until the 17th century, Japan was grappling with numerous civil wars, with the daimyō, or the feudal lords, and the aristocracy trying to seize power in the state. This was eventually achieved by Ieyasu Tokugawa, the shogun, who quickly limited the emperor’s roles to a representative function, and who himself seized the real acting power in Japan. Ieyasu Tokugawa was well aware of the dangers of provincial rebellions, combined with ambition and ruthlessness – after taking control of the country, he introduced a series of prohibitions and orders designed to facilitate his control over every element of social life. One of Tokuagwa’s moves was to introduce sakoku (鎖国), a policy of isolationism that cut Japan off from outside influence for over 200 years.
The Treaty of Kanagawa, signed in 1854, led to a revolution in the country ruled by the Tokugawa family. Japan, under the agreement, had to open its borders and begin contacts with the broadly defined Western world. This change resulted in reforms practically in every part of the country’s system – imperial power was restored, the Gregorian calendar was introduced, the feudal system abolished, the education system and the country’s economy as a whole were reformed. It is not hard to guess that the information about the newly acquired access to the country, which has been off limits for hundreds of years, caused a real storm all over the world – everyone, from crowned monarchs to the bourgeoisie and merchants wanted to visit the Land of the Cherry Blossom, the land about which so many myths and legends had accumulated.
A story of mutual inspiration
The so-called “Japanese trend”, i.e. objects (clothes, design, art) originating from the East in the broadest sense of the word, quickly swept through Europe and the United States. Everyone wanted a piece of this extraordinary world, satsuma-style vase looked better in European salons than Meissen porcelain, and seamstresses created dresses inspired by the sleeves of furisode kimonos in addition to crinolines. Everyone wanted to own a little taste of the Orient, an almost mythical land, which would facilitate opening of the mind to new stimuli and automatically place the owner on the pedestal of a globetrotter and well-travelled adventurer. The fascination was in any case mutual – Japan, so far cut off from the world, was developing at its own pace, without access to technical innovations, such as electricity for example. Imperial decrees, introduced during the so-called Meiji* restoration, crossed out traditional forms of Japanese art and culture with a thick black line. Everything connected with the native culture was considered by the imperial government to be “primitive,” backward and unworthy of the new country that Japan was then becoming. A unique paradox occurred – the Western world found kimonos, traditional ceramics and the art of tattooing, so rarely encountered in Europe and America, to be most beautiful and fascinating, while the Japanese aristocracy adopted titles, modelled on those of the British nobility, women were abandoning haori for corsets and ukiyo-e woodcuts were being sold by door-to-door salesmen for the proverbial penny.
The age of steam and steel, or the beginning of a new world
The technological progress in the 20th century affected not only Japan but the world as a whole. The speed of the transformations was frightening – the industrial sector began to develop on a scale never witnessed before, enabling the automation of everyday life and production networks. Everyone became infected by the fever of progress, epitomised by, among other things, the automobile.
Most of the automotive companies that exist today, have their roots in the late 19th or the early 20th century. Renault, Citroen, or Mercedes were all established during the technological boom, and although they have come a long way in terms of their evolution, the very idea and origins of the brand go back to the very first industrial revolution in the history of modern humanity. Today, the car is a tool, an item that almost everyone can afford. An item that is used in excess, which is having an impact on the climate and the environment. In the beginning of the 20th century the automobile was considered a technological miracle, which enabled long distance travel and which conquered the world.
Sōichirō Honda came from a working-class family – his father, Gihei, was a blacksmith and his mother, Mika, was a weaver. His parents who had been taught the ethos of hard work, had respect for it, and as craftsmen, they were well aware of the importance of quality workmanship; they were well aware that even the slightest mistake could lead to the destruction of the results of many days of hard labour. Soichirō therefore was growing up with reverence for work from the basics, respect for craftsmanship and for the customers. Most importantly, Gihei instilled in his son a creative passion and fascination with construction in the broadest sense: together they repaired bicycles, reselling them at competitive prices. Soon, however, the 20th century also arrived in the Honda family’s hometown – Soichirō, even as a mature man, recalled the moment when he first saw an automobile. The young Honda was deeply moved by the sight of the machine and it became etched in his mind forever; he also never forgot the strange and fascinating smell of petrol he smelled then for the first time.
At the age of 15 Honda saw in the magazine “Bike World” (Ringyo no sekai)an advertisement for the Tokyo car company Art Shokai. This advertisement and the childhood memory of the first automobile he ever saw, made Honda decide to leave his family home and begin his adventure in the automotive industry. It was the time when he was completing his primary school education, so it was the perfect time to find a job and start a new life in Tokyo.
Honda was quickly noticed by the owners of Art Shokai: not only did he conscientiously and accurately perform the duties assigned to him, but he also carefully observed the managerial staff and used these observations in his daily work (we must remember that in the 1920’s of the 20th century, only a small part of the population could afford to buy a car, it was a luxury item, and direct contact with a prestigious customer had to be conducted at the highest level). The lessons learnt from a craftsman’s home did not go to waste, Honda was promoted to customer advisor. It was not only the good manners and respect for colleagues and buyers that were the reason for the high evaluation of Soichirō’s work, also the experience gained from his father’s blacksmith workshop proved very valuable:
“He didn’t just have theoretical knowledge – he was an expert in all kinds of practical tasks such as welding and forging. Those of us who studied mechanics only knew about these issues from textbooks and from an academic point of view. We just couldn’t compete against him.”
The several years working for Art Shokai were extremely fruitful and constructive in terms of his development, but after a while Honda felt he should seek his own path. He began experimenting with manufacturing his own components, and in 1937 a company he founded called Honda released pistons of its own making. However, the company did not operate for long, its activities being constrained by the cataclysmic events of the World War II. Despite the adverse circumstances, the company was reactivated in 1948 and began operating under a new name – Honda Motor Company. Despite Honda’s fascination with the automotive industry and cars, the brand began by manufacturing… bicycles (including electric ones) and motorbikes. As can be seen, working with his father to repair single-wheelers came in very handy.
Each detail is important
The first Honda did not roll off the assembly line until 1963. The T360 was a light commercial vehicle that rapidly gained cult status. The first car model designed by Honda was certainly distinctive in appearance – it looked nothing like the American and European “delivery vans”, but rather resembled an oversized children’s toy.
However, not only the T360 was marked by a controversial appearance, to this day on the streets of Japanese cities you can see funny-looking (from our perspective) box-like cars, that look like they have been transported ‘live’ from the world of Pixar. Cars of this type have a special name, they are called “kei cars”. The name comes from the phrasekei-jidōsha(軽自動車), literally “small car”, and describes compact, box-like vehicles that, which on the one hand, amuse tourists and, on the other, are an indispensable means of transport in overcrowded Asian cities. The construction of Kei cars commenced immediately after the World War II for a very simple reason – the country was in crisis, hardly anyone could afford to buy a “full-size” car, and besides, smaller vehicles were easier to navigate around the streets of destroyed cities.
Kei cars are still being manufactured today: this popular type of car can be found in both large cities and in the countryside, and their purchase often carries tax incentives.
The history of any brand is always linked to the people who created it. IfSoichirō Honda had not been born into a craftsman’s family, if he had not worked as an apprentice in his father’s blacksmith’s workshop, if he had not repaired bicycles in his youth, would he have become the owner of one of the largest automotive companies in the world? Would it have been possible, in a world unburdened by the experience of World War II, to produce an iconic car, that ensured the brand’s first success? Exploring the past and its stories allows one to become familiar with every element of a brand’s identity, to understand the context, even if the individual components seem to be average at the first glance.___________________________________________________________________
*The Meiji period – actually Meiji – jidai, meaning “the era of enlightened rule”. The reign of Emperor Mutsuhito (from 1868 to 1912). The Meiji era was a time of social, economic and financial reforms, and the introduction of Japan into the international arena. The guiding principles of the Meiji restoration were largely based on modernising the country in the Western style, while maintaining the autonomy of the state. The Meiji government was largely responsible for the abandonment of traditional art and culture – the imperial decrees banned the wearing of kimonos, blackening of teeth, and also reformed the theatre to make performances understandable to foreigners.