Japan is home to one of the leading and most well-known automotive industries in the world. If you think of the most recognizable products from Japan, most probably you will have “cars” in your list. Japans’ big three: Toyota, Honda, and Nissan are always on the annual top 10 spots of the largest carmakers in the world. From the 1970s to 1990s, Japan’s automotive production rapidly increased, both for domestic use and worldwide exports.
Japanese carmakers are known worldwide for producing reliable cars with a high-tech brand image and well-executed details. Autos from Japan are generally lighter yet tough and has low malfunction rate, making them gain millions of buyers supporting their brands.
As it turns out, Japanese carmakers were known back then for their practice of ripping off car designs from other manufacturers before they became the standard for quality. Back then, it was also hard to envision that Japan would someday be the world’s leader in the automotive world, with Toyota almost getting bankrupt in 1949. But Japanese carmakers played well with their strengths: focus, consistency, and detail oriented engineering. They borrowed the best ideas from other countries, while also addressing their problems and weaknesses – making improved and better-than-ever models.
Let’s get to know the founders of the Japanese automobile industry who started it all:
1. Tarao Yamaha
In 1904, Tarao Yamaha built the first Japanese automobile. It was a 25-hp, steam-powered small bus that could seat 10 passengers, and was called as the Yamaha Omnibus. It was simply created to transform the large Yamaha family. Yamaha
2. Komanosuke Uchiyama
In 1907, an engineer from Toyo Motor Vehicle Works named Komanosuke Uchiyama built the Takuri, the first Japanese-made gasoline-powered automobile. It was built using a gas engine from the United States.
3. Masujiro Hashimoto
One of the pioneers who had a significant influence on the establishment of Japan’s automotive industry was Masujiro Hashimoto. He was the founder of Kaishinsha Jidosha Koto (Kwaishinsha Motor Car Works), which is the forerunner of today’s Nissan Motors.
Before Hashimoto established his motor car company, ventures to produce vehicles in Japan were unsuccessful due to the country’s underdeveloped industrial technology and unsuitable conditions for starting an all-around automotive company; and Kwaishinsha Motor Car Works was one of the few that succeeded. Back then, Hashimoto was a mechanical engineer sent by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce to study manufacturing in the United States. For three years, he worked for a manufacturer of steam engines in New York. When he came back to Japan, he had jobs related to machine gun manufacturing, electrical engineering, and coal mining equipment design.
It was in 1911 when Hashimoto formed Kwaishinsha Motor Car Works in the Azabu-Hiroo district of Tokyo. It produced its first car in 1914 and named it DAT-31, a 10-hp passenger car. DAT is an acronym of the main investor’s surnames: Kenjiro Den, a business manager; Rokuro Aoyama, Hashimoto’s childhood friend; and Meitaro Takeuchi, a well-connected financier. In 1916, the company introduced DAT 41, their first best-seller that won a gold award at the Peace Commemoration Tokyo Exposition in 1922. In 1918, the company was renamed to DAT Jidosha & Co., Ltd, and named their cars Datsun, an affectionate nickname for DAT.
However, the company suffered from a lot of problems because business was constantly slow. One of their fatal blows included the rapid increase of US vehicles in 1925 after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Hashimoto was squeezed out in a reorganization in 1931, and almost nothing is known about his life after leaving the firm. In 1933, DAT merged with Nihon Sangyo’s Tobata Casting. Nihon Sangyo was later on simplified as Nissan, but at the time it has been using Ni-San as a symbol on the Japanese stock exchange. DAT’s merger with Tobata Casting paved the way for the beginning of automobile manufacturing by Nissan.
4. Junya Toyokawa
Junya Toyokawa is an engineer who established the Hakuyosha Company, a manufacturer of machine tools. The Hayukosha Company is one of the successful businesses that emerged in the early automotive history of Japan, besides Kwaishinsha Motor Car Works.
The company built two domestic vehicles named Ales in 1921. Ales are two experimental touring cars – one was powered by a by a water-cooled, four-cylinder side-valve engine displacing 1610 cc, the other an air-cooled four-cylinder engine producing 780 cc. The Ales were exhibited at the Peace Commemoration Tokyo Exposition and won a silver award.
From 1924 to 1927, the Hakuyosha Company built the commercially successful Otomo. Otomo is an air-cooled 944 cc four-cylinder light car, available as two- or four-seater sedan or as a van. Production ended in 1928 and the Hayukosha Company ultimately closed due to the increase in the assembly production of US vehicles.
5. Yataro Iwasaki
Born to a family shamed with debts, Yataro Iwasaki became a bold and ambitious entrepreneur who founded the Mitsubishi Company in 1870. The company was first established as a shipping firm, but today, it’s a conglomerate industry that owns the entities such as the Mitsubishi Bank, the Mitsubishi Corporation and the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which includes the famous Mitsubishi Motors.
Yataro was a visionary leader who foresaw the potential of motorized vehicles and the role they would play in Japan’s economic development. Mitsubishi Model A, Mitsubishi’s first car and Japan’s first mass-produced production car, was launched in 1917. It was a brainchild of Yataro, although he never saw it since he already died 32 years before it was produced. The Mitsubishi Model A was a four-door, seven seater sedan with a town car body style. It is powered by a 35 hp, 2.8-litre, straight-4 engine, and is capable of speeds up to 60 mph.
6. William Reagan Gorham
William Reagan Gorham is an American automobile engineer who migrated to Japan and made considerable contributions to the technology of Japan’s automobile industry. He was known for building a three-wheeled motor vehicle called the Gorham and a four-wheeled auto called Lila in 1920, under the employment as chief designer for Gonshiro Kubota’s Kubota Corporation, which would eventually be merged into a predecessor of Nissan Motor Company.
Gorham and Kubota, along with other Japanese investors, established Jitsuyo Jidōsha Seizo, the firm that would later manufacture Gorham’s creations. In 1926, DAT Motors merged with Jitsuyo Jidōsha Seizo, forming DAT Jidosha Seizo Co., Ltd. DAT inherited Gorham as their chief designer. When DAT Jidosha Seizo became affiliated with Tobata Castings (a Nihon Sangyo or Nissan brand), Gorham greatly affected Nissan’s future. It was him who carried out the plans of Nihon Sangyo’s founder Yoshisuke Aikawa to use cutting-edge auto making technology from the US. Gorham was referred to as the founder of Nissan Motor Company in terms of technology.
7. Yoshisuke Aikawa
Yoshisuke Aikawa is the founder of Nihon Sangyo, which is now known as the Nissan Motor Company. Established in 1928, Nihon Sangyo was a holding company that took over the operations for manufacturing Datsuns, the Japanese brand of automobiles that marked the rapid advances of modern industrialization in Japan. Datsun passenger cars were produced by DAT Jidosha Seize Co., Ltd, which merged with Nihon Sangyo.
Aikawa may not be the man who improved Datsuns, his modern style of leadership put the Datsuns and Nissan in the world automotive industry map. He avoided naming the company after him or his family, which was a typical practice in Japanese businesses because they were feudal in nature. He made the company public and placed people with engineering backgrounds in top positions, not his family members. He had plans to mass-produce 10,000 to 15,000 units annually and was able to put that into practice. Back then, mass producing that number of cars were a big deal.
8. Kiichiro Toyoda
The son of the famous Japanese inventor and Toyoda Industries Corporation founder Sakichi Toyoda, Kiichiro Toyoda was the founder of Toyota Motor Corporation, the largest automobile manufacturer in the world. Kiichiro worked at a leading manufacturer of textile machinery in England and studied manufacturing techniques in the United States. He returned to Japan and worked at his father’s loom-making business, where he engineered improvements to the high-draft spinning frames of the loom, and patented a carding machine.
When his father had died, his brother-in-law Risaburo Toyoda became the new president of Toyoda Industries. Kiichiro convinced Risaburo to fund research in auto-making and manufacturing, however risky the automobile business is at the time. Kiichiro then bought a new Chevrolet and hired some of Japan’s top engineers to disassemble and reassemble it. In 1934, Toyoda designed their first gasoline-powered engine and persuaded investors to fully fund Toyoda Industries’ automotive division. Toyoda’s first car, Model A1, was built combining Japanese parts with Ford and Chevy components under a Chrysler body. The 1936 Model AA passenger car was based on the Chrysler Airflow. Toyoda (which was changed eventually to Toyota) was known for ripping off designs from other manufacturers until it was known as a reliable, innovative carmaker today.