In the mid-1950s, Nissan adamantly opposed selling cars in America. “Crazy Nobe” tricked Nissan to bring cars here.
So reads the brief historical footnote assigned to an otherwise forgotten young Japanese man living in Los Angeles: Nobushige Wakatsuki, known to Americans as Nobe.
The official history is sketchy. But Wakatsuki is the agent provocateur who first pushed a reluctant Nissan Motor Co. into selling cars in the United States — an idea many older Japanese believed to be ridiculous.
In 1955, Wakatsuki worked in the newly opened Los Angeles office of Marubeni Corp., an aggressively growing Japanese trading company. Japanese government and industry officials were looking for anything they could find to export out of Japan — cloth, leather, rubber, toys, transistor radios.
The enterprising Wakatsuki proposed throwing Nissan cars into Marubeni's mix.
No room for Nissan
The notion was greeted dismissively, to put it mildly, Wakatsuki, now 84, said from his home in the fashionable Shibuya neighborhood of Tokyo.
“They thought I was crazy,” Wakatsuki said in perfect English while Japanese TV played in the background. “They told me I didn't know what I was talking about. It was very humiliating to me. When I would try to talk to people at Nissan about selling cars in the United States, they would look at each other and then get up and leave the room.”
In the automaker's defense, Wakatsuki's proposal was a bit of a stretch. Japan knew nothing about the U.S. car market.
In the end, Wakatsuki resorted to trickery. He purchased three cars outright and had them shipped to the United States. When Nissan asked what he planned to do with them, Wakatsuki lied and told the company they would be his personal vehicles.
“When they found out I had tricked them, they were very mad,” he recalled. “Marubeni was mad at me, too. They wanted to fire me.”
Signing up distributors
Approaching U.S. retailers with his ill-gotten samples wasn't much easier. Dealers also thought Wakatsuki's claim that the Japanese would export cars was crazy. One retailer, E.G. Woolverton, of Woolverton Motors in Glendale, Calif., believed the story and signed up to distribute the Datsun vehicles to other retailers on the West Coast.
But Wakatsuki was no car salesman and Marubeni no auto company. The plans to sell 500 to 1,000 Datsuns in 1958 fizzled, and the brand sold a paltry 83 in its first year, according to John B. Rae's 1982 book, Nissan/Datsun, A History of Nissan Motor Corporation in U.S.A., 1960-1980. By year end, Rae wrote, Woolverton had 100 Datsuns sitting in an open lot, unsold.
Wakatsuki urged Nissan to come set up its own sales company in America. But even that idea got a cool reception. It would be three years before Nissan's advertising manager, Yutaka Katayama — later known to Nissan aficionados as the influential “Mr. K” — would take control and open a U.S. office.
“Those were the most miserable three years of my life,” Wakatsuki said. “People were laughing at me.”
But what about now, he is asked, 50 years later? With Nissan North America selling more than 1 million vehicles a year and delivering two-thirds of the global corporation's profits, doesn't Wakatsuki feel as if he proved them all wrong?
He let go of a hearty laugh that temporarily drowned out the TV.
“You'll never hear anyone say so!” he said, laughing. “They probably still despise me!”
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.