In September 1945, a young Japanese engineer named Kenichi Yamamoto faced a wrenching decision: Should he return home to Hiroshima?
With the war over, the newly discharged naval officer knew he had to rebuild his life. But already word had filtered back to the factory where he was working east of Tokyo: Hiroshimahad been destroyed by a strange super-bomb.
Were his parents and younger sister still alive? Was their house still standing? Was there, in fact, anything to go home to?
Not much. However, amid the rubble of the world's first atomic-bomb target were a few remnants of a manufacturer named Toyo Kogyo. It would eventually rise, phoenix-like, to become Mazda Motor Corp.
The postwar resurrection of Mazda and other Japanese automakers is one of the most remarkable stories in the history of the industry. Those companies succeeded because of the determination and hard work of individuals like Yamamoto.
After graduating from Tokyo Imperial University in September 1944, he had been assigned to a fighter-airplane factory. There, he and two other navy officers managed a work force of 500 - almost all of whom were school kids.
On Aug. 15, 1945, the plant's workers gathered to listen as the emperor, in a noon radio broadcast, announced Japan's surrender. Japan had lost. In shock, everyone cried.
Orders came to close the plant immediately, but it was a month before the three managers were told to go home. Unsure what to do, Yamamoto dithered for a week.
Then, a letter arrived from his mother.
As he had feared, his home was destroyed, and his sister, who had just graduated from high school, was dead. But his parents were alive, although his father was showing signs of radiation sickness. Please come home, his mother begged.
So Yamamoto returned. In February 1946, he found a job, joining Toyo Kogyo as a production worker at a plant outside the city making transmissions for a three-wheel truck.
Times were desperate. The company had to scrounge for enough raw materials to keep the plant running. The work was 'really dirty,' Yamamoto recalls in a telephone interview; he came home each day coated with oil and grime. 'But jobs were scarce,' he recalls. His parents were 'delighted' that he was working at all.
He liked the work, too. 'For an engineer, it was an enjoyable job,' he says. He appreciated the challenge of making transmission gears. He studied the business and made suggestions. His boss noticed. After a year and a half, he was promoted to management and assigned to develop a new engine for Toyo Kogyo's three-wheel truck.
The truck, sold to farmers and merchants, was Toyo Kogyo's launch pad for a move into automobiles. The company had introduced it in 1931, adding it to the corporate lineup of rock drills and machine tools.
But the company had to switch its focus to rifles during the war, and truck output fell to only 79 in 1945. Output soared thereafter: 833 in 1946, 2,430 in 1947, 4,245 in 1948, 7,885 in 1949. Production peaked at 114,263 units in 1960. That year, the company introduced the R360, its first passenger car, with considerable fanfare.
Orders poured in for the car, with its cute styling and affordable price of 300,000 yen, equivalent to $833 at the time. 'That so many people could and would buy it was amazing,' he adds. 'It was a turning point in the history of Mazda.'
For Yamamoto, however, the next year was even more significant. In 1961, Toyo Kogyo signed a technology agreement with Audi NSU/Wankel to develop the rotary engine. Yamamoto was put in charge of rotary-engine research and development. In October 1963, the Cosmo, a sports-car prototype with a rotary engine, debuted at the Tokyo Motor Show. Yamamoto spent hours there, explaining the technology to visitors, including Japan's prime minister and the head of the Industrial Bank of Japan. After the show, Yamamoto, Toyo Kogyo's then-President Tsunegi Matsuda and three assistants drove the Cosmo across Japan for two weeks. They went from city to city, stopping at dealerships and banks, talking up the engine's technology and Toyo Kogyo's engineering. This was no mere publicity stunt - Toyo Kogyo's existence was at stake.
The Ministry of International Trade and Industry directed Japan's economic development in the postwar period. Its agenda specified that Toyota, Nissan and Isuzu - not Toyo Kogyo - were to be Japan's carmakers. Those companies not on the A-list were vulnerable because, without MITI's support, bank financing would be iffy if not impossible to obtain. So Yamamoto's rotary engine became a showcase. See what good technology we have, he and Matsuda argued. The Mazda brand stands for good engineering. We deserve a chance. Don't let this brand die.
Eventually, Toyo Kogyo hit upon the winning argument. Foreign countries were starting to press Japan to liberalize its highly protected market, and MITI wanted to counter with examples of international cooperation.
Toyo Kogyo's tie-up with NSU/Wankel suddenly put it in MITI's good graces.
Yamamoto spent 15 years developing the rotary engine and then rode its success up the corporate ladder. Along the way, Mazda pushed into the American market, led by its flagship, the rotary-powered RX-7 sports car. He was President Yamamoto when, in 1985, he hefted a shovel at the groundbreaking for Mazda's plant in Flat Rock, Mich. In 1987, he became Mazda's chair-man. Now a semiretired senior adviser, he recalls the industry's immediate postwar years as being dominated by young, ambitious men who worked hard. 'We set our sights on working for the mother country's revival,' he says. In 1955, at age 33, he traveled to the United States and Europe. He remembers a new-employee gathering at GM, and Volkswagen's awe-inspiring production technology. Yet he was not intimidated, even though Toyo Kogyo had yet to produce its first car. Says Yamamoto: 'I thought that if we worked and studied hard, in the 1960s we could begin to be competitive with them.'
It was a brash forecast and, as it turned out, wrong. For once, his sights were too low.