In the mid-1980s, Shoichiro Irimajiri led Honda Motor Co.'s manufacturing push into the United States. It was a time when Honda was seen as a maverick on both sides of the Pacific, doing what it wanted regardless of the urgings of the Japanese industry.
Irimajiri himself also was seen as something of a maverick - a charismatic Japanese executive who spoke openly of the importance of making Honda as American in the United States as it was Japanese in Japan.
Other Japanese carmakers later would set up shop in America, but they all had deeper pockets and histories that dated back to before World War II. Honda had neither. Under Irimajiri's guidance, a modest motorcycle plant - built to see whether Honda's manufacturing methods would work in America - grew and grew. Auto production and engine production expanded.
For Irimajiri, building Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. was the sort of seat-of-your-pants, all-out effort he had known as a leader of Honda's Formula One race team. He loved it. He inspired Honda's burgeoning American workers, who called him 'Iri.' He held regular meetings with employees and spent much of his time on the factory floor.
But the fun stopped when he was called back to Japan in 1988. Many observers believed Irimajiri would bring a more American flavor to Honda's global culture. But that was not to be. Passed over for the president's post, he became part of a ruling troika at Honda just as the company became too big for its original free-wheeling management style.
It was exhausting work, but Irimajiri was expected to soldier on as a loyal Honda man. Instead, he did the unthinkable in corporate Japan: He quit.
Even more shocking to Japanese traditionalists, he completely left the auto industry. Looking for something more fun, he joined computer-game maker Sega Enter- prises, where he is president today.