For more than half a century, Jiro Yanase personified the import-car market in Japan — for better and worse.
He opened the door to foreign cars at a time when tariffs and, later, nontariff barriers kept the Japanese market closed. But after opening it a crack, he then plastered it in place so it wouldn't open any wider.
Yanase was a man of his times. An era ended March 13 when he died of pneumonia in a Tokyo hospital at age 91.
To a great extent, Yanase created Japan's import-car market. In 2004, he became the first — and so far the only — overseas retailer inducted into the U.S. Automotive Hall of Fame. The citation read in part, "Jiro Yanase has provided American and European manufacturers the initial entrance — and the most successful means of selling cars — to the Japanese market."
As recently as 1996, Yanase & Co. handled one of every four imported cars in Japan, excluding so-called reimports from Japanese plants in the United States.
His father founded the company in 1915. It got its big break importing General Motors trucks to rebuild Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Jiro Yanase joined the company in 1939, right when the military-dominated government was shutting down foreign carmakers in Japan as part of its war mobilization strategy.