A Japanese Engineer 'Fights Until He Drops' for a Car He'll Never See


At an industrial exhibition in Tokyo in 1890, affluent visitors were annoyed by a young, shabby-looking farm boy who every time a machine was demonstrated, brutally squeezed through the crowd to hang his nose over the machine.

At a certain point a dignified gentleman thought it was enough and told the young man that he had better get out and not come back.

Sakichi Toyoda, later honored as one of the greatest inventors of Japanese history, was then 23 and arguably the most eccentric figure from his remote village south of Nagoya. He got angry and said, 'You're Japanese, aren't you? These machines are all made outside of Japan.

Does that mean nothing to you? I am proud to be Japanese and I will invent better machines and make them in Japan!' A statement that must have sounded ridiculously arrogant in that place and time.

The exhibition featured 1,700 foreign products from the Paris World Expo of 1889, an overview of what the brightest European and American engineers had to offer.

Born in 1867, Sakichi Toyoda was a poor farmer who earned a little extra off-season from carpentry. Like many women in the area, his mother owned a primitive loom on which she wove fabrics for the family's clothes. She sold the surplus.

Towards the end of the last century, Japan was flooded with cheap textiles from England, so that the women lost their secondary income. Toyoda became obsessed with the loom and worked day and night to improve it.

He acquired patent after patent, founding first weaving mills and later factories to produce automatic looms. He got the British firm Platt Brothers, the largest loom manufacturer in the world, to pay big bucks for its most notable improvements.

For example, he provided the automatic loom with a mechanism that stopped the machine if the weaving thread broke or ran out.

In addition, he built a machine that noticed its own flaws and shut itself down before the product could be damaged. "When I started going to school around 1920, the Toyoda looms were as famous as Mikimoto's pearls or Suzuki's violins," said one of the Toyoda descendants later.

Sakichi Toyoda was a man of few words, but he liked to repeat this one: 'Japan is a poor country.

Entrepreneurs, managers and staff all have to conspire.' Also as president of a number of companies and of a large branch in Shanghai, he was usually on the shop floor, encouraging his workers with phrases such as, "Let's try," or "Don't be afraid to make mistakes." to make.' He picked up a nail from the floor here and a piece of cotton there.

He could not have disorder and waste. The 'we-Japanese' feeling, the extreme sense of perfection and efficiency, the contact with the shop floor: son Kiichiro, founder of the Toyota Motor Company years later, would not forget all this.

Kiichiro, too, walked around his company like an unpretentious busybody who knew his people, talked to them, and helped them. One day he came across a worker who was scratching his head and grumbling that his grinder wouldn't run.

Kiichiro looked at the man, rolled up his sleeves and put his hands into the oil pan.

He took out two handfuls of junk, threw the gunk on the floor and said, "How do you think you can do your job without getting your hands dirty." His engineers also had to have dirty hands, he thought.

"There's absolutely no need to wash your hands when you come to see me," he told someone he knew very well not to get his hands dirty.

Or he said, not without venom: 'You must be very handy, those hands of yours don't show a single cut, I can't do that.' And then he showed his own hands, which were always covered with small cuts and bruises, fingers showing the last traces of oil and grease.

Like his father, Kiichiro worked with machines all his life, no engineer could match that. "He never rested," reads a company biography.

Example America

Kiichiro's mother ran off shortly after his birth in 1894 because it was impossible to live with a possessed inventor like Sakichi Toyoda. Kiichiro grew up among the machines, but he also had an innate affinity with them. In 1920 he graduated as an engineer from the Imperial University of Tokyo. He immediately assisted his father in projects that were getting bigger and bigger. In 1921 he and his sister and brother-in-law made a long journey through the United States and Europe to complete his education. He mainly visited factories of weaving machines. But just like his father, who had spent six months in the United States in 1910, he was struck by the advance of the car industry. The two men were convinced that the automobile would become the most spectacular mass-produced product of the twentieth century. Old Toyoda instilled in his son what he himself had achieved in the textile industry in this field.

The dream of owning one hundred percent Japanese car arose in those days. For the time being, however, they were too busy with their own sector.

However, in 1927, when he returned from a visit to his factory in Shanghai, Sakichi suffered a mild brain haemorrhage. Kiichiro, 33 years old, had to take charge of the whole series of companies.

It was also Kiichiro who traveled to England in 1929 to sign the patent sale agreement with Platt Brothers. Along the way, he stopped in the United States and visited car manufacturers, assemblers and workshops where car parts were manufactured.

Immediately after his return, he went to work.

In retrospect, it was an insane plan for a young Japanese entrepreneur at that time, March 1930, to clear a corner of his weaving machine factory and instruct his engineers to develop a small gasoline engine.

Ford had built a factory in Yokohama in 1925 and General Motors built one in Osaka in 1927. There were 80,000 cars on Japanese roads in 1930, but only a few hundred of them were domestic.

Three Japanese companies that had been building cars for about ten years, together did not exceed 400 units a year.

Japan had wrested from the Middle Ages only a few decades earlier, had no stagecoaches or bicycles, had no steel foundries, could not make sheet metal, had no knowledge of precision work, could not do anything at all when it came to producing a modern car went.


Old Toyoda passed away in the fall of 1930. Kiichiro was left alone. And two American giants dominated the market. To make matters worse, political power increasingly fell into the hands of the military, who were only interested in military equipment, airplanes and trucks.

After 1938 it was even officially forbidden to develop a passenger car.

Kiichiro pulled experienced Japanese engineers—for much lower wages, but appealing to their national pride—from General Motors, sought out fellow engineers from his university years and hired them.

He read and reread the autobiography of his great example Henry Ford and forced those around him to do the same. He could rely on the proceeds from his father's patents and on the substantial profits from the weaving machine factory.

By the summer of 1933, the engineers had finished ten prototype motorcycle engines. It then took them more than half a year to cast the first engine cylinder block. Kiichiro bought a plane and had the engine disassembled and mapped.

Moments later, a helicopter suffered the same fate. One day he even sent his cousin to the bookstore to buy all the works on rockets. Anyone traveling abroad had to bring a car.

He and his engineers would drive around in it for a few days before dismantling the vehicle down to the smallest screw. In May 1935, the first passenger car prototype was ready. Under military pressure, the emphasis was placed on trucks.

However, the first Toyoda trucks could barely cover the distance to a motor show in Tokyo (250 kilometers). They had to be repaired along the way. They literally hung together with snags.


In August 1937, the auto division was renamed Toyota Motor Co. disconnected from the loom factory and in November 1938 the first car factory was ready. In 1937 a conflict with China erupted. The army bought up the entire stock of trucks. A real war economy arose in which there was absolutely no room for the passenger car that Kiichiro dreamed of. Full production was to serve the war, which was becoming increasingly catastrophic with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the defeat at the Battle of Midway in June 1942.

Toyota eventually produced not only trucks and airplanes, but also amphibious vehicles, truck-mounted trucks that could be dismantled and carried on the back, and plywood motorboats that were charged with explosives to be released on enemy ships.

Due to the great scarcity, the search for raw materials required more time and energy than the production itself. Trucks had to make do with only one headlight at the front ('the one-eyed truck'), with brakes on the rear wheels only and with bumpers that were narrower than the chassis.

Not only soldiers but also schoolchildren and city dwellers, men and women, worked in the factory. "Nuns and geishas, but also common criminals," said cousin Eiji Toyoda, Kiichiro's successor, in his memoirs.

Kiichiro was nowhere to be seen in those years. Anyone who had ever witnessed the industrial power of the United States up close knew, after Pearl Harbor, that this bombardment would cost Japan dearly.

According to a maxim of his father, he stayed ahead of his time and studied how Germany had risen from the ashes after the First World War, how to set up a survival economy after a lost war. Not really a patriotic pastime for a Japanese in those days.


The Emperor gave his famous speech announcing the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945, but Kiichiro was fully prepared. "I'll fight till I drop," he said.

To feed the more than eight thousand workers, he immediately set up an infrastructure for cultivating crops, harvesting, grinding flour, baking bread and mining coal.

It was at this point that Kiichiro's inventive talent came to the fore: he designed his own sewing machines, built ponds for the breeding of edible loaches, developed a system for mass-producing a type of fishcake, and established a pottery workshop.

And in January 1947 the umpteenth prototype of a passenger car was ready.

But the Japanese economy failed to take off. There was a shortage of all kinds of goods and materials, inflation was disastrous and the people in the city were forced to exchange their clothes and household goods for rice and potatoes in order to survive.

In 1949, to curb inflation, the government restricted money. The Toyota management, which did not want to fire any of its employees, ran out of cash and could no longer pay the reduced wages. In the early 1950s, bankruptcy seemed inevitable.

A bank that wanted to make a final rescue attempt demanded a downsizing of its staff. The board asked whether 1600 men would resign voluntarily. The unions did not want to hear about it and went on strike.

The conflict lasted for two months. "Wild wheat grew in the factory," one of the managers said later. Kiichiro hated it. The layoffs were contrary to Toyota's spiritual foundations.

His father's harmony model, the trust between management and workers that he was so proud of, the dream of the first Japanese passenger car, everything he had worked for all his life, all went up in smoke.

Finally he convened the union leadership and said: 'Only if people leave will this company have a chance. This breaks my heart.' With tears in his voice he continued: 'I take all responsibility and resign.'


The director of the weaving machine factory took over, assuming that Kiichiro would return sooner or later. More than 2,000 workers resigned. A few months later, the Korean War broke out.

The United Nations and the American army came knocking on Toyota's door for all kinds of equipment. Again the passenger car disappeared into the background. Kiichiro became ill and had to be treated for high blood pressure.

He devoted his time to all kinds of research. Seeing the burned-out Japanese cities, he conceived the idea of producing fireproof houses on a large scale. In July 1950 he founded a company for this purpose. But he also tinkered with an automatic transmission for cars.

At the beginning of 1952, the Toyota management asked him whether he wanted to return. "A car manufacturer that doesn't make passenger cars is not a car manufacturer at all," he said scornfully, "I don't think of running a company like that." "When you come back, you'll have a chance to fix your car," they told him.

And he agreed. With that, the decision was made to reinstate Kiichiro as president of the Toyota Motor Co. to employ. His nephew Eiji Toyota wrote in his memoirs: 'Once the time came, Kiichiro became very excited, he was impatient.

Then disaster struck.

He died suddenly of a heart attack on March 27, 1952. He was only 57 and had his best years ahead of him.

I still think the intense excitement he felt about returning to the firm meant his death.' His eldest son Soichiro said: 'My father always dreamed. His last dream was a helicopter.

He had the idea of making a flat roof on his fireproof prefab houses and at the same time building cheap two-person helicopters that would allow people to fly from house to house. He thought he could achieve this in a short time.'

However, with his dream of an original, all-Japanese car and his company philosophy, Kiichiro had inspired so many people over the years that on January 1, 1955, the first series car, the Crown, could come off the production line. Millions of Coronas, Corollas and Celicas would follow.

Koromo, the farming village where the first car factory was located, had 32,000 inhabitants in 1950. In 1959 it was renamed Toyota City. Today it has 350,000 inhabitants. Due to the work of 71,000 workers, millions of cars leave the production line every year.

In 2000 there were 5.7 million, with which Toyota is third in the world ranking after General Motors and Ford. And the loom factories of Father Toyoda, who became obsessed with the mechanism of a primitive loom a hundred years ago, are still there.

toyoda and toyota

In July 1936, shortly after the creation of the first prototype, the company launched a competition for a new logo. No less than 20,000 entries were received.

First prize went to a design that switched from the ancient Chinese-Japanese kanji characters to Japanese katakana characters. This writing provided the opportunity to suggest speed and the logo was aesthetically superior.

The name was changed to Toyota, a word that you can write in eight brush strokes, and eight is a lucky number in Japan. And lucky numbers are given great importance in Japan.

The word Toyoda (literally: rich rice field) required ten strokes. "By the way," the firm said, "the word just sounded better."

The secret of Toyota

In their standard work 'The Machine that changed the world: the story of lean production', the authors tell how Toyota developed the renowned lean production (literally: lean production) after World War II, a system that companies around the world today – not without despair – trying to copy. Slim manufacturing is slim because it requires only half the people, half the factory space, half the investment in tools and half the time to make a new product.

And: 'The system leads to fewer errors and creates a greater and growing variety of products.' The terms known in Western business, such as quality circles (in Japanese kaizen) and just-in-time (in Japanese kanban) are derived from this system.

After the war, car manufacturers worked on the model of Henry Ford with a complete division of labor tasks. Each worker only had to perform a limited number of movements on the assembly line. The workers bore little responsibility and appeared to be weakly motivated.

Fixing the mistakes that arose in between took a lot of time afterwards. So at Toyota, teams were formed with workers who were slowly but surely formed for all possible tasks, all-round forces.

One of them was a team leader and not so much foreman. One team could make a complete car. Any worker could and should stop the belt with a simple rope at any time he discovered an error.

It was then necessary to collectively think about how to avoid that mistake once and for all. That took a lot of time and patience, but it also paid off. Workers were given great responsibility.

This is how the 'quality circles' came into being, groups in which people thought about improving the product.

Because a car contains a total of 10,000 components that take up a lot of space and of which one is always missing, Toyota developed a sophisticated right-on-time program for the supply companies that made warehouses obsolete. Kiichiro Toyoda had picked up that idea as early as 1935 in American department stores, where perishable fruits and vegetables also had to be delivered 'right on time'.

In the meantime entire libraries have been written about this 'Toyotism'. Western concerns that in the eighties tried to fathom the secret of Japanese success, invariably ended up with Toyota.

The 'lean production' is not only deeply rooted in Japanese culture (groupthink), it has also been worked on for fifty years at Toyota. So that the system in the West can only be copied to a limited extent.