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Aichi's Artisanship in the Auto Industry

A reconstruction at the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology shows the production line for the Toyoda Model AA, the wholly Japanese automobile unveiled in 1936. Nearly all the work including welding, painting, and assembly was done by hand.

The leading center of automobile manufacturing in Japan, Aichi Prefecture, also ranks among the top handful of auto-producing regions in the world. Birthplace of Toyota Motor Corp., it is also home to numerous factories working for other manufacturers. Altogether, they boast the highest level of auto-related production in the country. In well under 100 years, Aichi's auto industry has grown beyond all expectations and stands as a testament to the prefecture's spirit of artisanship. The story of that growth is an inspiring one of great vision, hard work, and determination.

The early years | The father of Japan's auto industry | Twenty-first century, age of the ecocar

The early years

The first automobile was brought to Japan in 1898, unloaded from a ship in the port of Yokohama. It was a gasoline-powered Panhard, built by the largest automaker in France at the time. Five years later, eight American-made automobiles were shown at an industrial fair in Osaka, opening the eyes of many more Japanese to the wonders of the "horseless carriage." Visitors to the fair not only saw their first cars but were able to take a ride in one.

No sooner had the Japanese been introduced to cars than they began work on the production of a domestic model. The very first Japanese automobile was completed in 1904. It was driven by steam. And the nation's first gasoline-powered car was developed in 1907. Competition to produce a commercially viable car was fierce, but it was no easy task to turn a prototype into a practical vehicle that could be turned out in mass production, so the process of trial and error was to be repeated over and over until the 1930s.

One of the leaders in those early years was Masujiro Hashimoto (1875~1944). Born in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, Hashimoto went to Tokyo at the age of 17. He studied at Tokyo Technical School (now the Tokyo Institute of Technology), then went to the United States on a government program to learn about engine making. On his return to Japan, Hashimoto turned his hand to developing a Japanese automobile and in 1914, came up with the Dat Car. He ceased to work on automobile development after that, but his Dat Car was the forerunner of Nissan Motor Co.'s Datsuns, which came to be known throughout the world.

Then, in 1930, the mayor of the City of Nagoya advanced a plan to turn his city and its environs into "the Detroit of Japan." Two years later the seven-seater Atsuta-go was completed through the cooperative efforts of five leading local companies. In the end, a number of problems including high cost prevented mass production of this model, but the pioneering spirit of Aichi embodied in this grand plan to make the Nagoya area Japan's motor city did not die. The challenge was taken up by Kiichiro Toyoda (1894~1952), founder of the nation's largest automaker, Toyota Motor Corp.

The father of Japan's auto industry

"It's not just a matter of making automobiles. We must build an auto industry with Japanese brains and hands." So said Kiichiro Toyoda, the father of Japan's auto industry, summing up his lifework at the same time.

Kiichiro was the first son of Sakichi Toyoda (1867~1930), a renowned designer and builder of automated looms. Often referred to as a mad inventor, Sakichi Toyoda laid the cornerstone for the Toyota Group. Following in his father's footsteps, Kiichiro set out to be an engineer, studying in the Faculty of Engineering of Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo). It was not until 1921 that he turned his attention to automobiles. That was the year he first traveled to America and Europe, where he was astounded by the prosperity and especially by the cars that were already becoming the everyday means of transport for ordinary people.

A Toyoda Model AA on display in the Toyota Automobile Museum in Nagakute, Aichi Prefecture
While automobiles were gradually becoming a more common sight in the Japan of the early 1920s, nearly all of them were imported from the United States, and the idea of original Japanese-made cars was but a fantasy. In 1925, moreover, Ford Motor set up a plant in Yokohama, and in 1927 General Motors opened one in Osaka. They each turned out more than 10,000 cars in a year, which was an intimidating volume of mass production for the time.

Kiichiro visited America and Europe again in 1929, this time having a good look at their automobile factories. That was when he made up his mind to produce a totally Japanese automobile. Soon after his return, he went against the advice of his coworkers at Toyoda Automatic Loom Works in Kariya and started researching gasoline engines. In 1936 he unveiled the Toyoda Model AA and the next year set up Toyota Motor Corp., with its headquarters and factory in the town of Koromo (present-day Toyota City).

The Toyoda Model AA was a match for American and European cars in both price and technology, and a total of 1,404 were produced. What, then, was the secret of its success? "Of course, it had the backing of the financial and technical prowess of the Toyoda zaibatsu (corporate group), but there was also the decisiveness and foresight of Kiichiro himself," comments Tadamichi Suzuki, curator at the Toyota Automobile Museum.

The Model AA incorporated a streamlined body design, dubbed "airflow." This was revolutionary for its time, and within five years it became the mainstream for car design in the United States. Kiichiro also took a bold approach to rationalizing production, as typified by his early advocacy of the "just in time" system of parts procurement that kept inventories to a minimum.

Nevertheless, Kiichiro's aspirations were thwarted by the advent of World War II. Production of passenger cars was restricted by the military government, and it became difficult to acquire steel sheets and machine tools. And when the war ended, the company was left with huge amounts of money owing to it but no way to collect. It was the greatest crisis Toyota Motor had ever faced. "I'm an engineer, but I'm not suited to be a manager," Kiichiro declared, and he resigned as company president in 1950.

The engineers who inherited Kiichiro's dream after his resignation continued to develop new and better autos. Then, in 1955, they came up with the answer to Kiichiro's prayers, a truly Japanese car for the mass market: the Toyopet Crown Model RS. This happened just as the motorization of Japanese society was moving into top gear. The popularization of the auto, which had been Kiichiro's greatest dream ever since his visits to the West in the 1920s, had finally arrived in Japan. Unfortunately, Kiichiro himself never saw the Crown for himself, as he passed away in March 1952, at the age of 57.

Shotaro Kamiya, then the president of Toyota Motor Sales, spoke of the birth of the Toyopet with a flood of emotions. "Right up until the Crown was born, it felt as though Toyoda-san's dream loomed large in the hearts of everybody in the factory. We took it as our mission to fulfil his aspiration to create a home-grown automobile."

Twenty-first century, age of the ecocar

The Japanese auto industry grew rapidly during the 1960s, propelled by a booming economy under the government's "income-doubling plan." Toyota, Nissan, and their smaller rivals increased production at an awesome pace of 40% to 80% each year. In the 1980s they finally overtook the U.S. auto industry to make Japan the world's largest producer in terms of the number of cars made. Automobiles had become the ultimate symbol of Japan's technological prowess and artisanship.

Now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the auto industry is at a new watershed. To the pursuit of speed, safety, and affordability that guided automobile development in the past has been added a new keyword: ecology. All the world's automakers are striving to develop an ecologically friendly automobile, but it is Aichi's Toyota that has so far created the strongest impression with the Prius, which entered the market in 1997.

The Prius is a hybrid car that has both a gasoline engine and an electric motor. Since it switches from one source of power to the other according to driving conditions and speed, it is twice as fuel efficient as regular automobiles, and it releases less pollution: half as much carbon dioxide, and only one-tenth as much carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. The guidelines were laid out by Chief Engineer Takeshi Uchiyamada when the Prius project began. "Something that provides an answer to the problems of [finite] resources and the environment, that shows the way to a new kind of car. Yet, there must be nothing to spoil those special characteristics we've come to expect from a car: convenience, comfort, and the pleasure of traveling at speed."

Toyota's hybrid car Prius hit the market in 1997 with its dual power system incorporating an electric motor and a gasoline engine.
Toyota is staking its survival in the new century on the success of this project, which took the remarkably short time of three years from design to marketing. Not everything ran smoothly, however. The hybrid system means that the gas engine cuts out whenever the car stops, and the drive is repeatedly switching from engine to motor and back again while the car is moving. The most difficult problem faced in the development stage was to reduce the shock created each time the engine started up again. More than 60 prototype cars were built during research and development, and several hundred prototype engines.

The name Prius won wide recognition when people from around the world saw it in action at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, where environmental protection was a key theme. Two and a half years after it first entered the market, domestic sales came to about 42,000. It has been a hit in North America, too, where 4,400 cars were sold in just two months. The Prius went on sale in Europe at the end of September 2000, and there are now plans to release it in Asian and Latin American markets.

"The artisanship of Japan, as demonstrated through its auto industry, could just as easily be called the artisanship of Aichi," declares Shogo Matsumoto of Toyota Motor's Public Relations Division. "There's the Toyoda Model AA, for one, and Masujiro Hashimoto's Dat Car, as well as the brand new ecocar Prius. The same spirit runs through them all."

This, then, is the story of Aichi's automotive pioneers. As long as people continue to draw inspiration from the spirit of artisanship, moreover, the story will continue. Already there are new pioneers in the auto industry taking on the challenge of creating a truly ecofriendly vehicle, and it is their efforts that will write the next chapter for the earth and its people.

(Photos by Yoshiki Nagasaka, Text by Masuhiro Tsukada)