Fall 2011

The Hands That Made the Nation

The builders of Japanese industry

Yoshikuni Igarashi

During Japan’s prolonged recession of the last two decades, the nation’s popular media has placed Sôichirô Honda—the celebrated founder of the Honda Motor Company—on a pedestal, treating him as a paragon of Japanese industrial virtues. In post–World War II Japan, Honda (1906–1991) and his partners transformed a small motorcycle company into Japan’s auto giant. According to his self-portrayal, Honda—who was originally trained as an auto mechanic and studied mechanical engineering more systematically in his thirties—was an innovator through and through, relentlessly pursuing unconventional design. Any rigidly bureaucratic corporate structure that might hamper his self-defined mission had to be eliminated. Under his auspices, he claimed, the Honda Motor Company spent far more on research and development than on marketing, and worked to establish more equitable relations between management and workers. Of course, not all of his company’s success was attributable solely to his ingenuity. Despite his invitation to open discussion, he could be obstinate and autocratic and his executive decisions almost brought the company down at least twice during his career—yet he was lucky to have the strongly surging Japanese economy to bail him out.[1] The fact that luck was a crucial ingredient in his success, however, did not stop Honda from proudly discussing his management philosophy, and pundits from finding in his words the key to Japan’s economic survival.

In his 1984 memoirs, entitled Watashi no tega kataru (My hands talk), he presents an image of his left hand as a record of his career. The image eloquently expresses his nostalgia for the days when he controlled almost every aspect of the production process. While his right hand—the creator—remains invisible, his left hand is presented as a tablet on which the process of creation is translated into human terms. According to one of his annotations, the scars on his left hand are more than forty-five years old; the injuries they record occurred in the early phase of his career, while he was working as a mechanic, and later, struggling to establish an engine-parts company in the 1930s:

I often scraped off the tips of my fingers. Comparing left and right hands, the index fingers and thumbs are a different length, probably a centimeter different. The fingers on the left hand are shorter after being scraped off so many times … When working on a lathe, a cutting tool pierced my hand from the palm to the back. Usually people would make a huge fuss about an accident like this. I just said to a man nearby, “Hey, bring disinfectant.” I clamped the [tool’s] bit in a vise, and then gradually pulled it out, while pouring disinfectant into the wound. Luckily, it had gone through between the bones. I just wrapped my hand in a bandage, finished the job I was in the middle of, and then went out for drinks that night. Of course, I worked the next day as usual, and nothing happened to the wound, which healed in no time.[2]

Subscribe to access our entire archive.
Log In and read it now.