I was as surprised as nearly everyone else to hear the news late last month that the headquarters for Toyota Motor Corp. was pulling up stakes from Torrance, and Los Angeles County, for Plano, Texas.
It was preceded, of course, by Nissan, which moved its U.S. HQ from Gardena to Tennessee, making this a rare case of Toyota being a follower of its rival Japanese carmaker. Toyota’s departure is a blow to the local economy, but it’s also a psychological hit, especially for the Japanese American community. (See Jon Kaji’s first think piece on the topic that ran in this paper at http://preview.tinyurl.com/k4kz6q4.)
Neither Toyota nor Nissan (including when it was known on these shores as Datsun) would have been able to flourish in the U.S. when they opened operations here decades ago without the pre-existing local Japanese American community that provided the necessary cultural, linguistic and culinary infrastructure for Japanese transplants.
Many Japanese Americans, in turn, benefited with jobs as the Japanese carmakers eventually grew to challenge a complacent Detroit and the U.S. auto industry. In time, Toyota and Nissan would go on to build auto assembly plants in several states beyond California’s borders (not to mention Mexico and Canada). Maybe the departures were inevitable, just like the changes that the Japanese American community has experienced — and still is. Nissan and Toyota grew up and left, like grown children leaving home.
There is still, however, one big Japanese carmaker with its U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles County’s South Bay: Honda Motor Co. I have no clue whether Honda will be next to leave, but after Toyota’s decision, I’d like to hope that the City of Torrance is doing anything and everything it can to keep Honda happy to stay put.
I don’t know whether the answer to the question of will Honda stay or go lies between the lines of a new book titled “Driving Honda: Inside the World’s Most Innovative Car Company,” but Honda’s story is fascinating nonetheless. The soon-to-be-published book, (Penguin Portfolio, ISBN-13: 9781591844730, 320 pages, SRP $27.95) is written by veteran business journalist Jeffrey Rothfeder, and begins with the story of the company’s founder, Soichiro Honda. Because of him, his namesake company would prove to be fundamentally different from Toyota and Nissan. Even the company’s slogan differentiates it: “The Power of Dreams.”
Honda Motor Corp., as most of us know, began with motorcycles, with “motor” being the key word. It turns out that with Honda, Rothfeder writes, it’s all about motors and engines, from which we also get the word “engineer.” Soichiro Honda was, above all, an engineer and that legacy still, according to Rothfeder, is in Honda’s DNA. Every CEO the company has had since Soichiro Honda has had an engineering background. Cars and motorcycles are a huge part of Honda, of course, but it also makes a diverse range of products, including gas-powered electrical generators, boat engines, ATVs, robots and now jets, with engines a key component.
And while much has been made about Nissan and Toyota leaving California behind because of its plants in other states, Rothfeder points out that Honda was the first Japanese carmaker to establish a plant outside of Japan in the U.S., going back to the early 1980s in Marysville, Ohio — and it is still headquartered in California
Honda also was the first Japanese automaker to establish a luxury line, Acura, three years before Toyota came out with its Lexus nameplate. In that regard, Honda reminds me of the onetime rivalry in consumer electronics between the upstart Sony and the bigger, established Matsushita. Sony was the scrappy innovator, Matsushita the hidebound but competent follower. (Too bad both of those companies are having hard times compared to their heyday.)
Rothfeder also relates how Honda’s corporate culture is imbued with something called sangen shugi, translated as “the three realities” but which Honda interprets as “ … see it with your own eyes, go to the spot before making a decision.” The company also embraces failure (Soichiro Honda had many, from which sprang his successes) and unorthodoxy.
Anyway, I’m still reading through it and so far, I like it very much, especially the biographical details about Soichiro Honda and his partnership with Takeo Fujisawa. Soichiro Honda is, incidentally, one of only three foreigners in Detroit’s Automotive Hall of Fame and the first Japanese to be inducted.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2014 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.