Do You Remember September 24, 1948? / 1948

Do You Remember September 24, 1948? / 1948

"I don’t recall it. Not at all. It must have just been an ordinary day like all the rest."

Kiyoshi Kawashima (presently Honda Supreme Advisor) was there on that day:

"It isn’t as though my job changed," he said. "Towards evening, when I left work, I seem to recall that somebody remarked to me, ‘They say that we became an incorporated entity today.’"

Seiji Isobe, who was an employee at that time, also remembers it:

"Did everyone gathered together for a celebration of the founding? There was no such thing. There was no speech by the president, either. The signboard in front of the plant didn’t change. I think it just stayed the way it was."

Yet, on this day fifty years earlier, the Honda Motor Co., Ltd., came into being. It was capitalized at 1 million yen. Including President Soichiro Honda, there were 34 employees. However, they say that there was nothing at all like the atmosphere of a founding celebration on that day. They were all totally absorbed in their work, as always. Nothing about their work was different from the day before, when their organization had been called the Honda Technical Research Institute.

What was it like in Japan on September 24, 1948? For the people who were living then, it tends to have become a very distant memory, and the young people today have no way to really understand what Japan was like at that time.

Half a century back, here is what the founding day was like:

Newspapers were not published for that day, because it happened to be a newspaper holiday.

The top article on the front page of the Asahi Shimbun for the following day, September 25, was "Peace Proceeds Rapidly in Japan and Germany; U.S. Secretary of State Marshall tells U.N. General Assembly." This was before the Peace Treaty had been signed, and Japan, a country defeated in the war, was still under occupation by forces of the Allied Powers. A large headline says, "Increase in Extra Rations for Labor from October 31 Labor Categories Added." This article is about the increased ration of rice, the major staple, to be given to workers involved in certain strenuous labor categories. For example, coal miners would receive an extra ration of four and a half go (about 0.8 liters) of rice, and the ration for bicycle assembly workers was one and a half go (just over a quarter of a liter) of rice. The rations were adjusted according to the nature of the work. The standard ration at the time was two and a half go per person per day, which means the total amount of rice an ordinary person got for all three meals was less than half a liter. The amount for one meal, then, was even less than the amount it would take to fill a single Japanese rice cooker cup today. Even the sweet potatoes that people used to supplement their diet were still subject to rationing. It was a time of prolonged food shortages and even starvation that is difficult to imagine from the perspective of today, when there is such a glut of food.

The second page of the newspaper is for general news. One prominent boxed article there has the headline, "Japanese Products Approach World Standards." The article opens with the words, "Three whole years since the end of the war, everything suffers from shortages, but products that approach world standards are gradually beginning to appear, bringing some hope, however slight, for Japan’s recovery." The article goes on to explain that such products as vacuum tubes, cameras, buttons, and cultured pearls had started to meet world standards by almost 80%, and concludes by saying, "In all cases, there are obstructions caused by the shortage of materials."

Everything was in short supply. The newspapers themselves are evidence of this, having only two pages on one sheet, and they only had a morning edition. There were no evening newspapers.

However, the best news in 1948 was that the swimmer Hironoshin Furuhashi had set a new world record. Since the previous year, 1947, he had set one new world record after another in the 400 meter freestyle. That year had seen the first Olympic Games since the end of World War II, held in London, but Japan and Germany, as defeated countries, were not allowed to participate. In the Japan Championship Swimming Meet held at the same time as the Olympics, he set a new world record in the 1500 meter freestyle that was over forty seconds faster than the winning time at the London event. His accomplishments brought a tremendous sense of hope to the Japanese people, who had lost confidence in everything with their defeat in the war. Among the people who was moved by Furuhashi’s great achievement, and stimulated to feel a new will to accomplish something himself, was Soichiro Honda. After all, Mr. Honda lived in Hamamatsu, where Furuhashi had been born, so they both hailed from the Enshu region in western Shizuoka Prefecture.

It is well known that just about one year from the end of the war, after Honda declared to his family that he was taking what he called a "human holiday," he did no work as such. Hamamatsu had been the location of many military plants, so it had been the target for repeated heavy air raids that left it a scorched ruin as far as the eye could see. The Tokai Seiki Heavy Industry plant that he had run up until then had been turned into a heap of rubble. Production of aircraft, ships, and motor vehicles had stopped, and demand for the piston rings that had been his product had shrunk drastically. However, this does not seem to have been the reason for his "human holiday."

Mrs. Sachi Honda related this portrait of Mr. Honda during his season of casting about for the next thing to do.

"He sold all his stock in Tokai Seiki to Toyota, and became unemployed. He said to me, ‘It’s really wonderful that the time is over when the military can swagger all over everything. I’m not going to do anything for a while now. Please just take care of me for the time being,’ and he really didn’t do any work at all. This was at the time of the worst food shortages, you see, and apart from him there were three growing kids in the house. We grew vegetables in the garden, and since my family were farmers, I could go and ask them to share some of their rice with us. Our neighbors said, ‘When that man goes out in the garden, he doesn’t even pull a single weed. He just sits there on a garden rock from morning till night.’ He had the reputation for being ‘a wizard at hardly working.’ When the night came, he would get some friends together and go to a liquor store where he knew the owner, and they would drink from a drum can of alcohol that the owner had secretly sold him. What was typical of my husband was that he put roasted barley and cryptomeria leaves in the alcohol to try and make it taste like whisky. Actually, I was the one who had to do it, but he’d complain that the barley was over-roasted, or whatever, and tell me to change this or that. After a while, I started hearing rumors that he had built a salt-making machine, or a popsicle machine, but he never told me anything about it himself. He never brought home a single pinch of salt or a popsicle."

When a year or so had gone by, he set to work.

In the summer of 1946, Mr. Honda called his younger brother Benjiro and several former employees of Tokai Seiki Heavy Industry to the remains of the company’s Yamashita Plant, where they used some construction materials he had scrounged together to put up a small plant building. Hamamatsu had been the home of an active textile industry, so he had intended to manufacture a rotary weaving machine he had conceived, but it seemed this failed due to lack of capital. He also attempted the manufacture of frosted glass with floral patterns, and then roofing sheets of woven bamboo set in mortar, among other things, and the most striking part of this is that – most uncharacteristically of Mr. Honda – he gave up on all of these efforts halfway through.

Perhaps he had not yet been able to discover the work for him, the work that he could devote his whole heart and mind to.

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