In January 1959, Honda dropped in by himself at the Yamato Plant and called out Takao Shirai, the head of the Production Engineering Division. Shirai had just resolved an early problem arising with the Super Cub at the end of the previous November, and he had just finished setting up for expanded production at the end of the year.
Thirteen years after that crude, barrack-like Yamashita Plant, Honda completed its Suzuka Factory with the mass-production capabilities they had dreamed of. This was the most advanced plant of the time, and visitors streamed in not only from the motor vehicle industry but from other industrial sectors as well, to observe it in operation. The person gazing out over the plant from the second floor in this 1967 photograph is Soichiro Honda.
He remembers the occasion:
"I could hardly forget it. It was in the evening of January 19. All of a sudden, I was told, 'You're going to Europe for a while.' I asked what for, and was told, 'Just go. You can figure out a purpose on your own. You also can decide how long you want to stay over there.' That was all he told me, without a word of explanation.
"The Super Cub was selling and selling. However, that was during the period that people called 'the pan-bottom economy' because of the deflationary recession going on. Foreign currency reserves were low, so it was difficult to get both a travel permit and a foreign currency allowance. Later in the same year, Mr. Kiyoshi Kawashima made our first entry in the TT Races, and Mr. Kihachiro Kawashima established American Honda, so there was a lot going on. In any event, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry turned me away twice. They looked at my resume and flatly refused, saying, 'Why should someone with a degree in economics who is neither a salesman nor an engineer get to use our country's precious foreign reserves to go overseas for no particular purpose?' The third time around, I told them, 'Honda is certain to be earning foreign currencies in the near future; we are now making motorcycles that can be exported to the world, and if it doesn't work, I'll kill myself.' After this most unconventional approach, they finally gave permission, but only for travel. Mr. Kihachiro Kawashima sold plenty of Super Cubs in America, so I didn't have to commit suicide," he said, laughing.
Without a single dollar of foreign currency, but only a round-trip air ticket, Shirai set off to Europe. For his expenses in Europe, Honda had requested a trading company there that was importing machine tools to advance him funds. Shirai recalled:
"Anyway, my work was production engineering, but I wanted to be able to answer any questions that might come up when I returned, so I went all over and listened to everyone and looked at everything, including plant facilities, of course, and personnel management, pay systems, traffic conditions, parking practices, fashions, everything. I did this in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and England. Germany was the most advanced in manufacturing plants, so I went back there again. A while later, on June 20, a letter came to me from one of my colleagues at the Yamato Plant, Mr. Enomoto.
He wrote, "Actually, there's a plan to build a new Super Cub plant. They've selected several prospective locations, and are waiting for you to come back. 'The Honda Way’ has alleged that I had been told about the project before going to Europe, but in fact, I really hadn't been told anything about it."
After being away for three months, Shirai hurried back to Japan. This was because he knew very well that once a project had been decided on, Honda would move with lightning speed, no matter what, to set it in motion. Shirai remembers:
"Just as I had thought, the president had been waiting for me to show up. 'Starting tomorrow, I'm going to go look at the prospective sites. You come with me.' The president drove his own car, and the passengers were Managing Director Kensuke Takahashi, myself, and Mr. Shiozaki. We set off to tour the locations."
The major candidate sites were two locations at Takasaki in Gumma Prefecture, Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture, Inuyama in Gifu Prefecture, and two locations at Suzuka in Mie Prefecture. Shiozaki recalls how he actually got left behind during one trip to a potential site:
"The Old Man's criteria for site selection included more than just building conditions and inducements. 'Before land and water and electricity, see, it's people. We'll choose the people who live in the location.' This is a direct expression of the Old Man's idea of the value of the human being. His idea was that no matter how good the other conditions might be, what came first was a place that had sincere, honest people. This includes the people in the local government. At one prospective site, a long line of cars belonging to prefectural assemblymen or something followed along right behind us. On finishing a presentation about the site, somebody from City Hall said that we would move on to hold the rest of the discussion at a restaurant where they had made reservations. The Old Man said, 'I'm leaving!' and jumped in his car and drove away," said Shiozaki, laughing.
"Mr. Shirai and I ended up taking the train back. The Old Man was still angry the next day and said, 'I didn't go there to get treated to a fancy meal!'
Their experience at Suzuka was in complete contrast, as Shiozaki recalls:
"At Suzuka, everything surprised me from my first impression forward. First of all, the City Hall was different. Government offices wherever you go have desks piled high with papers, or at least that was our preconception. However, at Suzuka City Hall, everything was neat and orderly without a thing out of place. When we went into the reception room, someone quickly brought us oshibori hand towels. They brought us those and chilled green tea. It was not hot tea. This was in July, at the height of the summer heat. Then there was the Mayor, Ryuzo Sugimoto, who was waiting for us wearing not a suit but work clothes, and he had on gaiters."
The Honda party was quickly taken to see the site. Shiozaki further remembered:
"Mayor Sugimoto made a quick signal. At that moment, a line of flags rose up all at once in the distance. 'From there to there is the candidate property,' he said. We could see the whole thing at a glance. I said to myself, they're pretty good. I was impressed. That moment is still vivid in my memory even now."
Mayor Sugimoto also explained the inducement conditions himself. According to Shirai:
"It was beautifully done, that's all I can say. We were scheduled to visit another strong candidate site on the next day, so for my part, I didn't feel that I could say anything hinting at a decision. However, when we returned from the site to City Hall, we again were given oshibori towels and green tea, but not a single tea cake was to be seen. They must have just served what they had, without getting in anything special for us. This was the kind of mayor they had running the city government. I thought, if we come here, we'll be all right, no doubt about it. That much I felt sure of."
The prospective sites were studied thoroughly and quickly.
"I examined the two Suzuka locations, sites A and B," said Shirai. "I compared them with the other prospective sites, and reached my own conclusions. Returning to Tokyo, I spoke to Mr. Honda, Mr. Fujisawa, and the other board members in a meeting. I told them that I thought site B at Suzuka was the best. Site A was 400 m wide from north to south, and 1500 m long from east to west. A long, narrow property like that is not suited to a manufacturing plant. Considering future expansion, I said, site B is the best. Mr. Honda said, 'I think so, too,' and Mr. Fujisawa said, 'Then let's settle on that site.' With that, the location of the present Suzuka Factory was decided."
However, the board meeting then proceeded to developments that Shirai had not expected:
"Mr. Fujisawa went, after that, to say: 'The new plant in Suzuka will be of a kind never seen before anywhere in the world, and we're going to put young Shirai in charge of building it.' I thought, what? After all, I knew very well that this was a major project that might determine the company's fate. I had learned something in Europe, and I had been expecting to participate in this project, but I had never once considered that I might be given that responsibility. Then Mr. Fujisawa went on: 'Considering the magnitude of this job, I want all of our operations to agree unconditionally to any personnel requests that Shirai might make. ' Mr. Fujisawa asked every one of the board members for his reply. They had no choice. 'Good,' he said, 'everyone concurs, so you can set your mind at ease and go to work.'"
Shirai can still remember the tension he felt then as though it happened yesterday:
"Then, Mr. Fujisawa looked at me and said in a very loud voice, 'However, there are two conditions. One is that you use as much money for this as you want. The other is that the money you use must be recouped within two years. There are no other conditions at all. Apart from these, you do as you like.' The president nodded in agreement and looked straight at me."
Shirai was 39 years old at that time. Naturally he was not a member of the board, but a plain section head. Here, again, the company was choosing a youthful contender.
In June, Honda underwent its eighth capital expansion. Its capitalization was now 1,440 million yen.