Takeo Fujisawa was born on November 10, 1910, in Koishikawa-ku (now Bunkyo-ku), Tokyo, as the eldest son of Hideshiro Fujisawa and his wife Yuki. After a series of jobs in banking and other sectors, his father Shushiro had become the manager of the Jitsueisha, a publicity company that made slide commercials for display at movie theaters.
Soichiro Honda (left) and Takeo Fujisawa shown at the time they first combined their talents and shared their dreams.
In 1923, when the young Fujisawa was in his first year at Kyoka Middle School, the Great Kanto Earthquake dealt the whole family a terrible blow. The Jitsueisha was destroyed and the elder Fujisawa was left with nothing but borrowed money to live on. Later he planned to revive the movie industry but the tremendous efforts he had made after the disaster had wrecked his health and he became an invalid. The young Fujisawa hoped to became a teacher buts failed the official Tokyo school examinations and worked as a professional copyist, writing addresses on envelopes in order to support the family and devoting his leisure time to reading literature. When we see how successful the Takeo Fujisawa was in his later life it is difficult to imagine what a shy young man and poor speaker he was in his early years.
In 1930, he was called up for military service and after a year in the army he resumed his work as a copyist. Fujisawa’s first permanent employment started in September 1934 when he was twenty-three years old. He worked for the Mitsuwa Shokai, a company in Hatchobori, Nihombashi, Tokyo, a dealer of steel products, Fujisawa was employed as a traveling salesman, visiting small factories to promote the Mitsuwa Shokai’s steel products. When asked why he had chosen this particular job when his interpersonal skills were so weak, his only reply was that he had felt an intuition that this was the path he should follow. His hidden talent suddenly blossomed and he gradually developed relationships with a range of new clients, becoming the company’s top-performing salesman. He adopted the slogan "Always tell your clients the truth" and if ever it looked as though a delivery was going to be late, he would not try to make up excuses but would apologize and give an honest explanation of the reason for the delay. In this way he could turn a problem to his advantage, because his clients came to trust him all the more. By always offering a solution as well as apologizing, he made sure that the relationship of trust was preserved. This episode in Fujisawa’s life gives a strong impression of his character and exhibits just the same attitude as he showed later in his career.
In order to operate successfully in the steel business, with its frequent and violent price changes, one needs to have an ability to speculate the market. Through nine years’ experience of this very demanding work, Fujisawa had assimilated the necessary skills. When the president of the Mitsuwa Shokai was called away for military duty, Fujisawa took over the management of the company.
Eventually, Fujisawa started to feel constrained by the limitations of working as a middle-man. While looking after the affairs of the Mitsuwa Shokai, he started making plans for an independent future, and in 1939 established the Nippon Kiko Kenkyujo, a company manufacturing cutting tools. Because of his lack of technical knowledge, Fujisawa at first experienced considerable difficulties and it took three years before he managed to start manufacturing in April 1942. Just at that time the president of the Mitsuwa Shokai, Kiyoshi Machida, returned from military service, enabling Fujisawa to leave the company and become an independent entrepreneur. In autumn of the same year, one of Fujisawa’s clients, the Nakajima Aircraft, sent a representative to his factory in Itabashi to inspect his cutting tools. That representative was Hiroshi Takeshima, who was well acquainted with Soichiro Honda of Tokai Seiki. Honda had been supplying the Nakajima Aircraft with piston rings, and it was from Takeshima that Fujisawa first heard about a technical genius by the name of Honda in Hamamatsu. In June 1945, Fujisawa succeeded with great difficulty in escaping air-raid damage and evacuating his factory to Fukushima. Because of delays in securing the necessary permission to use freight wagons, Fujisawa’s machines did not arrive in Fukushima until the day the war ended.
Fujisawa made a quick decision. Because post-war Japan would need timber for construction more than it needed machine tools, he decided to buy up forests in Fukushima and start a building materials business. At the same time, he made up his mind to return one day to Tokyo, the center of the business world. Whenever he had a chance, he would travel to the capital and look out for business opportunities.
In the summer of 1948, Fujisawa travelled to Tokyo to buy parts for his building material machines. He bumped into Takeshima near Ichigaya station and they renewed their acquaintance. It turned out that Takeshima had become a technology official in the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and in the course of their conversation Fujisawa learned that Soichiro Honda had started producing auxiliary engines for bicycles. Takeshima urged Fujisawa to come back to Tokyo.
Fujisawa went down to Fukushima, sold off his machinery at the Nippon Kiko Kenkyujo, closed his factory and returned to Tokyo. He immediately started a timber shop in Ikebukuro as a temporary means of making a living. In summer of the following year, he received a message from Takeshima, suggesting a meeting with Soichiro Honda.