Soichiro Honda was born on November 17, 1906, in Komyo Village (now Tenryu City), Iwata County, Shizuoka Prefecture, as the eldest son of Gihei Honda and his wife Mika. Gihei was a skilled and honest blacksmith and Mika an accomplished weaver. The family was poor but Soichiro’s upbringing was happy, even though his parents were insistent about the need for basic discipline. It was thanks to the thorough education he received from his father that Mr. Honda, despite his freewheeling, irrepressible personality, hated nothing more than inconveniencing others and was always punctual about keeping appointments. He also inherited from his father his inborn manual dexterity and his curiosity about machines.
When Honda was an apprentice at Art Shokai, he assisted the company’s owners, the Sakakibara brothers, in building a Curtiss racer. He accompanied them as their riding mechanic at races, and they won the fifth Japan Motor Car Championship on November 23, 1924. Soichiro Honda is in the center. On the left is Yuzo Sakakibara, the proprietor of Art Shokai, and on the right Shinichi Sakakibara, the driver.
After a while Gihei opened a bicycle shop. Bicycles were at last starting to become really popular in Japan and when people asked Gihei to repair their machines, he sensed a business opportunity. As well as working as a blacksmith he put his natural skills and willingness to learn to good effect, repairing second-hand bicycles and re-selling them at competitive prices. From this moment his business began to be seen as the best bicycle store in the neighborhood.
When he was about to leave higher elementary school, Soichiro Honda saw an advertisement for Tokyo Art Shokai, an automobile servicing company, in a magazine called Bicycle World (Ringyo no sekai). The ad itself was not for bicycles but for "Manufacture and Repair of Automobiles, Motorcycles and Gasoline Engines". Even as a toddler Honda had been thrilled by the first car that was ever seen in his village and often used to say in later life that he could never forget the smell of oil it gave off. So it is easy to imagine that when young Honda saw the ad he immediately decided that he had to work at Art Shokai.
Judged by the number of ads it placed in automobile and bicycle magazines, Art Shokai must have been one of Tokyo’s top automobile repair workshops and there were probably any number of young men eager to become apprentices there. Even though the ad Soichiro Honda saw was in fact not a recruitment ad, he plucked up the courage to submit a letter asking to become an apprentice. There is no way of knowing exactly what he wrote, but in any event it was very fortunate that he received a positive reply.
Soichiro Honda left elementary school in April 1922 at the age of fifteen and joined Art Shokai as an apprentice in the Yushima area of Hongo, Tokyo. Employment in those days was a world apart from what we now expect. Juniors were given board, lodging and a little pocket money, but they received no real wages. Mr. Honda’s books and biographies include many stories about his time at the company but the important point is that his experiences there exercised an enormous influence on his later life.
Enthusiasm for hard work, a quick appreciation of the need to improvise, thinking for oneself, the ability to come up with a wealth of new ideas, a good feel for machines. The owner of Art Shokai, Yuzo Sakakibara, soon spotted the young man’s star qualities and began to take notice of him. Soichiro Honda, too, learned from his boss, not just how to do repairing work but how to deal with customers and the importance of taking pride in one’s technical ability. Sakakibara was the ideal teacher, both as engineer and as businessman. As well as understanding repair work he was also skilled in more complicated processes such as the manufacturing of pistons.
Whenever Honda was asked who he respected the most, he would always mention his old boss Yuzo Sakakibara. It is important to remember that Art Shokai’s repair work included motorcycles as well as automobiles. At that time ownership of automobiles and motorcycles was restricted to a limited social class and most automobiles were foreign-made. Compared to today, there were hosts of automobile manufacturing companies, large and small, all over the world and their output ranged from mass-produced models to high-quality vehicles with small production runs, sports cars and highly unusual collector’s items, all of which were imported to Japan.
All kinds of cars were brought to Art Shokai for repair, making it an ideal place for Honda to work and study, eager – even greedy – as he was in his pursuit of knowledge.
As Kawashima says, Mr. Honda worked so hard to extend and deepen his understanding of automobile engineering that he amazed everyone by the extent of his expertise. He was well versed in every sort of mechanism. "When he was an apprentice at Art Shokai and when he was manager of the branch in Hamamatsu, the Old Man learned so much by doing real work with real machines," said Kawashima. "He didn’t just have theoretical knowledge – he was an expert at all sorts of practical tasks like welding and forging. Those of us who had only studied the subject on paper from an academic standpoint just couldn’t compete."