Mazda's Hiroshima roots, long buried, now a symbol of resilience
5 Oct 2014
A photo of Hiroshima's Atomic Bomb Dome, a ruin symbolizing the U.S. attack, is displayed on Mazda's revamped global website under the tab “Our Story.”
HIROSHIMA, Japan -- Breaking a longstanding taboo, tiny Mazda Motor Corp. is finally opening up about its Hiroshima roots, its role in World War II and the atomic bombing of its hometown nearly 70 years ago.
As Japan dug out of the postwar rubble, it was convenient for Mazda to gloss over its role in churning out rifles for Japan's Imperial Army. Later, under the umbrella of Ford Motor Co., Mazda didn't even need to tell its own story.
Now, a newly independent Mazda is touting its heritage in a brand-building push that pries open a painful past. The narrative was first conveyed to outsiders this summer.
Key chapters of this seldom told history include Mazda's debut with three-wheel vehicles in the 1930s, founder Jujiro Matsuda's narrow escape from the 1945 U.S. bombing, and the company's audacious quest to develop and sell cars with rotary engines.
Mazda founder Junjiro Matsuda narrowly escaped the 1945 U.S. bombing of Hiroshima.
'Ashamed of Hiroshima'
The goals are twofold: to build morale and a sense of purpose among employees and to cement Mazda’s image as a scrappy, innovative Japanese survivor.
“We needed to tell our story,” says Shinichiro Uetsuki, the corporate communications manager who serves as unofficial company historian.
Mazda’s identity, or lack thereof, emerged as a sore point after Ford sold its controlling stake and the companies went their separate ways. Market research in Europe suggested that overseas consumers had only vague notions about Mazda. Many thought it was Korean, according to one communication consultant who worked with Mazda and Ford.
Even in Japan, Mazda was seen as country cousin to the big, cosmopolitan Japanese automakers congregated in the industrial heartland that stretches from Tokyo to Nagoya.
Then there was the burden of being the most famous company in a city synonymous with nuclear horror.
“For years, Mazda was unable to talk about where they came from because once you talk about Hiroshima, it just fills people’s minds,” the consultant said, adding: “The Japanese people were kind of ashamed of Hiroshima.”
“After the bombing, it was said grass wouldn't grow here for 70 years. Talking about the war was taboo. We couldn't talk about our own heritage. … But if we don't talk about the war, it wouldn't be realistic.”
Brand hallmark: Mazda’s first rotary engine was in the 1967 Cosmo Sport.
'Rebuild from zero'
Mazda’s new historical presentation, however, puts the mushroom cloud of Aug. 6, 1945, front and center on one slide chronicling how Matsuda narrowly escaped death that day.
And a revamped global website has a prominent “Our Story” tab asserting “the legacy of Hiroshima is also Mazda’s legacy.” In one photo, a Mazda3 sedan cruises by the city’s Atomic Bomb Dome, the hollowed-out ruin symbolizing the attack.
“This determination to rebuild from zero is a current that runs through Hiroshima-based Mazda,” the website says.
Mazda doesn’t shy away from its role in making war goods, a role it shared with other Japanese automakers. But its acknowledgment comes with a twist.
Mazda highlights the company’s Type GA Green Panel three-wheeler, released in 1938 just months after Japan’s government enlisted the country’s manufacturers in the war effort.
Even in those days, the company was pitching the vehicle’s new four-speed transmission and 20 percent improved fuel economy. The name Green Panel was supposed to convey “youth, energy, safety and peace.”
That marketing message foreshadowed the priorities Mazda still pursues with its Skyactiv line of fuel-efficient yet sporty drivetrain and chassis systems.
“The same way of thinking has spanned the years,” Uetsuki said.
Mazda’s post-Ford recovery drew similar inspiration from its postwar rebound. Back then, when the company was called Toyo Kogyo, government planners had little intention of letting it gamble precious resources on making automobiles.
Mazda realized its best chance for survival as a vehicle maker was to carve out a unique technological niche. The result: a seven-year moon shot project to develop a rotary engine, on a shoestring budget.
The gambit was possible largely because of Toyo Kogyo’s prewar expertise in machine-tool making, which shaved development costs. Mazda deployed its first rotary engine in the beautifully styled Cosmo Sport in 1967, and the engine would become a hallmark of the brand.
Fast forward to 2008. Post-Ford President Takashi Yamanouchi tapped that outside-the-box tradition to overhaul the newly independent Mazda so it could survive in an era when big volume counts and Japan’s export-driven business model is on the ropes.
The result is the Skyactiv suite of fuel-saving vehicle technologies and new manufacturing techniques that boost vehicle assembly efficiency by 20 percent.
One glaring omission from Mazda’s retold history: It gives short shrift to its three-decade partnership with Ford.
Over that period, Ford’s ownership swelled to a controlling 33 percent. And current Ford CEO Mark Fields, who was put in charge of a troubled Mazda in 1999, is largely credited with leading its revival in the early 2000s.
Uetsuki says that chapter is for the next installment.
But in telling its pre-Ford history, Mazda aims to underscore that its post-Ford, Skyactiv-led rebound isn’t a fluke. It is part of a “defy convention” corporate DNA forged partly in the fires of an atomic attack that nearly wiped out the company.
“After the bombing, it was said grass wouldn’t grow here for 70 years,” Uetsuki said. “Talking about the war was taboo. We couldn’t talk about our own heritage. … But if we don’t talk about the war, it wouldn’t be realistic.”