Legend 02: A determined visionary, Yutaka Katayama

Yutaka Katayama
Yutaka Katayama

Born in September 1909, in Harunocho, Shuchi-gun (now Hamamatsu City), Shizuoka Prefecture.He went to the US for the first time as an assistant on a high-speed vessel carrying raw silk to the US in 1927, while he was a student at Keio University. This first-hand experience of how America worked was an advantage in his later business career. He joined Nissan Motor in 1935 and was assigned to the Administration Department, where he worked in publicity and advertising.

He proposed an ad that focused on the customer’s lifestyle with a car, drawing a line from the conventional advertising of the day that loudly repeated the car’s name over and over. Katayama was successful in communicating Nissan and its products in a smart manner by featuring representative celebrities of the time in the company’s TV advertising and collaborating with other industries, which was an innovative technique at the time. He also promoted the first All-Japan Motor Show in 1954, in anticipation of the emerging era of motorisation in Japan and so that the entire industry could make a statement to the world. All of the country’s automakers participated and the show was a huge success, attracting over half a million visitors.
With the company looking ahead to the full-scale export of Datsun cars, he was team manager as two Datsun 210s were entered in a gruelling rally circumnavigating the Australian continent. Nissan snared the honour of a class victory, instantly catapulting the brand into worldwide renown. In 1960, Katayama started building the foundations of Nissan North America, working from a base in Los Angeles. In the meantime, he put together the key concepts for the Z-car, a model that made it possible for everyone to enjoy fast, agile driving, thereby contributing significantly to the birth of an exceptional sports car.
In 1998, he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan, with his citation declaring that ‘he accomplished numerous great achievements in the USA, where motorisation is highly advanced, because of his strong passion for automobiles, long-term management perspective, and diverse experiences, and, above all, because of his integrity—he loved, understood, and unstintingly cooperated with and supported people regardless of nationality, ignoring borders.’ He is a great figure in the automotive industry of whom Japan should be very proud.
Still giving interviews at the astonishing age of 104, he mentioned that his favourite food was steak, and that he would regularly drink two to three litres of water a day, declaring that ‘water is my medicine.’ He passed away on 19 February 2015, at the age of 105.

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Origins lie in sense of exhilaration

Yutaka Katayama, also known as Mr. K, will celebrate his 105th birthday in September 2014. With a beaming smile and charming poise, he made us burst into laughter and sometimes made us stop and think as he mischievously related a string of episodes from his long and illustrious life, making us completely forget that the old man in front of us was a ‘historic’ person born in the same year as jazz greats Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman. The person in front of us seemed to be simply a boy who loved cars. His freshness, sensitivity, and youthful spirit must be why Katayama has always remained Mr K instead of becoming a venerable elder with a famous name who has made it to the age of 104.

I was very surprised to learn that for Katayama, ‘something to ride’ was in the beginning a horse. ‘My father loved horses and every morning before he went to work he would go for a ride on his horse,’ recalled Katayama. ‘We were living in Tomakomai in Hokkaido at the time and he galloped along the water’s edge at the beach. I sat in front of him and, how can I express that feeling, it was a pure jubilation that cannot be expressed in words, a vitality that invigorates you from head to toe.’

Mr. Katayama in childhood, with parents and his aunt.

The ornament of a horse putting in his office.

From the time that he started to work for Nissan Motor in 1935, he always kept searching for the ideal relationship between human and car and it was fascinating to discover that his sense of that ideal was rooted in his original experience of the relationship between man and horse when he still a young boy.

‘Of course, horses have not only provided humans with pleasure. We also owe them a huge amount because of all that they have done for us over the course of 5,000 years. Automobiles were devised as a potential replacement for horses, but it has only been 100 years since they were commercialised and the unfortunate truth is that we have not been successful at producing cars that can completely replace horses. I know this all too well because I lived close to horses when I was a child. A horse makes itself to go in the direction in which the rider wishes to go and it can return on its own when the rider has dismounted. However, it would be hasty to conclude that all we have to do is “make an automatic car that moves on its own”,’ Katayama exclaimed.

Insisting on keeping it simple

He went on to explain his thinking more fully. ‘After all, horses have to be controlled by humans. The rider needs to bring out the horse’s best and compensate for its weaknesses. Cars are the same. They become good cars if drivers handle them well. As a result, a driver can experience a sense of jubilation beyond all reason, sort of like adding one and one to get not two but, say, five or 10, which is the joy of driving a car that a driver can only feel if he and the car become like one. In any event, we’re not selling empty bodies called cars. Rather, we sell “driving performance” or “a driving experience”. We earn money by offering this driving experience to our customers. That’s why I persist in valuing the well-spring that is the driving experience.

‘In any case, even though we have been disciplined and focused and have worked hard, it has been very difficult to create something that truly can replace a horse. People are now talking about new features for cars, like automatic collision avoidance systems and devices to wake up drowsy drivers. A horse may not wake you up, but it will stop on its own if it’s approaching danger. That’s because the rider is paying attention and the horse senses the rider’s wishes and perceives the situation correctly. That’s why horses were appreciated so much during the days of the cowboys and their horses in the US. I went to the US for the first time 85 years ago, while I was still a student, and in those days horses were still used in a wide range of daily activities by the American people. Automobiles were still playing the role of supplementing horses back then.’
Reflections such as these, which dated back to Katayama’s childhood, ultimately changed form and led to the birth of ‘that sports car’ that we all know so well.

‘How can we transpose the relationship between man and horse into the one between man and car? Even after I was sent to Los Angeles in 1960 to establish Nissan Motor in the US, this question never really left me. Eventually I came up with the concept of the Z-car. It was a sports car with a sleek body with a long nose and a short deck, designed so that it could be built utilizing some of the parts and components that were already used in our other production cars, and it was a car that anybody could drive easily and that would give the driver that incredible feeling of jubilation that comes when car and driver are as one. Fortunately, it became a big hit and we were soon turning out 4,000 units a month. Then we began to deploy dedicated production lines to keep up with demand. I personally think that our success reflected our ability to capture something of the relationship between man and horse and that the purity and simplicity of this concept touched the hearts and spirits of our customers.

At Z Car Fiesta in Los Angeles.
Mr.Katayama gave interview of Car Graphic magazine (August, 1987 issue).
‘A sports car doesn’t have to be luxurious. It should be affordable so that anyone can own one, it should be easy to maintain, and it should be something that you can enjoy without having to spend too much money. To attach a price tag of $50,000 to a sports car just seems uncomfortable to me. You can get any price you want if you increase the number and level of features and equipment. But if you don’t add any extra equipment and features and you can still experience great exhilaration when driving, then that’s the best situation as far as I am concerned! After all, all you need to ride a horse is a saddle (laughter).’

Doctors and medicine

Katayama tends to be in the spotlight because of his reputation as ‘the father of the Z-car’, but he became well known as a man of innovative ideas immediately after he joined Nissan Motor. ‘To be honest, I wanted to study engineering at Tokyo University and then go into car manufacturing, but this dream never came true (laughter). Instead, I graduated from Keio University and joined Nissan, where I was assigned to the Administration Department and was responsible for publicity and advertising. But I’m grateful now because this experience taught me a lot.’

Datsun on the stage of the Shochiku girls Revue Company.
At All Japan Automobile Show (Tokyo Motor Show).

Here are some examples that showcase his ideas. In advertising for Datsun cars, he featured Takiko Mizunoe, an extremely popular actress who typically played the part of a male on stage in a regular revue and was so beautiful that she was nicknamed the ‘fair lady in men’s attire’. Katayama stunned the audience when he introduced 10 Datsun cars with Takiko Mizunoe on the stage of the Shochiku Girls Revue Company at the height of the latter’s popularity in 1935. In another move, he masterminded the adoption of Nissan vans by Mitsukoshi Department Store for the transport of their merchandise. Mitsukoshi enjoyed huge status and prestige and the ordinary people of the time aspired to be able to shop there, to have a taste of the refined existence of the upper classes of the day, as encapsulated by the department store’s catch copy: ‘Enjoy the Imperial Theatre Today, Enjoy Mitsukoshi Tomorrow.’ Another example of Katayama’s innovative spirit was the first All-Japan Motor Show (now the Tokyo Motor Show), which he conceived of and promoted. It was held in 1954 with the participation of all of Japan’s automakers and helped spur the rapid advance of motorisation in the country.

Among the various milestones in Katayama’s career at Nissan during this period, one event worthy of special mention is a class victory in 1958 at the Mobilgas Trial—Round Australia, where two Datsun 210s were entered, the Fuji and the Sakura. Prior to the full-scale export of Datsun cars, the company wanted to test their performance and potential by entering them in the world’s most gruelling automobile race, covering 16,000 km of unpaved roads in the harsh Australian outback over the course of 19 days.

He recalled, ‘At the time, the Datsun 210 was powered by a 988cc OHV engine with a maximum output of 34ps. If you loaded it up with enough spare parts to handle the worst-case scenario on that route, it wasn’t much different from squishing eight people into this four-passenger car. Honestly, even though I was the team manager, I didn’t think we would win.’

Against all odds, however, the Fuji won the race in the class up to 1,000cc. News agencies around the world immediately reported this incredible achievement and the Datsun name and Datsun’s toughness were catapulted into the limelight worldwide. However, even as he received this welcome news and he and the team celebrated their famous victory, Katayama was absorbing a lesson that had struck home like a hammer blow and left him almost humiliated during the rally that circumnavigated the Australian continent.

With winning machine of Mobilgas Trial-Round Australia.

‘The car that won the overall victory, one of our rivals, was not a sturdy car at all. In fact, it was rather weak. So how on earth could such a car have won the rally? The answer is that our rival was very well prepared to deal with any problems that arose by making the most use of its dealer network, which was established throughout Australia, and deploying service teams at every strategic point. We are talking about the cars of 55 years ago and in general they could not drive 16,000km at one go without any problems. But if you have mechanics on hand to change the oil and filters, check fluid levels, replace parts, and make adjustments and repairs as needed, then a vehicle definitely gets back to having a “healthy body”, as it were. Witnessing this, I realised that cars were the same as people. If you always have doctors and medicine standing by as needed, you can expect to get healthy again if you should happen to fall ill.’

Grateful for friendship

With dealers staff in the US.

Spurred by its success in the Australian rally, Nissan Motor launched full-scale exports of Datsun cars and, in 1960, the company sent Katayama to Los Angeles, which was the front line of the market.
‘More than to promote the performance and toughness of our products, [I went to the US] to build a service network that was capable of responding to any problems quickly. The goal was to build a dealer network where the main doctors for Datsuns were always on duty and spare parts were always sufficiently stocked.’

But dealers selling new cars on the West Coast responded coldly to this strange Japanese businessman who was suddenly visiting them with an unfamiliar model. Katayama therefore got things started by calling on dealers of pre-owned cars, one by one, and asked them to become Datsun dealers.

‘In the beginning, Datsun dealers had no status or prestige and they were not wealthy either. On top of that, because automobiles were constantly evolving, parts would go out of use after six months as they were replaced by new designs. Nevertheless, I asked the dealers to make sure they were ready for any problems by stocking spare parts and they responded by saying that they understood and they worked hard to comply. During the difficult times, we all gritted our teeth and worked together and we made it through. For me, they are not just dealers but friends. I’m speaking like I’m a big man, but I owe everything to them.’

Meanwhile, Japanese engineers were visiting the US in groups of around 10, with the aim of making the company’s products more competitive and more attractive. They visited dealers in different states and learned and absorbed first-hand how Datsun cars were used in the US and what kinds of vehicles US customers were looking for.
‘In those days, the US government hardly ever issued work visas to the Japanese. The only way to enter the country was on a tourist visa, which only let you stay in the States for two weeks. When it expired, you went to Canada and then re-entered the US. That’s just one example of the problems and difficulties we had to put up with.’

This groundwork was rewarded in a big way in 1967 when the company introduced the Datsun Bluebird 510, a masterful car with a clean body powered by a newly designed SOHC engine and incorporating a four-wheel independent suspension. And then, when the 510-based Z-car (240 Z in the US) was launched, the company’s US dealers found themselves welcoming throngs of people scrambling to buy a Datsun.

‘Our dealer friends, with whom we had shared the hard times, were able to grow into successful businessmen in handsome suits. But all of them were very grateful and they thanked Nissan for helping them achieve such success. Friends are blessings (laughter).’

In this way, Yutaka Katayama laid the foundations for Nissan’s explosive growth in the US. His straightforward manner and his steadfast belief in and commitment to the industry and his work won the respect and admiration of the leaders of the US auto industry and of the entire automotive community in the US, such that Katayama was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan in 1998. Mr K reflected the affection and expectations he had for the horses of his boyhood directly in his life and work and throughout his life he has charmed the people around him. For a car enthusiast, his life is endlessly enviable.

Writer Profile

Yoshihisa Hayata
Born in 1967 in Tochigi Prefecture. Hayata was totally swept up by the super-car boom when he was 9th and grew up with a love of cars that has continued to this day. After graduating from university, he went to work for specialist automotive magazines such as Autosport, Car Graphic, and Navi. He currently is back with Car Graphic again. A 46-year-old guy who is also an enthusiastic fan of ice hockey team HC Tochigi-Nikko Ice Bucks.