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“Mr K” a Pioneer who brought the First “Cool” Japanese Car to North American markets

How long has it been since Japanese Canadians and Americans started driving cars to suit their own tastes, not worrying about whether or not they are made in Japan? Nowadays Nikkei folks are, of course, among drivers of all races and nationalities who happen to drive around in a Toyota Lexus, Honda Accord or Nissan Rogue. But back around the 1960s when Japanese cars first appeared on North American markets, no Nikkei family would be “caught dead” in one.

Some time ago, I mentioned websites on the topic “You are Japanese Canadian/American if you …” One of the comments there went something like “you are a Sansei (or Yonsei) JC/JA if your parents (or grandparents) drive around in big American cars but some of you drive an Accura Integra, Honda Accord or Toyota Camry.” But one cannot blame the Issei and Nisei, who had been “mistreated as Japs,” for not wanting to drive Japanese cars regardless of their quality.

Around 1960, nevertheless, most North Americans (and Europeans for that matter) considered “made in Japan” consumer goods to be generally cheap and shoddy, particularly products of leading-edge technology like automobiles. That was the year a man from Nissan in Japan arrived in Los Angeles who would go on to realize and market a car that would dispel that negative image forever. The 240Z, a smart two-door sports car (marketed as Fairlady Z in Japan), became a big hit as soon as it came out in the US in 1969. That legendary pioneer, Mr. Yutaka Katayama, passed away on February 21 in Tokyo at the grand old age of 105. He “was widely considered the father of the Z,” wrote the New York Times in its obituary.

Japan’s auto industry magazine clicccar also described Mr Katayama’s achievement as “establishing a wide market for the Fairlady Z and many other Nissan cars under the Datsun brand in the US.” It also noted that “in recognition of the results of the big role he played in the conceptualization and the birth of the first Fairlady Z (i.e. 240Z), he was inducted into the US Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan in 1998 to join earlier inductees Mssrs Soichiro Honda, Eiji Toyoda and Genichi Taguchi in an exceptional honor for a man of a non-engineering background.”

Although there had been a plan to set up Nissan’s US operational head office in New York, Mr Katayama who was thoroughly familiar with US regional auto markets was adamant about starting up Nissan USA in Los Angeles, and had his way. From there he went from dealership to dealership, without formal introduction if necessary, selling Datsun cars. The name of Nissan USA’s president, or rather his nickname “Mr K,” would become well known among American employees and dealers alike, as he energetically expanded his marketing activities from the west, gradually to the east.

In 1975, the 240Z having joined the ranks of its Datsun models, Nissan USA’s sales reached number one in units sold among imported models. The same year, however, the Nissan head office suddenly announced a “structural change” and Mr K. was replaced by a new president. In 1996, moreover, Nissan ended the production of the Z series with the 300Z – a series that had progressed from 240Z to 260Z, 280Z and to 300Z. But in 2001, the “Z-car” was “resurrected” as the Nissan 350Z (For details, Japanese readers may refer to Yutaka Katayama Reimei [Yutaka Katayama The Dawning] by Toshiki Arai, publ. by Kadokawa Shoten).

Mr K joined Nissan in 1935, getting posted to the then Manchuria (present northeast China), responsible for advertising activities. Not long after the war, he came up with a marketing concept of “the car as part of a lifestyle” – a novel idea for the time – generating various projects. For example, in 1954 when consumers were still poor, he helped promote the “1st All-Japan Auto Show (forerunner of the annual Tokyo Motor Show),” a joint project by the yet-fledgling Japanese automakers, and managed to bring in half a million visitors. The show’s original logo, a youth in Greek mythology holding a wheel, that he designed himself is still in use today.

In 1957, he led a Nissan team of three cars that took part in the grueling Australia Rally that required teams to cover 10,000 miles in 19 days. It was the first time Japanese cars had entered a competitive rally overseas since the war. The team came through with flying colors, notably winning in the under 1,000 c.c. category, to the frenzied excitement not only of Nissan management and employees but of car enthusiasts all over Japan.

Old timers among car enthusiasts may recall some of Mr K’s landmark achievements. Born in the Meiji era, he had a great “sense of the borderless,” passion for cars and a curious mind – all extraordinary for Japanese people of the time, or even of today. This I can attest to with certitude, as it turns out he was probably my father’s best friend since the time they went to the university together. From the time I was little, I remember “uncle Yutaka” frequently dropping in at our house in Senzoku, Tokyo and spending time chatting with me. Even as a kid, I was fascinated by his wide knowledge of cars and things overseas, trying to soak it all in.

He helped me out a lot in later life too. In the early 1970s, I went to Denver, Colorado as an old friend from high school was living there, and I happened to need a job. Thanks to the “intercession” of Mr K at the L.A. head office, I was hired to work as a warehouseman at a new parts and components depot Nissan had set up near the city’s international airport. Having quit an international news agency where I’d worked for four years, I had been living the “hippie life style” of playing guitar and doing whatever to survive in the streets and cheap rooms of Paris, Ibiza in Spain and London for a while. So I had to cut (some of ) my long hair – I had some back then – and report for duty at this depot warehouse in blue overalls bearing a Datsun logo.

I remember being a bit pleased with myself for managing to lift up an engine block weighing over 60 kg with my hands and pack in a wooden crate. I also recall young warehousemen, practically drooling, standing around a brand new 260Z sitting in the company parking lot. One of their co-workers had just bought it at a special employees’ price.

I’d like to ponder one question in closing. Why did Mr K. who knew US regional markets well, adamantly insist on setting up his US operational headquarters in LA at the start in 1960? At the time, the “Big Three” automakers in Detroit were in their heyday, in firm control of dealership networks in the east and the mid-west. There was some demand for high-end imports like Rolls Royce and Mercedes Benz, but even the popular and economical Volkswagen could not secure a share of the compact car market until the 1960s.

Looking at the east, the mid-west and the west that make up much of the industrial US, there are some subtle yet distinct characteristics in their respective business environment. The east has traditionally had strong ties with European businesses, and the financial sector has been controlled by big banks and security firms in New York, Boston and so on. The mid-west, historically populated by immigrants from industrialized countries like Germans and Scandinavia, has a strong engineering tradition. That’s why the auto industry, dependent on steel produced in Ohio and thereabouts, developed in Detroit. The west, the very word evoking images of pioneers and gun slingers in Western movies, became the leading edge of the creative sectors, i.e. Hollywood’s movie industry and later the computer industry centred around Silicon Valley. The characteristic of California’s business environment has been described as <the highest number of dreams per capita> among the states. It was the ideal business environment for making Mr K’s dream come true.


*This article was originally published in The Bulletin, on April 13, 2015.


© 2015 Masaki Watanabe

businessman cars Nissan United States Yutaka Katayama