The Japanese automobile industry has become a symbol of the nation’s stellar postwar growth, but few may be aware that its rise owes much to the engineers who helped develop military aircraft during the war.

Suddenly unemployed upon Japan’s August 1945 surrender and subsequent demilitarization under the Allied Occupation, the country’s top engineering talents migrated to what was then a fledging auto industry, bringing with them a slew of vital technologies.

They helped domestic automakers successfully ride the motorization wave. Car ownership, which stood at some 1.78 million units in March 1965, has grown more than 30-fold to roughly 56 million units today, according to Automobile Inspection & Registration Association statistics.

The rapidly growing industry, in turn, offered the engineers chances to test the limits of their skills and knowhow.

One such man was Tatsuo Hasegawa, a former senior managing director at Toyota Motor Corp. Hasegawa was the chief engineer of the first Corolla, which since its debut in 1966 has been the country’s best-selling car to this day.

After graduating from Tokyo Imperial University’s aeronautics department in 1939, Hasegawa became chief designer of the Ki-94, a high-altitude fighter designed to intercept the vaunted B-29 bombers of the United States.

As a wing aerodynamics expert, he applied his concepts to cars after the war, conducting Japan’s first wind-tunnel experiments for automobiles.

Jiro Tanaka was Hasegawa’s colleague at an aircraft maker in Tachikawa, western Tokyo. He also turned to automobiles after the war, eventually becoming senior managing director at Nissan Motor Co. in the early 1980s.

Tanaka’s path was no different from those of his contemporaries, who, barely in their 20s, were assigned projects the government believed would make or break the nation’s war effort. He worked on the engine of the Ki-74, a high-altitude, long-distance bomber.

He used to spend half the week staying over at the company, sleeping on drafting boards, and was woken up many times by air-raid sirens at night.

“We had to evacuate to bomb shelters 2 km away in the middle of the night, with design drawings in our arms,” said Tanaka, now 88.

The bombs came closer day by day, but the young engineer felt no fear. “All we had in mind was to deliver the fastest planes possible, as quickly as possible,” he said.

Yet, at the same time, he knew his country was doomed. “I didn’t think Japan could beat the U.S. — they had planes far better than ours.”

After Japan’s defeat, the Occupation dismantled its aviation industry, and the aircraft engineers found themselves suddenly jobless, eking out livings by making pots and shovels out of the steel supplies remaining at the old aircraft plants.

Executives at Tanaka’s company didn’t know what to do.

“They spoke of going back to their hometowns or opening yakitori stalls by the railway station,” he said. “They had never actually conducted any (real) business, only what the military ordered.”

There were, however, some businessmen with more foresight.

Toyota founder Kiichiro Toyoda was keenly aware of the potential of aircraft engineers and went on a hiring spree in the immediate aftermath of the war, recruiting as many as 200 former aircraft and other engineers. The bold move turned out to have significant benefits for Toyota, which is now No. 2 in the world.

With no prospects whatsoever of designing airplanes again, the young engineers, including Tanaka, bet their future on automobiles, believing that what was a prohibitive luxury at the time would someday become an item for the masses.

“I would have continued aircraft engineering had it not been for the ban (on aircraft production),” Tanaka said. “But now looking back, I’m glad I switched to the auto industry.”

Nakajima Aircraft Co. also made its foray into the automobiles after the war. One of the early cars produced by the predecessor of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. was the Subaru 360, in 1958.

The inexpensive minicar is credited today with helping accelerate motorization in Japan by making cars relatively affordable. With its sophisticated design and advanced engineering, the Subaru 360 still enjoys legendary status among auto buffs.

The aircraft engineers also served as a bridge to a new generation of automobile engineers.

Shinichiro Sakurai, 76, joined an auto company established by former aircraft engineers, including Tanaka, in 1952. The company, later renamed Prince Jidosha, merged with Nissan in 1966.

Sakurai is renowned as the father of the Nissan Skyline, a quick and popular sports sedan. Although he himself was never an aviation engineer, he said the car is the product of aircraft engineering technology.

He said former aircraft engineers instilled a perfectionist attitude in him, urging him to pay attention to the tiniest details, a signature trait of those who worked on fighter planes, which could fail due to the slightest error.

“They did not even overlook washers,” he said. “(To keep me thinking about what my work was for), they used to ask me, ‘Why do you use them? To keep bolts from falling off or to keep them tight?”

Trying to keep the aircraft industry caught up with its highly advanced Western rivals had been one of Japan’s highest priorities before the war, and the best and brightest studied aircraft engineering at Tokyo Imperial University.

Given the lack of an aviation tradition, students had the freedom to import and test the world’s latest theories and technologies without worrying about interference from veterans.

“They were at the world’s top level,” observed National Science Museum senior curator Kazuyoshi Suzuki, an expert on engineering history in Japan. “So it came as no surprise that the (domestic) auto industry saw such fast growth after the war, given that it had the infusion of the best engineering talents”

Aircraft engineers also left their mark at Honda Motor Co., where the legacy of charismatic founder Soichiro Honda tends to overshadow the accomplishments of others.

One of them was Yoshio Nakamura. After working on jet engines during the war, he led Honda’s Formula-1 racing team between 1964 and 1968.

Despite its novice status in the sport, Team Honda’s impressive performance at F1 Grand Prix races helped the firm, then known as a motorcycle manufacturer, become a force to be reckoned with in the automobile industry as well.

“As a manager, Nakamura really knew what racing was about,” recalled Shoichi Sano, who was assigned to design F1 racing car bodies in his early 20s. “He helped lay the technological foundation for Honda’s automobile business.”

In a firm where the founder had unrivaled authority — Honda was famous for his tendency to micromanage — Nakamura was a rare breed and often clashed with the founder, according to Sano, now a professor at Tokyo Denki University.

“Nakamura and other aircraft engineers brought in aircraft engineering concepts, such as structural strength, to automaking,” he said.

Yet, despite their contributions to automobiles, the role played by Japan’s aircraft engineers isn’t widely known.

One reason is the ideological disputes that have hampered objective studies of Japan’s engineering history, especially where military technologies contributed to postwar growth, according to Takanori Maema, author of “Man Mashiin no Showa Densetsu” (“The Showa Legend of the Man-Machine”), a book on aircraft engineers and Japan’s auto industry.

“I don’t want to say that wars help advance technology,” said Maema, a former aerospace engineer for defense contracts at Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co.

“Still, it’s a historical fact. We should face the reality of technological history before passing judgment on it.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.