Thursday, 12 April 2007

What a fascinating last few days, my expectations of Japan were high, but these were exceeded ten fold. Japan has to be one of the most developed countries in the world – In fact I can’t think of anywhere (including the UK!) that is more developed. Both commercially and industrially Japan leaves the rest of the world far behind. It’s perhaps only culturally where Japan still let’s say - requires better influences – especially if you’re a whale or a dolphin!
My week started with a short plane ride from Shanghai to Tokyo, which like most international airports these days is located far from the center of the city. In fact an1 ½ hours train journey, and a couple of different subway lines finally brought us to our destination. We were guests of a supplier, who was helping us to negotiate a deal with a rather elusive key component source, which up to now had been rather reticent about supplying to a Chinese company. The following 24 hours involved numerous meetings, lunches and dinners in an attempt to woe this critical supplier, following a successful afternoon and an agreement made. We celebrated with a traditional Japanese evenings entertainment – sushi, karaoke and a late night drinking chilled Sake
The next day involved some sightseeing around Tokyo, a short tube ride into the main train station, which amongst a gleaming backdrop of mirrored glass, and polished chrome is a piece of Victorian period splendor. This was a perfect bright sunny spring day, with Cherry Blossom raining down as the wind rushed between the tall buildings that surrounded the station, a fantastic sight.

We ventured down to the enormous area that surrounds the imperial palace. Virtually deserted, even on a beautiful sunny day like today, the most noticeable differences between China and Japan is just how clean and quiet Japan is. Having lived in China for so long you get used to the noise – that is until you visit somewhere, where noise is considered pollution. In China the mobile phone is king, and there are no circumstances for putting your phone on silent (or god forbid turn it off), when I say no circumstances I mean absolutely, unequivocally no circumstances. I have attended weddings, press conferences, government banquets, ministerial meetings and even a funeral and all of them have been interrupted by the incessant scream of Wei (Pronounced whey, and used as a greeting when answering the phone). Whilst answering the phone in some circumstances is bad enough, the sound level of the conversation normally means that a mobile wouldn’t be necessary, as the other party could probably here you quite clearly without the use of technology! Japan the home of the mobile, is actually enforcing public responsibility, and announcements on public transport asks for you to put your phone on silent, and to move to the end of the carriage if you must take the call! For a country with over 100million obsessive mobile users I found this staggering – but nice!
A raw fish lunch, and a trip to the high tech gadget area of Tokyo were followed by a journey on the Bullet train to Nakoya. Again a trip I had always wanted to take – not that I knew much about Nakoya, but a journey on the famous bullet train at 300 kph – was on my “To Do – Before dying list”, and one that took you to the birth place of currently the most successful automotive company in the world. We were met by another friendly supplier, who treated us to an authentic / modern evening in Nakoya, which included sitting on the floor for 3 hours being served various raw fish by women wearing traditional Kimono’s and painted white faces. The Saki flowed freely, as did the tunes at the local Karaoke bar, which was the next venue - well into the early morning.
The following day, we traveled to Nakoya castle, which was absolutely stunning, especially with the backdrop of a deep blue sky and rose pink cherry blossom.

The castle itself had fallen foul to fire and war over the years, and had just finished its 3rd rebuild. Which included fitting air-conditioning and an elevator! Still amongst the modern, the enormous stones that made the foundations for the castle had markings made by the war lords who were responsible for bringing to the site, chiseled into them – one thing progress couldn’t replace!

Then onto the Toyota museum, somehow things got lost in translation – and we arrived at the wrong museum. You see when arranging to visit a museum in the name of a motor company, you don’t expect that there would be so many options! Toyota has at least 5 museums in this area. The one I wanted to visit was the car collection, which I was told included some rare British models. This one was the “Toyota commemorative museum of industry and technology”.
The building was the original starting point for the Toyoda family business (yes spelled correctly, the name was changed to Toyota for various reasons in later years – email me if you want to know the reasons!). The building housed some of Sakichi Toyodas early inventions, and a history of how the company came from humble beginnings to being the 2nd largest automotive company in the world. Two things struck me about the museum; the first was the story of Toyota itself. It seems that if it wasn’t for the Platt Brothers in the UK, the family may never have had the money to start their automotive business in the first place. You see Sakichi Toyota invented the automatic loom, sold the patent to the UK Company for a sum that in today’s money would be worth $25,000,000, and with that money started to develop their first vehicles.
The second thing that I found interesting was the building itself, built in 1918, it housed the first and most important manufacturing building in Japanese history. It had been turned into a beautiful museum, with state of the art displays mingled with precious collectables and important historic relics. All of this when half of Longbridge was being pulled down to make way for another retail park! Ok maybe Longbridge didn’t lead to the a global business on the scale of Toyota, but it did signify what was an incredible time in British history, from supporting the war efforts, to providing the backbone for a once great automotive nation, surely it deserves more that demolition?
NAC have preserved Lord Austin’s room, and are planning to provide a small museum containing some of the most important cars from MG’s history. But wouldn’t it be nice if the government, lottery or local council stepped in, and decided to preserve some of the original buildings to house a museum of local industrial history? Just a thought!

I got my wish, and the next stop on our tour was to the motor museum itself – and a surprise.
Security was high when we entered, and a small stage had been set up, with banners and smartly dressed people talking into earpieces, whilst camera crews jostled for places close to the upcoming event. Then walked in a crowd of grey suits, following the applause was an elderly, slightly balding man who walked up to take the microphone. We had stumbled on to the museums celebrations for it 4 millionth visitors, and the suit that had walked onto the stage was Katuaski Watanabe, President of the Toyota global empire. He was there to hand out gifts, flowers, and a framed certificate to what looked like a pre-selected family, and obviously make some short speeches. As he finished the official proceedings and moved to escape the crowds I mad a dash and shook his hand, and explained who I was. To my amazement he seemed genuinely interested in MG, and highlighted the fact that they had several important BMC vehicles in the collection, before I could respond he was whisked away by several aides towards the waiting press. Rather sad I know – but an unexpected highlight of the entire Japanese visit!
Amongst all of the cars on display, it was obvious that whomever had put the collection together had a passion for and a respect for the British Car Industry. Up the escalators, turn to the right, past the Toyoda AA (Toyota’s first car), the next car in the hall is an MG Midget TA built in 1937, in gleaming red, around the corner a Morris Eight Series 1 (1937), a Morris Oxford (1913), An Austin A50 (1960) and a 7 (1924), plus a further 7 British Brands. Maybe not the cream of British Engineering – but certainly some landmarks cars, that helped many of the brands become icons of motoring history.
The following day was a tour around one of Toyotas Production facility’s – “To see how a car is built”, then finishing off in another one of Toyota’s museums. Not a lot of secrets explained, but one thing was certain, Toyota were experts at organizing tours, looking after visitors and preserving what is important to them. I have to say that from a design and styling point of view I find it hard to have any passion for Toyota Vehicles (Although the 2000GT MF10 from 1960 was a beautiful car), but I have to admire the company for is achievements and relentless progression, even though the improvements to the Castle in Nakoya may not be in keeping with the history of the building, you have to admire their passion for continuous improvement – or Kaizen as the Japanese put it.


Luanti said...

Enjoying the blogs Paul, they make good reading. Keep up the good work with MG!

i love MG Rover said...

Paul, keep this blog going please. It's so interesting and really well written. Back here in Blighty, there's thousands of us scouring the internet for news on our beloved marques and of news of the Longbridge site every day. Best wishes to you and your family out there in Nanjing and keep up the good work. I hope that some day soon we'll see MG, Austin and possibly Rover (if a lease can be arranged with Ford as the brand is still highly regarded over here - see Auto Express's driver survey) back in the showrooms.

steveo said...

fascinating reading this Paul!
please keep it going, keep us posted, especially with the progress of MG and if possible the chance of MG returning to the U.K.
As you state there has been much written with regard to the running and demise of the company
(our British motor industry) at the hands of BMW and Phoenix e.t.c. It would be very interesting to know the truth from an honest man.
Thank you