Katayama Yutaka (editor's note: family name first), former executive of Nissan USA and responsible for building the Datsun/Nissan Z (known as the Fairlady in Japan) into a well known brand in the 70s, has died at the age of 105.
Katayama, who retired from Nissan in 1977, died Thursday of heart failure at a Tokyo area hospital, his son Katayama Mitsuo said, according to the Associated Press.
You can get reports about just the facts of his death and career from anywhere, so I'm going to spare you the standard obituary. I am not a Nissan fan. But I am a huge, huge Katayama fan. I always have been. My awe for his life and career come from understanding how he interacted, socioculturally, to bring Japanese technology to an American market. It is the story of a Japanese man, representing a Japanese company, while redefining Japaneseness for himself, as well as for the market audience to whom he wanted to sell cars.
If you want to understand Katayama, you have to understand the Japanese expression, "The nail which stands out gets hammered down." I live it every day. Part of assimilating into Japanese society means subduing myself as much as possible, even physically (I've even dyed my hair much darker, very close to black, tired of it attracting attention on trains or in public places, as an example). Katayama was a rebel. He was a rabble rouser. Katayama was the Nail That Would Not Be Hammered Down. In Japan he met resistance; in America, he created a legacy.
What do I mean by this? Well, see, Katayama had a lot of "strange" ideas when it came to the vehicles on the drawing board at Nissan. Strange, but good. And he not only had ideas that would become the Datsun Z, but all sorts of other ideas about efficiency and management. He was a visionary. He was smart and people knew it. But he was too outspoken for Japanese management. He made a lot of enemies. You see, what I love so much about Katayama's story is that to the West, him being moved to America would seem like the truly earned rewards for all of his ideas and hard work, but it would be a mistake to see it that way...
Heading up Datsun wasn't a promotion; it was exile.
Katayama was given the assignment because building a brand, Datsun (named such so that if it failed, it wouldn't sour the name Nissan in America and the company could try again later), was a test. The American market was important to the longterm strategy of all of the Japanese manufacturers—but it wasn't yet critical. If Katayama succeeded, Nissan could hail it as their own success. The executives who put him there would claim the credit for having the foresight to use such an unconventional Japanese person to bridge the gap with the American market. If he failed, well, then it was all on him. Oh, see, we gave him a chance, they would say. This is why you don't stand out. This is why you go with the flow. This is why you achieve consensus. It is safer. And your career won't suffer for it.
Bollocks, was Katayama's response. He would make it work, because he loved what he was doing. He wasn't creating just machines, appliances, for as many consumers as possible, with as few options as possible, and certainly not by consensus or committee. He was building something he wanted to drive himself, and he had the crazy notion that a whole bunch of other people would want to drive it too.
A car is a horse. I want to drive a thoroughbred that's in tune with my heartbeat, but not something that's too dressed up for someone like me.
He was right, of course. And he became a legend in the annals of Nissan history, and in Japan more generally, as well as a giant within the industry in the United States. But we mustn't ever forget, he was sent to America potentially to fail. His lionisation by the current Nissan is, like many histories, partly an attempt to pretend that this was the plan all along... and it wasn't. In some parallel universe, Katayama failed, and Nissan is, I believe, the poorer for it in that world.
And we are richer, on both sides of the Pacific, because he fought the hammer—and he won.
Image via AP.