Behind Every Successful Man: Sachi Honda (Mrs Honda)

instead the geisha found herself hanging in the canvas awning of a vegetable stand on the sidewalk.


Mr Honda has been dead for thirty years. His life story has been well-covered in numerous books, stories, movies and etc. “The old man” as he is referred to by his loyal disciples (those who knew him personally grow fewer by the day) was a fearless maverick in business and racing. He was also a serious handful for his wife.

This story must be framed in the era and culture in which they lived: Mr. Honda’s success grew from the rubble of WWII (like Ducati, Mr. Honda’s first small piston ring factory was leveled by the Allies) and while the old man was a rebel when it came to Japanese culture, his wife and family were distinctly traditional. The old man liked to drink whiskey and he’d rip around Tokyo in a huge American convertible. Furthermore his enjoyment of geisha lounges is well-documented, dating back to the time before he formed Honda Motor Company and for decades afterward. It was a different era when Mr. Honda famously told the humorous (to him) story many times of throwing a non-cooperative geisha out the window of a multi-story building during one of his whiskey-fests. She was saved from death or serious injury because she didn’t splatter on the street; instead the geisha found herself hanging in the canvas awning of a vegetable stand on the sidewalk.

Mrs Honda was quiet, reserved and above all polite and respectful to all. When the old man became an Art Shoka automotive repair franchisee in Tokyo she came to the shop to help. Mrs Honda quietly cooked lunch for the small staff and tried to keep the accounting books straight, which was impossible because the old man wildly spent more money than he had on a daily basis. She was a force of quiet calm to the old man, who was a notorious tool-thrower, and worse, when angry.

The old man partied just as hard as he worked. As a traditional Japanese wife, Sachi kept the family home and raised their four children. She also ignored most of the old man’s after-hours proclivities.

After Honda Motor was established as a global manufacturer she would sometimes travel with her husband on trips to Honda entities around the globe. A popular story of their visit to American Honda in the late 1960s shows how different the couple were in temperament. This was the infamous visit where the old man got off the plane in a bad mood and was in an even worse mood when he arrived at American Honda and saw that a section of the former workshop had been turned into meeting rooms. Seeing this, the old man flew into a rage, went into each new meeting room and windmilled the room with a chair, tearing pictures off the wall, upending desks and tables while employees stood open-mouthed in shock. This is what is remembered internally as the “Too many meetings, not enough work” incident as that is what the old man shouted, chest heaving, after he’d destroyed the meeting rooms.

He clearly had serious work to do at American Honda so he told his wife to go back to Tokyo and he’d follow after he’d basically personally screamed at every person he came across in the building. Someone was told to take her back to the airport, quickly, so an employee drove her there with her still unpacked luggage. All the way to the airport, in busy southern California freeway traffic, Mrs Honda quietly rode along, saying very little to the driver. But every time she saw a Honda automobile or motorcycle on the road she closed her eyes, bowed slightly and softly clapped her hands together twice in a Japanese prayer. Every time.

After Mr. Honda retired from the business he and his wife enjoyed a quiet life of golf, travel and social functions. They lived modestly for a couple who had started a billion dollar global entity.  Here, again, Mrs Honda was a force of quiet calm because she knew her husband very well. When friends suggested to him that his drinking was perhaps getting out of control for a man his age, Mr. Honda announced that he would no longer buy whiskey. His close friends were relieved that their intervention had a sobering effect on the old man.

His wife was of course not surprised when the reality of his words meant that he just intended to make his own whiskey from now on, not buy it. And he made it like they have in Kentucky for hundreds of years–just a click back in strength from where it will blind a human who drinks too much of it.

Mr Honda died in 1991 from liver failure.

The old man had many rules. One was that racing nor motorcycles could be discussed at the dinner table. Another was that no family were allowed to have an ownership stake in or work at Honda. The latter wasn’t always the case but now, 50 years later, it is interesting that the involvement of Mr. Honda’s brother, Benjiro “Benny” Honda, in the history of Honda Motor, has basically been erased. Why? No one seems to know.

Their surviving son, Hirotoshi Honda, resembled his dad but had neither the temperament nor the chutzpah of his father (Who does?).  Let’s face it, just being Mr. Honda’s son is an easy set-up for a life of disappointment if a son tries to compare what he’s done on this planet with what his mega-successful father did in one lifetime.

Hiro loved racing but was barred from the family business by his father. He started his own venture, Mugen, first as an AMA motocross effort making trick parts for Honda motocrossers and then he slowly ventured into car racing, eventually making parts for Formula One cars and anything in between. Mugen enjoyed a close business relationship with Honda but was not an official partner by any means, especially while the old man was alive. But there was no doubt as to who was bankrolling Hiro’s effort. The books were already a mess by the time Honda Motor bought an interest in Mugen hoping to straighten everything out.

While the old man had found a partner he could leave the financial side to the Honda Motor business to (Takeo Fujisawa) so he could concentrate on making bikes, cars and racing, Hiro seemed to try to do the same thing but was seemingly unlucky in his choice of a business partner. In 2003 both Hiro Honda and Norio Hirokawa were indicted and arrested for trying to conceal income and evade taxes. Hiro’s financial manager/partner/accountant Norio Hirokawa was eventually sent to prison for his role in the crime.

Westerners largely don’t have a great understanding of Japanese culture, especially when it comes to the concept of “Shame”. Hiro was able to almost slide through the court proceedings; he was fined and lost control of Mugen but was not sent to prison like Norio Hirokawa.

Published reports with known good sources inside the Honda family state that Hiro’s mother, Mrs Honda, never recovered from the shame of having her son arrested and the news plastered across every Japanese newspaper and TV news program. Just that he was arrested was enough for his mom to live the rest of her days essentially taking a car, daily, either to Mr Honda’s grave or a monument to him near her apartment where she would sit, crying, apologizing to the old man for the shame their son had brought to the Honda family and name. This is largely how she spent her remaining years.

She died in 2013.

 


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