Text from Yamaha Circuit Magazine, from 1977, Issue 4, detailing the Origins of Yamaha:
The Yamaha Motor Company and its parent corporation, Nippon Gakki Co. (which translates as Japanese Musical Instrument Company) have satisfied literally millions of customers in their 80 years of business life. Customers ranging from musicians to motorcyclists!
Very few of those customers, however, have any idea of the origins of the corporate giant that is now one of the acknowledged leaders in the varying fields of musical instruments, audio equipment, boats, marine engines, motorcycles and sporting equipment such as skis and tennis rackets.
The Yamaha story begins back in 1851 when Torakusu Yamaha was born as the third son of an astronomer in the employ of the powerful Kishu clan in feudal Japan. As he grew up, the young Torakusu trained as an engineer and began his career as a watchmaker and clock repairer in Nagasaki. Soon afterwards he moved to Osaka to specialise in medical equipment engineering and manufacture. It was this switch that led to the eventual formation of Nippon Gakki for one day Yamaha was sent over to Hammamatsu, there to perform some repairs to medical equipment in the local hospital.
Torakusu enjoyed life in Harnmamatsu and decided to settle there, working on various mechanical jobs.
Today, the giant Yamaha factories are still located in that city!
The next turning point in Yamaha`s career came one day in July l887 when he was called upon to repair a small organ belonging to the Hammamatsu Elementary School. The organ was an imported model that was a prized school treasure as well as a valuable educational item.
It had ceased to pipe out sounds, and though Torakusu had never before worked on any musical instrument he soon had it operational once again.
Fascinated by the instrument, Yamaha decided to copy it and build one of his own. Two months later the ingenious engineer had completed his own organ. It worked perfectly but Torakusu had no musical training and therefore was unable to judge whether his organ was as good as the original.
There was only one answer as far as a man of Yamaha’s high standards was concerned.
In order to gain an expert opinion he and his craftsman assistant slung their organ from a bamboo pole and carried it on their shoulders to the Tokyo Music Institute (now the Tokyo Academy of Arts)!
The woodcut illustration accompanying this feature shows Torakusu Yamaha and his assistant carrying that first organ to Tokyo.
The journey was over 100km and the verdict that awaited Yamaha was a cruel one, Head of the institute, Shuji Izawa, said that the organ was superbly made but hopelessly out of tune!
He suggested that Torakusu should remain at the school, study the basics of music and then try once again.
After a month’s hard study, Torakusu returned to Hammamatsu, constructed his second organ and returned to the Institute in Tokyo with it.
“At least as good as the import" was the verdict this time ... and so began the next phase of the Yamaha story.
His confidence aided by the verdict of the experts in Tokyo, Yamaha began production of the organs and, in 1897, constructed a new factory to handle these. The Nippon Gakki Company came into being, soon expanded its range to include pianos, harmonicas, xylophones and other small instruments and was the foremost Japanese company in the musical instrument field when its founder, Torakusu Yamaha, died in 1916 at the age of 61.
Following Yamaha‘s death, the presidency of the company was taken over by former police chief, Chiyomaru Amano. His tenure as president, however, was marred by a series of crises. Two factories were burned down in quick succession and then, before re-construction had finished, the replacement factory was hit by the great Japanese earthquake of 1923.
At the same time, Japan was nosed diving into a recession and Nippon Gakki - already struggling from the disasters that had struck it - was not spared from the effects of the bleak economic climate.
As if all of this was not enough, the company also became a target for one of Japan’s newly-formed labour unions. In fact, the Nippon Gakki dispute of that era is still considered one of the three worst labour strikes ever experienced in Japan.
The total effect of all this was that the company was on the brink of bankruptcy.
A saviour appeared in the form of Kaichi Kawakami, who gave up a dazzling career as a rising young executive in the Sumitomo Electric Wiring Company to take on the seemingly-hopeless task of rescuing Nippon Gakki.
Miraculously, Kawakami was able to restore the past glories of the company and take its prosperity to new heights. He was also the person who took one of the most significant steps in the corporation`s history ... the decision to construct the Yamaha motorcycle.
During wartime, Nippon Gakki had been using its extensive engineering facilities to make aircraft propellers. There was no demand for such non-essential items as musical instruments so Nippon Gakki were able to turn their expert knowledge in the field of wood-crafting (an essential in the musical instrument business) to the construction of propellers.
As the war went on, Nippon Gakki’s technology kept pace with current developments so that eventually they were able to replace the wooden propellers with sophisticated, variable pitch metal ones.
When peacetime came, the young engineers on this side of the Nippon Gakki business were sitting idle and it was Kawakami's foresight that was able to see the lightweight motorcycle as an integral part of Japan’s rebuilt economy.
He felt that the motorcycle would supply a cheap and reliable transportation need, Nippon Gakki had the technology available to construct such a machine and so the die was cast. There was to be a Yamaha motorcycle.
Kawakami himself did not see the project through to total completion as he retired in 1950 for health reasons. His son, Genichi, took over the presidency of the company and, five years after his father’s retirement, put the first Yamaha rnotorcycle (the 125cc YA1) into production.
Now, little over 20 years later, the name Yamaha has become synonymous with high-quality motorcycle engineering while Nippon Gakki continues to be one of the world leaders in the musical instrument field.
Not even Torakusu Yamaha could have envisaged such a growth for the company that he daydreamed about as he and his companion trudged to Tokyo with that first Yamaha product!