My recent trip to Japan left several lasting and indelible impressions on me. One of them was made on my first day.    

The first stop on day one of my trip was a tour of the Mazda headquarters in Hiroshima. My interest in Mazda was fueled, to some extent, by the fact that I had once flirted with the idea of purchasing a Miata. It was the 1990s. In the end, my choice was between two mid-life-crisis cars: a bright red Miata and a not-as-bright-red Honda Del Sol. Facing long, daily commutes to the Bronx courthouse, I eventually chose the somewhat more practical Del Sol, although my heart always longed for the Miata.

During a truly fascinating tour, I learned about Jujiro Matsuda, a native of Hiroshima, who is credited as the driving force in the founding of this major auto company.

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Matsuda was the son of a fisherman but was apprenticed to a blacksmith in Osaka (Japan) at the age of 14. Possessing keen business acumen, Matsuda rather quickly became a wealthy and important economic force. He was so highly regarded that in 1921 he was asked to take over the management of a floundering artificial cork company in Hiroshima. It was no wonder that his new company was in trouble since the cork market had dried up after WWI.

One of the characteristics of a good business mind is to identify when it’s time to turn a corner. Recognizing the inevitable end of an unprofitable cork business, Matsuda dedicated all his efforts to tool manufacturing. In 1931, he oversaw the introduction of the “Mazdago,” a motorized tricycle, manufactured in what is now Fuchū city. After the release of this primitive vehicle, Matsuda decided to focus solely on manufacturing motor vehicles. This “tricycle” was on display on my tour and, after closely examining it, I had a hard time envisioning how such a simple motorized means of transportation (which looked like a souped-up bicycle) could possibly evolve into the sophisticated Mazda vehicles of today.

That very evolution must be credited to the creativity and vision of Matsuda. He continued to turn out newer and better vehicles. His factory, where his workers were actually housed, was running day and night, turning out orders for new automobiles.

In 1945, already an incredible success story, Matsuda planned a massive celebration in commemoration of his 70th birthday. Having just months ago reached the exact same milestone—in years, not in accomplishment—I completely understand his desire to have a celebration.

Matsuda’s massive party was slated to entail the participation of his entire family, business colleagues, local government officials and, most importantly, his employees.

When the important day arrived, there was one chore that needed to be accomplished first and foremost. It is a Japanese tradition to get haircut on your birthday. So, it was that Matuda could be found waiting for his favorite barber to open shop, in downtown Hiroshima, at 7:30 a.m. He considered the efficient utilization of time to be an essential business practice so Matsuda made sure he was there waiting for the barber’s door to open ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, another customer was there as well. It is reported that there was an actual race to the door (which was now opening). Matsuda, arriving a split second ahead, stuck his foot in the door first and his birthday day began.

Thirty minutes later, haircut now finished, a freshly coiffed automotive executive was now headed back toward the Mazda headquarters 3.5 miles away. At the 1.7-mile mark, at precisely 8:15 a.m. on his birthday morning, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima (Little Boy A-bomb), with ground zero just 50 yards from the barbershop. Everything within a one-mile radius evaporated instantly. Damage and fires extended to 4.4 miles. We know now that the blast, and subsequent radiation poisoning, killed approximately 135,000 people, about 30 percent of the city’s population. (While I was in Hiroshima, I witnessed the ceremonial placing of a list of the most recent victims of the bombing into a metal box located at a very impressive peace memorial bringing the most current figure to over 300,000 dead.)

As you may have surmised, Matsuda’s barber and the man he beat to the barbershop door perished instantly. As for Matsuda, his car, just outside the zone of immediate obliteration, was flipped by the blast. He and his chauffeur were thrown from the vehicle but somehow survived.

Although the majority of his factory and the automotive headquarters itself lay in partial ruin, there was enough of a structure remaining to provide a makeshift hospital and even a temporary city hall to aid survivors and provide the foundation for the city’s eventual recovery.

Rebuilding proved to be quite challenging, but rebuild he did. He went on to turn Mazda into a flourishing car company. In return, the company honored him by changing its name to a western version of Matsuda (Mazda). He retired in December 1951 and was proud to witness his son, Tsuneji, succeed him as president. Three months after his retirement, Jujiro Matsuda died at the age of 76.

Matsuda’s new lease on life was a matter of chance. If you change any of a number of variables, he would never have survived the bombing and the history of Mazda would have been altered. His escape from death was a matter of milliseconds—literally the time it took to thrust his foot into the barbershop’s door ahead of another customer. It is ironic that Mazda would eventually enter the racing business, wherein milliseconds are again crucial.

What Jujiro Matsuda accomplished with his remaining years is a direct result of his profound comprehension of how precious the time is that we have on Earth. I may not have gotten my Miata, but the lesson I learned from Jujiro Matsuda’s life is one I will not soon forget.