The founder of Honda is often idolized in the car world, described as much as a rebel as an engineering genius, famous for going toe-to-toe with Detroit and winning. I guess nobody figured to mention, in all the years I’ve been reading about cars on and offline, that he once threw a woman out of a third-story window.
This is far from a secret about the guy. The story was published in nothing less than the New York Times, writing in his obituary in 1991, at the absolute pinnacle of Honda the company. It describes the origins of Mr. Honda, talking about how he was eager to become a mechanic as a kid. He got his big shot when he was able to fill in for other mechanics in Tokyo who’d left to rebuild their homes after what we now call the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923.
From there, the obit goes into his return to where he grew up:
Eventually he returned to Hamamatsu to open a branch of the auto shop and quickly became something of a delinquent. He spent much of his time in the company of geisha, and once when he was drunk he went off the side of a bridge with several geisha riding in his car. Fortunately, everyone survived that incident.
It didn’t take much looking to find sources backing this up, including in Driving Honda, a full history of the operation. The book describes how Honda, working back in his home town, struck it rich and became something of a new money playboy. This is where we get into the geishas off a bridge incident:
Five years later, when he was twenty-one, Honda had mastered servicing cars so well that he moved back to Hamamatsu and opened a branch of Art Shokai in his hometown. It was a small business, a two-person shop that plodded along, making just enough money to keep the doors open. The shop’s fortunes changed, though, in the late 1920s when Honda produced his first automobile-related invention: a wheel with cast-iron spokes. Until then, wooden spokes were ubiquitous, but on the demanding unpaved or pockmarked roads that existed at the time, these wheels cracked with troubling regularity, routinely propelling cars into ditches or each other, and stranding motorists. Consequently, Honda’s new cast-iron supported wheel was a significant breakthrough, an idea he first thought of when still working on bicycles, which greatly improved automobile comfort and reduced accidents.
Licensing money poured in from automakers around the world, and despite the global depression, Honda became a very rich man. Never one to be stingy with newfound wealth, he took up motorcycle racing on the back of his new Harley-Davidson; he spent a great deal of time carousing with geishas on motorboats he built himself; he had an auto accident or two, going overboard on rickety bridges above streamlets; he drank a lot.
Certainly, I was surprised. I’d heard a lot about Soichiro Honda as a casual car enthusiast, but nobody had brought up the time he drunk drove a car off a bridge full of geishas. What more did I not know? I went looking for more of Honda’s personal history and found this 1989 Chicago Tribune story that sought to describe Honda’s “mercurial” temperament. It recalls when he showed up to an investor meeting drunk, and when he once “tossed” a geisha out of a second-floor window:
Though our image of Japan Inc. is one of robotic bureaucrats, ponder this description of Honda’s founder by Richard Pascale, co-author of “The Art of Japanese Management”: “(Soichiro) Honda was an inventive genius with a large ego and mercurial temperament. . . . In the formative stages of his company, Honda is variously reported to have tossed a geisha out a second-story window, climbed inside a septic tank to retrieve a visiting supplier’s false teeth (and subsequently placed the teeth in his mouth) and appeared inebriated and in costume before a formal presentation to Honda’s bankers requesting financing (the loan was denied).’’
The reason why the Chicago Tribune was writing about this in the first place was to talk up his, uh, passion. The article’s headline is “SCOUNDRELS, ENGINES OF PROGRESS, CENTRAL TO ECONOMIC EQUATION.” Is a person who throws someone out of a window a “scoundrel?”
Another book on Honda, this one Honda Motorcycles published in 2003 (and uploaded to Google Books) talks up Mr. Honda’s “unique character” and again references him throwing a woman out of a window:
With adolescence, Honda only got louder. At the tender age of 15, he quickly acquired a taste for fast cars, sake, and geisha girls (not necessarily in that order). Financially flush from his success as a mechanic (he opened his own shop at the age of 22, a remarkably young age at that time), Honda lived like a true playboy, carousing and often flirting with scandal, like the time when he drunkenly drove a car full of geishas off a low bridge, or another time when he unintentionally pushed a woman out of an open second-story window. The height of Honda’s decadence came at his wedding to Sachi Isobe in 1935, which reportedly ended with a well-lubricated Honda dancing nude.
The book continues, “this is hardly the sort of behavior that we associate with Soichiro Honda, whom most of us know from pictures as a small, harmless-looking man with blocky glasses and a gold-plated smile.” Here is the usual photo you find of him, a publicity shot from Honda in the mid-196os, him leaning carelessly against his prototype F1 car.
The most recent reference I could find to all this in English was this story put up by Barchetta Media as an article at the start of 2022 as a video in 2020, glowingly calling him “the king of motorcycles” and an “ingenious founder.” The article says he “bounced back from countless missteps and grew wiser because of them,” like Henry Ford. I don’t know if I myself would say that Ford “grew wiser” because of his “countless missteps,” but I would not really seek to make too many associations with the guy who is probably still the second most-famous antisemite in America, if you also count Mel Gibson. That’s all beside the point! Here’s what even a pretty positive article on Honda says about him throwing a woman out of a window, and it doesn’t sound great:
At a local festival, he and a friend were taking in the events at a club. The details became more sparsely recalled as he downed more drinks, but he remembers being told something he didn’t like by a geisha. The comments sent him into a blind fury. He picked her up and tossed her out of a nearby window. He sobered up real quick when sparks flew up into view. Expecting the worst, he looked down and saw her alive and well, but suspended in a mess of power lines. When they cut her down, the electricity went out all over the city. These exploits earned him a column in the paper: “The Arto Shokai on the Rampage.” It expressed frustration “that a man of 25 could afford such sprees which even men of 40 and 50 could not afford.”
Again, I am genuinely surprised than this incident isn’t more well-known. This is not a banal incident of abuse, something private or covered up; this is throwing someone out of a window and knocking out the power of an entire town cutting her out of the power lines that saved her life.
It’s hard to say when or how Mr. Honda went from drunk-driving playboy to harmless old man given that there’s just not a ton written about it in English. All that comes up when you search for geishas on Honda’s website is an interview with Hirobumi Nakamura, the fourth general manager of American Honda Motor Co., Inc., saying he remembered fondly when Mr. Honda threw “a geisha party in Kyoto and then a ‘sayonara party’ in Tokyo. Mr. Honda was very good at those things. He was very gay and social.” That was part of Honda’s “Holiday in Japan” dealership program, which it did in 1961.
A 1986 article in Inc. magazine played Soichiro Honda against Lee Iacocca, the loose cannon versus the stiff:
While Iacocca inhabits the world of elite Detroit suburbs, million-dollar bonuses, private jets, and swanky New York parties — the “royal class” as he once called it — Honda prefers to mix it up with the hoi polloi. It is not uncommon to find him in the red-light district of Tokyo, hanging out with the geishas, drinkers, gamblers, and tourists. Though his age has now forced him to cut down on his carousing, he believes it has been helpful in learning about his customers.
It’s still hard to find official information on this side of Soichiro, as a 2002 article in the Star-Telegram preserved on a Honda S2000 forum notes:
Sadly, Honda had picked up an addiction during his years in Tokyo: Alcoholism. His working all day at the shop and out partying with the Geishas every night meant wrecks – and payoffs to the girls’ families. (By the way, the Honda Motor Company’s official, sanitized biography of Honda refuses to acknowledge this part of their founder’s life. Personally, I admire visionaries who have fallen and then redeemed themselves.)
It feels like the only accounts recognizing what Honda really did are the ones apologizing for it. Even this Star-Telegram article wants to write it into a larger, positive view of his character. Nobody is chastising the guy.
Honda as a company just leaves it all out. Hell, even the official company manga about Honda’s life starts in 1945:
I will be honest; I did most of this research in March of 2020. I wrote much of this article then, too. I was prepping for an appearance on the History Channel’s The Cars That Built The World, a gig that fell through just as the pandemic hit, I left the city, and production became rather confused amid some early efforts to set up a shoot while social distancing. I still have the 34-email chain in my inbox to attest to it.
I just wasn’t quite sure what to do with the information I’d dug up and this article sat in my drafts folder for years. What was I trying to do? Cancel a guy who has been dead for nearly as long as I’ve been alive? Did I care if Honda puts out some press release condemning or clarifying what happened on a drunk night half a century ago?
I don’t feel like I have to condemn this man, I just feel like I should shine at least a little more spotlight on what he did. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard stories about Soichiro Honda diligently working on piston rings, or taking on the Big Three in the 1970s, or his idea festivals to celebrate creativity among his workforce, what. Somehow, the rest of this never came up. I wonder why.