Thoughts from a Japanese hilltop

The outstanding thing about the Pacific Grand Prix in Aida - apart from the fact that the hills in which the circuit sits are very beautiful - is that the reason they are beautiful is that there are no buildings to spoil the view. Anything approaching a hotel is situated a very long way away from the racing circuit - except for the few lucky folk who get to stay in the lodges at the track itself. In order to transport everyone the many kilometers from the nearest towns to the track the organizers lay on a bus service. This is very much appreciated and highly efficient but the very fact that there is a timetable is seen by some as a restriction and F1 pressmen are renowned for their fierce independence. They are not good group players.

With this in mind, this year we hired a car and - amazed at having done so - proceeded to get lost here, there and everywhere as we searched the hills of Okayama for the circuit. It was lovely but every so often we missed a turning and found ourself miles from anywhere - up a rally stage with a paddy field on each side. There are signs, but we poor westerners have got no chance of working out what they say. About the only recognizable thing between our hotel and the racing circuit was a large yellow M rising above a roadside hamburger restaurant... The Japanese, it seems, are embracing American culture more and more.

In fact, a little research reveals that some of Japan's finest institutions were actually American ideas. Take Kirin beer, for example. This is a brand name recognized by any thirsty pressman who has ever been lost in rural Japan. The company was founded, so they tell me, in 1869 by an American called William Copeland, who founded the Spring Valley Brewery. Sixteen years later he sold it to the locals and they launched Kirin beer. The naming of Japanese companies is often remarkable and Kirin was no exception. A Kirin - in case you are ever playing Call My Bluff - is a mythical Japanese creature, half-horse and half dragon. They say that if you see one you will be overloaded with good fortune for the rest of your days. Flying pig spotters, however, seem to be rather more successful than kirin-watchers.

Like most Japanese companies Kirin is widely diversified. It not only makes 50% of Japan's beer but also teas and coffee, agricultural products and a chain of restaurants called Shakey's Pizza, not to mention pharmaceuticals.

People in F1 - who only recognize the real world when someone says they cannot play any more and takes away their toys - say that Japan is in economic trouble these days. Times are hard. You just cannot find money. Sure, I guess times must be hard for the big Japanese corporations when they are down to the their last $100 billion. Hard times or not the financial firepower of Japan is still gob-smackingly impressive and the diversification inherent to Japanese business is often the biggest strength.

Fortune Magazine's list of the top 500 companies in the world - based on annual revenues - currently features five Japanese companies in the top eight. All, racing people will be amazed to hear, are bigger than Bernie Ecclestone. There is Mitsubishi and then the rather anonymous Mitsui, Itochu and Sumitomo firms. All four are pulling in more money than General Motors. Sixth on the list is another anonymous mob called Marubeni, which is ahead of the itsy-bitsy Ford Motor Company and the Exxon Corporation.

All of these companies are wildly diversified and often they were founded selling one thing and are now selling something completely different.

Mitsubishi started in the last century as a small general trading company, Mitsui was formed in 1568 by an unemployed Samurai warrior who set up a sake and soy sauce brewery.

Itochu and Marubeni were once the same company, trading in linen while Sumitomo started out in 1630 as a bookshop run by a Buddhist monk.

The most remarkable thing about most of these companies is that the majority of the general public has never heard of them - although many of their products are known by other names. Sumitomo, for example, has the Dunlop tire company in its portfolio.

Dunlop's rival Bridgestone is another of the Japanese companies which started out as something else. It was founded by the Ishibashi Brothers - Ishibashi means stone bridge - in 1906 making clothes and it was 17 years before it moved into making rubber-soled shoes and 25 before it branched into tires.

Japanese corporations often have strange names like this. The Dome Company, which is planning to enter F1 in 1997 means "childhood dream" and Williams sponsor Sanyo means "three oceans" and was so-named because the boss Toshio Iue intended to have an international company to dominate the world. His three oceans were the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian. Sanyo, incidentally, started out making lamps for bicycles.

Mitsubishi, so they tell me, means "three diamonds" and if you consider the company logo you can understand that, although it remains a mystery to me as to how the words Sanyo and Mitsubishi can both include the word "three" as they have nothing in common at all.

The Japanese car manufacturers seem to have a lot of fun with names. We westerners travelled around Japan laughing at the cars we saw and dreaming up new names. The Nissan Cedric and the Toyota Brighton are real names, but we figured that there must be cars out there called the Daihatsu Gerbil, the Honda Doris, the Toyota Tracy, the Mitsubishi Edna and the Nissan Beryl.

We can laugh but it is only because we are jealous for the Japanese car industry - struggling though everyone tells us it is - still makes impressive reading when you look at the Fortune 500 ratings: General Motors and Ford are ahead but then come Toyota (3rd), Nissan (5th), Honda (9th) and Mitsubishi Motor (10th). Neither Renault nor Peugeot makes it into the top 10.

Once again these companies often started out doing something other than automobiles. Toyota was founded by Sakichi Toyoda to produce a weaving loom he had invented. He sold the patent to this later and gave the money to his son to set up a car business. To avoid confusion - one doesn't want to be seen driving down Yakitori High Street in a high-performance weaving loom - they changed the company name to Toyota. Amazing.

The story of the naming of Nissan deserves several volumes - and even some of the Japanese I spoke to did not believe the story. In 1911 the Dat company was so named because its logo was a running rabbit. This remained unchanged until 1931 when the company decided to produce a car - the son of Dat. Unfortunately the Japanese word "son" means "damage" and one hardly wants to call a car after the damage caused by a fast-moving rabbit... And so they changed "son" to "sun" and Datsun was born.

And if you don't believe this, you'll probably laugh if I tell you that

Mazda began its commercial life as a company producing cork rather than RX7s.

But enough of all this, I guess in a few years time, when F1 people realize that financial stability can be obtained with diversification we will probably see Williams selling yoghurt and cushion covers and McLaren trading in missile guidance systems and bratwurst.

Benetton has already got the hang of this because the Benetton holding companies control such weird and wonderful businesses such as tennis rackets, whirlpool bathtubs and roadside restaurants - although the expansion of this last business has yet to reach the mountain roads of Okayama.

However, out there in the hills, I have no doubt that we did drive past some small part of the Tom Walkinshaw Racing empire because, in addition to cars, Tom has traded on and off in such exciting things as agricultural machinery, seeds and chipboard.

I guess that as all these things change so will life for an F1 journalist. We too will be diversifying no doubt becoming writers on finance, politics and marketing. Occasionally we will get to watch and comment on the races, but the business of money will dominate.

As I stared out over the hills of Aida from above the paddock one day I wondered if I might diversify even further. Maybe I would start making maps of Japan - with everything written in English...

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