TOYOTATIMES

To the Future: Keeping the Spirit of Higashi-Fuji alive

FROM THE EDITOR 2021.03.25

INDEX

As one chapter of history closes, a new challenge dawns­—

On February 23, 2021, Editor-in-Chief Kagawa and new Toyota Times reporter Kyonosuke Morita were there to report at the Woven City groundbreaking ceremony that was held at the former site of the Toyota Motor East Japan (TMEJ) Higashi-Fuji Plant.

Woven City, the future of Toyota, will be built on this site in Higashi-Fuji. To truly grasp the significance of this development, one needs to understand the historical threads that intertwine here. What did the Higashi-Fuji Plant mean to Toyota, and what should be its legacy for the future? The Toyota Times team visited the plant’s former site to find out.

Exploring the Higashi-Fuji Plant site

The massive plant building loomed in front of our two reporters, a slogan emblazoned prominently on the wall.

Our customer-focused commitment – “Everything we do is for our customers” – sincerely, from Higashi-Fuji

These words represent the mindset championed by Susumu Uchikawa, president of TMEJ (then Kanto Auto Works) until 2008, and carried in the hearts of the many employees who worked here. The message was that, as a car body manufacturer with no sales function, the company needed to be conscious of its connection to the end-user (i.e., the customer), whose values should underpin all operations. This slogan has transformed TMEJ and propelled the company forward.

The pair were welcomed at the building’s entrance by three men: TMEJ Chairman of the Board Takeshi Shirane, who was serving as the company’s president when the plant’s closure was decided, Shigezou Abe, who had overseen the plant as General Manager, and Toshiya Matsuoka from the Integration Center Administration Department, who is in charge of the plant’s closure. These three had diligently taken care of the Higashi-Fuji Plant for many years. One can only imagine how they felt, looking upon the silent factory stripped of nearly all equipment.

Our new reporter Morita joined Toyota just this January, following success as an announcer for a TV station in Tokyo. This being his first time inside a Toyota plant, Morita could not conceal his excitement.

Morita:
Embarrassingly, this is my first time inside a Toyota factory, so I’m very excited. Thank you for having us. I’m looking forward to this!

All:
Thank you for coming.

Led by their guides, Morita and the Editor-in-Chief wasted no time entering the plant. “We’ll be moving through in the same order that a car is made,” explained Matsuoka, “from stamping to the body shop and assembly process.”

The first step was stamping. In this location stood an enormous machine known as a transfer line, a massive piece of equipment that is said to have filled this entire section of the vast plant. Steel sheets, the raw material for a car body, were automatically fed into the machine and formed through a four-stage process. Now an empty space, this location had until recently been filled with the sounds of clashing metal and the vibrant flow of people, materials and equipment.

Kagawa:
This must be rather bittersweet for you.

Matsuoka:
Yes, it really is. I worked in maintenance, so there are countless stories in this place. Really is very sad to see it go.

In a corner lay one part of this huge machine, its job now complete after 28 years of producing car bodies.

Morita:
You really want to say thanks for all that hard work, don’t you?

Clean to the very end

“Over there we have parts that will be left behind as a legacy of the Higashi-Fuji Plant, if you’d like to have a look,” suggested Matsuoka. The equipment awaiting them included a ‘hanger’ used to transport car bodies during production, and a display device known as an ‘andon’, which promptly detects any faults along the production line.A phrase written on the andon caught Morita’s eye.

Morita:
What does Poka-Yoke mean?

Abe:
A device that stops the production line if there is a fault. This turns on when a Poka-Yoke is activated.
Normally, (when a fault occurs) a worker can pull the andon to raise an alarm, but given that people inevitably make mistakes, Poka-Yoke devices are there to detect them automatically.

Morita:
So it’s like an extra level of safety measures?

Abe:
Yes, to automatically stop if a fault arises.

The next stage in the production process took place in another large section, containing a press machine known as a tandem line. This equipment had been installed over pits dug deep into the ground. Low-lying areas such as these are normally prone to getting dirty, but here they were kept consistently clean.

With the plant scheduled for closure and limited operating time remaining, production would not have been affected by a little bit of dirt. And yet the people who worked here refused to cut corners, right to the end. The spotless floor, without a single piece of trash, shows just how much the employees cared for this plant.

Shirane:
Our team did their best to keep it clean, right to the very end. They
made sure that underneath the press was kept clean at all times…

Matsuoka:
That’s right. They didn’t compromise, the plant manager and section managers; they were committed to cleanliness.

Morita:
For someone who has been inside many plants, this one comes across as particularly clean?

Matsuoka:
Across all of Toyota’s plants, I think there’s a bit of competition, as far as cleaning underneath equipment.

Morita:
Gotta beat the rest?

Matsuoka:
That's it.

The next stop on the tour was the body shop. Here, the panels that had been roughly shaped by the press were assembled and welded into place by robots and human hands. Some 100 people worked here alongside 406 robots. After the plant’s closure, the robots were sold or adopted by other Toyota Group facilities. Likewise, many of the employees have already relocated to TMEJ plants in the Tohoku area.

In one corner of the plant, a solitary robot had been left standing.

Morita:
This robot here, has that been left behind?

Matsuoka:
Yes, it has. In this case, it’s very difficult to separate out, so it will be demolished along with all of this other equipment.

Technology & skills cultivated here live on in Tohoku

The Higashi-Fuji Plant was a special place, not just for TMEJ but for all of Toyota. “This plant produced the Century, Japan’s only limousine-class car, as well as the JPN Taxi, which was renowned for its durability” explains Chairman Shirane. Whether making a top-of-the-line car or one with outstanding durability, the key was high precision and quality. Within Toyota, the Higashi-Fuji Plant had been the pinnacle of skill and technological capability.

One example is the Century’s paint finish. Whereas a typical passenger car has four layers of paint, the Century was coated with seven. What’s more, three of these layers were polished with a manual wet-sanding technique that is now seldom used because of the time and effort required.

The painting techniques developed for the Century then helped produce the traditional deep indigo color found on the JPN Taxi.

Shirane:
Technological capabilities alone are not enough; you also need highly skilled workers across all areas. For the Century, we used to apply the seven-layer paint finish with wet-sanding, which you don’t see these days. That’s how we created that lustrous finish, and
then the JPN Taxi’s deep indigo. I think this was made possible by the craftsmanship that we gained along the way.

Higashi-Fuji’s refined craftsmanship will not disappear with the plant’s closure. The employees who honed their skills and techniques here are now working in Toyota’s Tohoku plants, sharing their expertise with many others. With all of this knowledge passed on to the Tohoku region, the stage was set, enabling the decision to close the Higashi-Fuji Plant.

Shirane:
We are constantly working to expand the reach of our craft beyond this facility. Thanks to this, productivity in our Tohoku plants has risen steadily.

Those plants are now more than capable of producing the volume of vehicles we need. And so, this plant being the oldest with 53 years of history, we decided that it should be the one to close.

The final decision to close the plant was made by Shirane himself, as the company’s president at the time. “No matter who was in charge of the company,” he recalls, “they would have gone in the same direction. Looking at it rationally, that much was clear.” It may have been the rational decision, but in terms of emotion it was not so clear-cut.

One of the people who opposed the plant’s closure to the very end was its Plant General Manager Abe. As the person responsible for the facility, he desperately searched for a way to keep it open.

Shirane:
As the plant manager, he wanted to keep the plant operating as long as possible
.

Kagawa:
Well, that’s only natural, isn’t it?

Shirane:
That’s the way he is, he doesn’t do things by halves. He suggested that if we focused on
various kaizen (improvements) in this way, we could keep the plant going.

Kagawa:
But you couldn’t do anything about the decision.

Shirane:
I told him I was grateful, but at the same time, the plant would be closed.

Plans for a ‘prototype city of the future’ unexpectedly unveiled

Passing through the “sales line” where fully assembled cars finally would leave the plant, the team found itself in a small open space. This was where Chairman Shirane had gathered his employees to announce the plant’s closure.

Shirane:
I told everyone to gather because I had something important to tell them.

Kagawa:
Ah, that’s rough.
No one wants to hear that. Moments like that only come up once or twice in a lifetime, don’t they? No matter how much time passes, you still remember being there. I feel like it must have been one of those days.

Morita:
Do you remember the expressions and reactions of the employees in that moment?

Shirane:
They stared in disbelief, every face saying, “You can’t be serious”.

Around this time, President Akio Toyoda also visited the Higashi-Fuji Plant. Chairman Shirane remembers the exact date – “I think it was July 4, 2018.” On that day, the plant held a line-off ceremony to celebrate the start of the Century production. After delivering a speech to the assembled employees, Akio responded to a question by suddenly revealing his astonishing plan – the plant’s site would become a living laboratory for building the cities of the future.

Employee:
I want to go to the Tohoku area and help make cars there. But some people may have no choice but to quit because they can’t take their family to the Tohoku region even if they want to go. When I think of such people, I’m not sure if I feel happy about going to the Tohoku area. What is the future of this place after the plant is shut down? I want to know what you are thinking at this time.

Toyoda:
I am thinking of transforming this place into a Connected City, a large-scale demonstration experiment for autonomous driving among other things, a place that can contribute to the future of automobiles for the next 50 years.

Shirane:
When I had spoken with President Toyoda (about the plant’s future), he had assured me that we would have his full backing. On that day, I realized, “Wow, so this is what he had in mind”.

For 53 years, the Higashi-Fuji Plant had been a driving force for Japan’s motorization, using advanced skills and technology to produce a wide range of cars. In its place, Woven City will now seek to pave the way forward for the next half-century.

Words of gratitude from the Chairman

Next, the Toyota Times team was taken to the plant that, since the Century’s launch, had produced successive generations of the model for 53 years. This facility was called the ‘Century Workshop’ as a mark of respect for the fine craftsmanship that had achieved such high-level manufacturing. As it turns out, the Editor-in-Chief Kagawa is a devoted user, having ridden in Centuries since his youth.

Kagawa:
The wheel size is quite small, given the big body. They make up for it by being nice and bouncy, the tires.

Morita:
They’re soft?

Kagawa:
It’s really nice.

Morita:
There aren’t too many people who can relate to that pleasure. (laughs)

Constructed in 1967, the Higashi-Fuji Plant underpinned Japan’s motorization in the late-1960s and 70s. It possessed 53 years of accumulated history, along with the pride of having stood at the pinnacle of car production. As the curtain closes on this plant’s history, a prototype city of the future will be constructed in its place.

This turn of events brought out words of gratitude from Chairman Shirane. “For those of us who have spent much of our lives in manufacturing, we are very happy and grateful that this site is being used to help achieve such lofty goals.”

“Ten or twenty years from now,” continued a smiling Shirane, “when many of the world’s future cities have been modeled on Woven City, we can look back and be proud that it started here in Higashi-Fuji. Nothing would make me happier than to be able to trace their roots back to a plant that had produced cars for 53 years.”

To the end, Chairman Shirane continued to share his appreciation for the employees who had worked so hard at the Higashi-Fuji Plant before accepting its closure and the move to the Tohoku region.

Kagawa:
As Mr. Shirane just said, the next 10 or 20 years will be telling, so I look forward to seeing those developments for myself.

Shirane:
Together with all the employees who have played their part until now.

Kagawa:
That’s very true. I think everyone is linked to you right now, and that gives them a lot of courage going forward. When something holds such a place in your heart, it is hard to come to terms with, but we have to make sure that we carry this forward into the future. I sincerely hope that this Toyota Times opportunity will help you in that respect.

For 53 years, the Higashi-Fuji Plant sustained Japan’s motorization, embodying the spirit of Toyota manufacturing, tirelessly refined through kaizen. As Editor-in-Chief Kagawa and reporter Morita discovered, that passion for ‘making ever-better cars’ will certainly be passed on by Chairman Shirane and his hard-working employees to the Tohoku region and the future.

RECOMMEND

Hydrogen-Powered Engine: “A Catalyst that Unleashed Our Dreams” - Interview with Automotive Analyst Shinya Yamamoto

Automotive analyst Shinya Yamamoto, who was visiting the venue to cover the race, graciously agreed to an impromptu interview with Toyota Times.

2021.07.07 More

Akio Toyoda on Japanese Political Leadership

At a press conference held before a motorsport race on September 18, Akio Toyoda in his driving suit shared his views on the political leadership of Japan.

2021.09.22 More

#6 Keishi Miyachi, a master of painting [Masters who support car making in Japan]

Toyota Times uncovers the essence and core strength of the traditional Japanese monozukuri (making things), which is woven from the past into the future. The sixth interviewee is a master of painting.

2021.09.08 More