75 Years After the Hiroshima Bombing, Mazda Looks Back on the Long Road It Traveled

What the Japan-based auto brand learned from the catastrophe

black and white photo of a devastated hiroshima after the bomb fell

Key insights:

On Aug. 7, 1945, 50-year-old governor Genshin Takano sat down to write a letter to a superior. Takano was lucky to be alive, and the weight now on his shoulders was immense. On the morning of the previous day, an American B-29 plane dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Takano’s city: Hiroshima.

The bombardier had aimed well. Little Boy, the 9,000-pound uranium bomb released from the plane’s belly, detonated 1,200 feet above the Shima Hospital just south of the Aioi Bridge—the very center of the city. In the ensuing fireball, everything within a mile of the hypocenter disappeared. Among the 80,000 who died instantly was Hiroshima’s mayor.

This meant that Takano was now in charge of the world’s first nuclear wasteland. “All I can do,” he wrote, “is earnestly follow the orders of the emperor and be resolved to rebuild his country.”

With the downtown district obliterated, officials relocated Takano to a makeshift office from which he would try to direct the massive efforts required to clear the streets, pipe fresh water and care for the sick and injured. Only one suitable building had been found. It stood in the Aki District, three miles southeast of the city center.

The building was owned by a company called Toyo Kogyo Co., Ltd., maker of the popular three-wheeled scooters that buzzed around the port city. But Toyo Kogyo is a brand name lost to history.

Today, we know it as Mazda.

An uncommon milestone

Mazda’s management is thinking a great deal about Hiroshima this week—and today specifically—since Aug. 6 marks the 75th anniversary of the first wartime use of atomic weaponry. The occasion is still a fraught one, as the bombing remains a contentious subject and sober one, seeing that 140,000 people died in the blast. But for Mazda, it is also a reason for optimism.

In the decades since the war ended, Mazda has prospered. With 50,000 employees and markets in more than 130 countries, the company now sells north of 1.5 million vehicles a year. In 2018, Consumer Reports ranked the nameplate among the top three quality builds, behind only Toyota and Lexus. And while Mazda is still regarded as something of an underdog among Japanese nameplates, nobody can deny the brand’s fortitude and determination. After all, its trial by fire was a literal one.

black and white photo of the atomic bombing of hiroshima with smoke in the air
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, taken the morning of Aug. 6, 1945.
Getty Images

“Mazda’s story is unique, and as a company, we have worked hard to make the best of our circumstances,” Jeff Guyton, Mazda’s president of North American operations told Adweek. “Our home city, Hiroshima, was completely rebuilt in the years following the bomb in a process that some liken to a phoenix rising from ashes.”

The literal obliteration of a company’s operations—especially one that was engaged in a wartime effort against the United States—isn’t necessarily the sort of subject a brand would be eager to bring up. But Mazda is talking openly about Hiroshima today. And not just because it survived the bomb, but because the bombing formed the core of a company ethos that is still critical to the brand’s identity.

“Certain countries, certain cultures and societies, would look at [the atomic bombing] as an opportunity to create anger,” said interim North American CMO Brad Audet. “The people of Hiroshima looked at it as an opportunity for betterment. And they have a very optimistic view of taking care of each other. It’s very important to them. And I think you’re seeing that in the way that Mazda is behaving in this current environment.”

The pandemic has broadsided Mazda just as it has every automotive manufacturer. Operating profits for the first three months of this year were down 55%, though the company rallied in Q2. But throughout the difficult period, Mazda has been a good corporate citizen, offering financial assistance for its owners, scrapping its usual advertising in order to transmit Covid prevention messages and instituting programs like the Essential Car Care Program, which keeps first responders’ vehicles on the road (even if they’re Fords or Subarus.)

Mazda, in sum, has shown grace under pressure. The company knows its role in disaster response—after all, 75 years ago, it learned the hard way.

A story on three wheels

black and white photo of three-wheeled cars
Introduced in 1931, the Mazda-Go scooter was a hit by 1937, when this photo was taken.
Getty Images

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.