Corporate museums are part academic and business and occupy the grey zone in between. It is an organization that works with several departments in a company including public relations, branding, advertising, and HR. This series aims to look at the role, function, and future of museums run by corporations through interviews with PR professionals.
Yamaha Motor’s Communication Plaza: Spinning Technology and Methods into the Future
Norihito Atari, Dentsu PR Consulting
Yamaha Motor is a global company with over 90 percent of its sales abroad. Its motorcycles have a strong fan base in Europe, North America, and other parts of the world. The company’s safety vision, “Human-Machine Sensory x Human-Machine Safety,” refers to an emotional cycle (a value creation model representing Yamaha Motor’s business activities from a brand perspective) continuously creating innovation, and this cycle is the source of its continued appeal for fans. Yamaha Motor’s ongoing commitment to the creativity of its proprietary technology stems from its corporate philosophy of being a company that creates emotions. Here is an introduction to Communication Plaza, its museum in Iwata City, Shizuoka Prefecture, that offers an overview of that concept.
Communication is the key concept
Exterior of Communication Plaza
Communication Plaza is Yamaha Motor’s corporate museum, located on the grounds of Yamaha Motor’s headquarters in Iwata City, Shizuoka Prefecture. With a total area of 6,200 square meters, the three-story facility exhibits approximately 300 items, including engine parts for various products. The museum opened on July 1, 1998, as a commemorative project to mark the 40th anniversary of the company’s founding after Takehiko Hasegawa, the company’s fourth and then president, advocated the need for a facility that showed the past, present, and future of Yamaha Motor. This year marks its 25th anniversary.
The company’s corporate philosophy: “A company that creates excitement” (Photo taken by the writer)
Yamaha Motor Communication Plaza (Photo courtesy of Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd.)
The facility has been called Communication Plaza since its establishment, with communication being the key concept. The company overcame a difficult business environment at its establishment, and the name reflects its desire to create a base to facilitate smooth communication with shareholders, customers (its users), residents, and, particularly, its employees.
Today, employee relations and engagement are not uncommon, but it is surprising that the company understood the importance of internal communications and gave the museum that name even back then. For this interview, we spoke with Mr. Akito Matsuo from the Corporate Communications Department, in charge of the entire Communication Plaza, who gave us a tour of the facilities.
Akito Matsuo, in charge of Communication Plaza (Photo courtesy of Yamaha Motor)
For all types of audiences
The museum’s first floor is dedicated to the present and future, the second floor is for the past (1955 and onward, 1970, 1980, 1990), and the third floor is for training and meetings. Besides locals, motorcycle enthusiasts stop by while touring, and new employees in Japan and at overseas subsidiaries visit as part of their training. During summer, museum staff also hold events for local children, such as engine disassembly and assembly workshops and programming classes for the children of shareholders while also serving as a place for residents and fans to relax.
Engine disassembly/assembly workshop for children (Photo courtesy of Yamaha Motor)
“Junior and senior high school students and those from technical colleges have recently visited our facility on social studies trips, and some have told us that they want to work for Yamaha Motor in the future. It’s wonderful receiving messages of gratitude from them for what our museum offers,” Mr. Matsuo said.
Yamaha Motor’s Innovation Center, its advanced design research base for product design and innovation, also holds joint training sessions with the local Shizuoka University of Arts and Culture, using Communication Plaza not only for tours but also as a base for collaboration on design aspects.
About 120,000 people visited the museum annually in 2019 before the COVID pandemic. Although the pandemic reduced the number of visitors, approximately 2.9 million people in total have visited the since its establishment.
A new addition to the museum’s website is the Communication Plaza 360-degree Virtual Experience. Visitors can view the museum’s exhibits 360 degrees in 3-D and access videos and web content related to the presentations on each floor.
The Propeller speaks out: From Seed to Blossom
Displayed at the entrance to the second floor is an airplane propeller called The Early Years: From Seed to Blossom.
A propeller manufactured by Nippon Gakki Seizo (Yamaha) in 1923 (Photo taken by the writer)
After World War II, machine tools used to produce wood and metal propellers for aircraft were repurposed and combined with metalworking technology nurtured in musical instrument manufacturing and in 1954, a new business was born. The following year, the company began production of its first product, the Yamaha Motorcycle 125 YA-1, and began selling it domestically in February. On July 1 of the same year, Yamaha Motor was established as a separate and independent company from Nippon Gakki Seizo (Yamaha).
From the success of the YA-1 to the present
Genichi Kawakami, the founder and first president of the company, saw the glut of motorcycle manufacturers and urged his employees, “Japan’s motorcycle industry is still inferior to other countries. Even if we are a latecomer, we can compete if we offer world-class products.” Kawakami assembled a prototype in only ten months after beginning development. The YA-1, launched after that, was a success. Kawakami was a leader who had his sights on the world from the beginning, saying, “A product that is not accepted abroad is not a product at all.”
Yamaha Motor’s first product, the YA-1 (Photo taken by the writer)
During Japan’s rapid economic growth in the 1960s, the company shifted toward diversification, including boats, outboard motors attached to the rear of boats, and snowmobiles. Among these, the Toyota 2000 GT, a Toyota sports car released in 1967 displayed on the first-floor at Communication Plaza, stands out. As is well known among car enthusiasts, the engine was jointly developed by Toyota and Yamaha Motor.
The Toyota 200 GT (Photo taken by the writer)
Toyota handled the overall layout and design, as well as the basic architecture for the Toyota 2000 GT, while Yamaha Motor, under Toyota’s guidance, was mainly responsible for the high-performance engine and detailed design of the body and chassis. The team was comprised mostly of engineers in their thirties, and their fearless determination and pioneering spirit are evident in this remarkable accomplishment.
From the late 1960s, the know-how from developing the high-performance engine evolved into technology for industrial machinery, robots, snowplows, electric power-assisted bicycles, electric wheelchairs, and other products. The company’s business diversification passed down from Nippon Gakki Seizo (Yamaha) has continued to advance, driven by its aspiration to contribute to people’s everyday lives. No matter the product, the company’s concept to create a world of expanding mobility is always at the core of its technology and product development.
The company’s product lineage (Photo taken by the writer), and exhibit on the first floor (Photo courtesy of Yamaha Motor)
Yamaha Motor’s technology and methods as seen in its Dynamic Exhibits and restoration techniques
What is surprising about this facility is that almost all the cars on display, which are from every decade since 1955, have been preserved dynamically and are maintained in a condition that makes them operational today due to the company’s earnest stance toward technology and commitment to keep the restoration techniques alive.
A special exhibition of the company’s race machines from the past (Photo courtesy of Yamaha Motor)
An issue faced in restoration technology is the need for more technicians and the succession of the skills of those artisans. There are 18 steps involved in the restoration process, and each requires careful work. The realism of these exhibits gives them the power to speak to the viewer. The spirit and passion of the engineers that went into each product as part of the company’s DNA can still be felt today, that the present has been made possible by the history that has been spun out into the future.
The 1987 FZR 1000, the flagship model based on the Genesis concept, has been the symbol of Yamaha’s 4-stroke technology since the mid-1980s. The motorcycle has been well-kept and is as good as new. (Photo taken by the author)
A bridge to the present and the future and search for the missing link
Yamaha Motor’s skills and technical expertise are displayed with striking impact among the exhibits. The company coined the term Jinki Kanno (human-machine sensuality), meaning to quantify and incorporate as performance the pleasure and excitement arising from the sense of unity between human and machine, allowing visitors to understand more concretely and visually what it means to embody an emotion-creating company.
Mr. Matsuo says the phrase, The Spirit of Challenge, includes a message from the company’s predecessors, Yaramaika, a word from the Enshu region (the western part of Shizuoka Prefecture) that means “Let’s give it a try” or “Let’s do it,” expressing a spirit of boldly taking on new challenges. He says when senior employees use this dialect to address junior employees, it has the humanistic nuance to the effect of “Go ahead, give it a try (and we’ll support you).”
He says senior employees over 70 occasionally visit Communication Plaza to deliver valuable artifacts. “I come across new insights through their advice and on hearing valuable stories of the past, and sometimes the missing link lost in the process of passing on technology are connected,” said Mr. Matsuo. Communication Plaza serves as a bridge between the present and the past. At the same time, the spirit of those days and the necessity for technology continue to be communicated through the exhibits.
The company’s products with its proprietary LMW technology. On left is the NIKEN GT; on right is the Tricity 300 (Photo taken by the writer)
The system diagram for Yamaha Motor’s technology and methods casually shows the company’s Leaning Multiple Wheel (LMW), a general term for vehicles with three or more wheels that lean and turn like a motorcycle. This is a proprietary technology that the company pioneered in pursuit of safety.
It was developed as the company sought new safety technology for motorcycles and has been successfully commercialized. The culture and power that enable the company to spend time and money to give form to its commitment to this unique and original technology must surely be the source of its waza (technology) and sube (methods).
Communication Plaza is filled with inspirational clues that allow people to experience this philosophy as times change and spur them toward the future. The exhibits include messages from predecessors and advise people to be prepared in times of adversity, the importance of looking forward, and the things we must not lose scattered throughout the displays.
In a sense, Communication Plaza has a centripetal force like the eye of a typhoon, attracting a wide variety of visitors, ranging from employees and motorcyclists to shareholders and people in the community. Perhaps the company founder and its first president Genichi Kawakami is constantly questioning his employees if they are creating for the future.