Canada had no idea that when Yoshio Nakatani arrived in 1985 to sell Toyotas that it was also getting a goodwill ambassador, an advocate, an implacable negotiator—and a filmmaker.
Given that he grew up in the countryside near Kyoto,
graduated with a degree from Kyoto University and immediately joined auto titan Toyota in 1964, you might assume that Yoshio Nakatani was the consummate Japanese company man.
You would be right, but you would also be dead wrong.
Nakatani first went to Canada in 1985 to serve as the executive assistant to the president of Toyota Canada Inc. “My mission was naturally to help market and sell as many as vehicles as possible in the Canadian marketplace,” he recalls, “but the U.S. dominated that market back then.”
He stayed until 1991, then headed back to Japan to become the general manager for Americas Operations in Tokyo. Toyota was still struggling in Canada, burdened by a 7 percent tariff on every vehicle imported from Japan. Meanwhile, Detroit’s Big Three were bringing in brands produced anywhere in the world—including Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar—paying just 1.8 percent duty under the rules of the Canada-U.S. Auto Pact.
When he came back in 1995 to take over as the president of Toyota Canada, Nakatani decided it was time to level the playing field.
Tales from a Scrapbook
Nakatani has a scrapbook full of press clippings that chronicle an era fraught with trade conflicts and battles for supremacy in North America’s auto market.
“I challenged the Canadian government on the tariff policy,” he says. “Japanese businesspeople are always quiet and smile, so it was big news when I stood up and said, ‘Hey, Canada! On one hand you’re asking us to make investments, but on the other you’re discriminating against us. We built a plant in Ontario with a huge amount of investment!’
“I was doing this for the sake of Canada,” he continues. “If it continued those kinds of discriminatory policies no new investors would be coming, and that’s not good for the country’s future.”
Nakatani made speeches about free trade that were straightforward and described the huge economic benefits both sides could expect, and the mutual respect that was required. At the same time, he was pumping up Canada’s image and urging Japanese parts manufacturers to cross the Pacific. And he was also selling a lot of cars, doubling the 1995 figure of around 70,000 units over a relatively short period.
After three years of combative negotiations, with WTO involvement, the decades-old Canada-U.S. Auto Pact was dead. Playing field leveled. “Do you know who the biggest carmaker in Canada is now?” Nakatani asks. “Toyota.”
The Man Who Might Have Been
There was Nakatani the corporate man, but there was also Nakatani the individual. “All the time I was thinking there might be something else besides selling vehicles,” Nakatani says. “Anybody can do that.”
He’d heard the sad tale of lost potential embodied in one man: Herbert Norman. The son of Canadian missionaries, Norman was born and raised in Nagano Prefecture, moving to Canada to when he was eighteen. “He studied at Trinity College at Cambridge, and got a PhD at Harvard,” Nakatani says. “In 1939, he joined in the External Affairs Ministry.”
Canada sent Norman to support General Douglas MacArthur in postwar Japan, and he became the general’s right-hand man. He contributed enormously to the rebuilding and restructuring of the shattered nation. Norman later served as Canada’s ambassador to Egypt and played a pivotal role in the 1956 Suez crisis. “He was a capable diplomat, and he was also a historian and writer and thinker,” Nakatani states.
During the Red Scare era, however, the U.S. government was hounding Norman with constant accusations that he was a Communist spy. Unable to take the intense scrutiny any longer, Norman leapt to his death in Cairo in 1957. “I thought innocence was enough,” he said in one of his last communications.
“All of a sudden, an idea popped into my mind—to make a film about Herbert,” Nakatani recalls, “motivated by how he emphasised the concept of democracy and embodied the ties between Canada and Japan. But I didn’t know how to make a film. Fortunately, I heard that the director of the National Film Board of Canada, John Kramer, had the same idea.”
That was in 1996. Two years later, the docudrama was finished, with the financial support of Toyota Canada. Nakatani immediately arranged special showings of the film in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver. “The reaction was enormous and touching—I saw many people in tears,” Nakatani says. The CBC in Canada and NHK In Japan both later televised the film.
The Premier Will See You Now
“One day in 2002 my personal secretary said to me: ‘You should go to Ottawa next week.’ When I asked why, he replied, ‘Because Prime Minister Chretien is waiting for you.’ ”
Prime Minister Jean Chretien was in fact waiting to give Nakatani a special citation—written in English, Japanese and French—thanking him for his dedication and contributions to Canada and all he had done to bring the two nations closer together.
“It was a total surprise,” Nakatani recalls, shaking his head. “I believe that I’m the first and perhaps only Japanese business representative to receive this special citation.”
At a special tribute event in Toronto in 2002, as Nakatani was preparing to leave his post in Canada, PM Chretien mentioned several reasons for the award. Nakatani’s passionate advocacy of enhanced economic relations and cultural understanding between Canada and Japan. Toyota’s massive billion-dollar facility in Cambridge, Ontario—the first plant outside Japan to produce the Lexus sport utility vehicle. His heartfelt film about Herbert Norman. And under his leadership, Toyota’s support of a wide range of Canadian cultural, social and environmental initiatives, including the renovation of Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, the Canadian Special Olympics, and the Canadian Environment Awards.
As the prime minister noted, it was a well-deserved award.
After the Corporate Realm
It’s been a decade since Nakatani left the corporate realm. Now he focuses on cooking and housekeeping, and spending quality time with his wife.
His dream is to go to Paris and “be a vagabond. My major at Kyoto University was not business administration or anything like that,” he says with a grin. “I studied French literature. When I was in Canada, I made so many speeches on various occasions both in English and French.”
And of course he is a member of the Honorary Board of Advisors, one of the original four that Wilf Wakely recruited to counsel the CCCJ in 2012. “I’m not as active as I was, but from time to time I try to motivate young CCCJ entrepreneurs.
One thing I think that’s very good about the Japan-Canada relationship is that it’s not contentious,” Nakatani adds. “My message to CCCJ members is to become the best, most respected company in Japan, not just simply chase sales expansion.”
Although he left Canada in 2003, nearly two decades later Nakatani’s deep affection for its people and country remains. He considers Canada his second home. It’s also obvious from the way he talks about the country that in his heart he is a bridge between the two nations, and thoroughly enjoys that role. “Without doing that, we cannot establish close relationships as humans,” he concludes.