In the mid-1980s, Shoichiro Irimajiri spearheaded Honda's manufacturing push into North America. It was a time when Honda was seen as a maverick on both sides of the Pacific, doing what it wanted to do, regardless of the urgings of the Japanese industry.
Irimajiri himself was seen as something of a maverick. He was a charismatic Japanese executive who spoke openly of the importance of making Honda as American in North America as it was Japanese in Japan.
Other Japanese carmakers would later set up shop in America. The others were richer or had histories dating to before World War II.
Honda had a vision. Under Irimajiri's guidance, Honda built a modest motorcycle plant to see whether Honda's manufacturing methods would work in North America.
The plant grew and grew. Auto production and engine production expanded, and today Honda makes more cars in North America than in Japan.
For Irimajiri, building Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. was the sort of seat-of-your-pants, all-out effort he had grown to know as a leader of Honda's Formula One racing team. He loved it. He inspired Honda's burgeoning American workers, who called him 'Iri.' He held regular meetings with employees and spent much of his time on the factory floor.
The fun stopped when he was called back to Japan in 1988. Many people believed Irimajiri would bring a more American flavor to Honda's global culture. But that was not to be. Passed over for the president's post, he became part of Honda's executive board just as the company became too big for its original free-wheeling management style. Irimajiri was expected to soldier on as a loyal Honda man. Instead, he did the unthinkable in corporate Japan: He quit.
Even more shocking to Japanese traditionalists, he left the auto industry and joined computer-game maker Sega Enterprises, where he is president today.