Kawasaki Heavy Industries… Revealed

The Tiger and The River

Astride the metal horse conferred upon me by my hosts, I looked down from my vantage point into the valley formed by the crater of a dormant volcano. But a few hours ride from the medieval city of Kumamoto in Southern Japan, I was certain the ghosts within the walls of the city’s fortress had followed us here. Situated in this crater, steeped in the paradox of this country’s parallel sensibilities of reverent mysticism, obsessive technological advancement, and often playful iconography, Kawasaki’s state of the art test track, Autopolis, looked like a kanji—the fluid brushstroke that forms the characters of the Japanese alphabet.

Kawasaki’s aviation expertise manifests itself in the performance of its motorcycle range. Photograph by Adam Campbell. (Click image to enlarge)

Flowing through each curve and turn, a quartet of riders flew along the two-and-a-half-mile circuit, the drone of their engines like bumblebees. I took a deep breath and contemplated the mountains of brilliant green that echo the company’s chosen hue.

My mount, a Kawasaki ZRX, snorted as I fired the engine. My leathers the armor of a samurai, I was channeling the meditation that precedes a defining moment on the battlefield. We picked our way back down the hill’s winding roads to rejoin my fellow warriors on the track and exercise Kawasaki’s thoroughbreds under the watchful eyes of those who had called us to battle.

A lucid dream persisted—a man dreams he is a tiger; the tiger walks down to the river and sees his reflection. A leaf crossing the surface of the reflection becomes a fish that leaps out of the water. Light dances on the water, and the fish becomes a bird that soars toward the rising sun. The rays of the sun become the Kirin of Japanese folklore, half-horse, half-dragon, circling the planet and becoming a bolt of lightning. The lightning strikes the earth and awakens the man who has been sleeping under a tree by the river. The man looks into the river again and sees his reflection as a tiger. (Click image to enlarge)

The dream and its elliptical timeline could have been a scene from a surrealist film by Teshigahara, or one of Tarantino’s tributes to yakuza cinema. Instead, it was the convergence of sensations brought about by a grand gesture from one of Japan’s most powerful industrial conglomerates. This gesture sought to reach out and tell the world that this is a corporate family that makes not only motorcycles, but seeks to excel in a variety of areas of human endeavor; and that this excellence is rooted in a proud, noble tradition of social values.

During a week-long visit to Kawasaki Heavy Industries, it was a privilege to discover, and dialogue with, a company redefining the perception of its identity. In concert with the self-promoted "good times"’ notion of the company, the visit proved an illuminating experience of a 130-year-old global industrial powerhouse that generates over $11 billion annually in revenue.

Photograph by Adam Cambell. (Click image to enlarge)

Its scope includes, but is not limited to, aerospace, shipbuilding, earthmoving machines, railroading (notably the legendary high-speed Shinkansen bullet train), green energy generation, major engineering projects, watercraft, all-terrain vehicles, and, of course, motorcycles. Aboard Boeing’s 767 and 777 jets, few realize Kawasaki’s pivotal role in building the fuselage and wings of these massive high-tech birds. Riding in the New York City subway, the discreet Kawasaki Heavy Industries badge on the cars almost eludes scrutiny. While some of its competitors in things two-wheeled claim the high ground in technological expertise, KHI quietly and effectively continues to enhance its portfolio of technical achievement.The first-hand discovery of this surprisingly self-effacing giant encouraged a deeper understanding of Kawasaki’s legacy and its challenge to crystallize its public persona. In recent years, the company has completely redesigned its motorcycle lineup with boldness and elegance—evident in the almost sexual flanks of the Ninja ZX-14, the edginess of the Z1000 (see page 38), and the newly handsome KLR650 (reviewed last issue)—to compliment its image of extreme performance. Kawasaki’s recent racing surge has seen the mean green machines clawing their way to contention at the very top. The dominant Supersport victory at the Daytona 200; their asphalt-burning NHRA drag strip results; repeated triumphs in supercross; and last, but not least, their top 10 finishes in MotoGP, all send the signal that the Kawasaki tiger is roaring again.

A central question emerged—how does KHI’s intellectual and engineering capital imbue the motorcycles they make? As Kaoru "Joel" Ishikawa, a KHI senior manager stated recently, "In motorcycle development, it can be part of finding ways to save weight by a single gram, or seeing how high the rpm can be raised to achieve given horsepower goals." Clearly, addressing the supremely critical nature of aerospace and shipping can burnish motorcycle manufacturing skills. When I look at the cowling of my own ZX-14, I recognize the nose cone of the Shinkansen bullet train; when I hear and feel the power of its engine as we rocket towards 150-plus miles per hour, I acknowledge the aircraft the company has built. (Click image to enlarge)

But why are so few in America aware of the connection? True to its Japanese nature, Kawasaki’s discretion in announcing its achievements is related to its culture, which the company insists on putting before the bottom line. As Ishikawa confided, "During the 30 years I have been with the company, we have not been interested in chasing market share for its own sake. And we are, in keeping with our tradition, rather modest about our capabilities." His remark brought to mind one of our evenings in Kobe. At dinner we were entertained by a young woman dressed as a geisha. As she performed traditional Japanese dance and song, her beauty was dissimulated behind her demure countenance, which only seemed to make her more compelling. (Click image to enlarge)

When we hurtle ourselves along in the pursuit of motorcycle pleasures, we may not give pause to consider what marvels of engineering we enjoy. But, after visiting the domain of this industrial and technological giant, the experience of riding a Kawasaki motorcycle has, at least for this rider, achieved a new definition.

Designed for Formula One motor sport, and now KHI’s private test track, Autopolis hosts Japan’s Superbike championship races. (Click image to enlarge)

If we suggest that the bond twixt rider and steed represents, in some cases, the joining of a tribe devoted to the marque and everything it signifies, does our engagement with a particular brand satisfy not only our temporal desires, but our spiritual ones too? If motorcycles can be said to have soul, how does one define the soul of a motorcycle-building corporation?

The Japanese culture sees no disconnect between actions in the physical world and spirituality. Even the largest companies recognize the soul at the origin of their creation.

Given the oriental preponderance for assigning animal metaphors to the human condition, an exploration of whether or not motorcycles contain an anthropomorphic or even bestial spirit, seemed logical, and so I put the question to my hosts during one of our factory tours: "If a Kawasaki motorcycle were an animal, what would it be?"

The answer came instantly: "A tiger."The essence of that tiger continued to shadow me as I was shown around the shipyards and factories. I observed workers ardently focused on their tasks, each one crafting an element meant to be part of a greater collective art form. Turbine blades were displayed carefully and reverently, like samurai swords, in a glass and wooden case. In the rail factory, massive bogies were produced with an exacting finish and tolerance to ensure the bullet train exceeds the century mark with a smoothness that persuades passengers they are floating towards their destination. In the motorcycle works at Akashi, kaizen efficiencies had been implemented to their optimum so that a new bike is built in less than 90 minutes.

Turbojets to enormous marine pistons: KHI’s engineering and manufacturing prowess underscored. (Click image to enlarge)

Morning, day five of my voyage—the window of my hotel room in Kumamoto offers a scene that could be a print by Hokusai. Through a veil of morning fog, silken strands of sunrise caress the silhouette of the medieval fortress. I observe that Japan is both convergence and contradiction—science fiction technology is commonplace while centuries of Zen moments flower. My Western points of reference evaporate. I leaf through my trip journal. The tiger’s essence is a common thread.

This essence had filled Kawasaki’s "Good Times" world. This futuristic pavilion located within the Kobe Maritime Museum, showcases the company’s origins, history and products. Kicking off my first full day, information overload had blended with a schoolboy’s exuberance. I stopped before the portrait of the founder and met the eyes of the tiger. Strolling through the motorcycle gallery, I saw the ghosts of champions like waves of samurai cavalry charging through the morning mist. Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Scott Russell, Kork Ballington, Yvon Duhamel, Carl Fogarty, came and went, riding their Superbike and Grand Prix tigers into battle. I remembered the Kawasaki motorcycle hordes tearing across the Australian desert in 1981’s cinematic apocalypse, The Road Warrior. I lusted after the ZZR-X concept motorcycle, whose genetics seed the blossoms of their current offerings.

Championship steeds on display at the Good Times Pavilion. Photograph by Adam Campbell. (Click image to enlarge)

Crossing the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge on our way to the motorcycle factory, I admired the perfection of each spar on its three spans, as my hosts explained Kawasaki’s role in constructing the longest suspension bridge in the world. Its two-hinged stiffening girder system allows the structure to withstand winds approaching 200 miles per hour, earthquakes up to 8.5 on the Richter scale, and the ability to resist the unforgiving currents of Akashi Bay. "This is how they build everything they create," I thought.

This epiphany remains vibrant as I straddle my own ZX-14. I feel its pulse, part panthera tigris and part shogun warhorse. When I fly down the road, I am flying across their bridge, gliding along in their Bullet Train, pushing the air aside like their massive freighters part the oceans. A turn of the key and the roar of the Kawasaki engine is the tiger awakening from a dream—that intends to awaken the tiger in us.

Kaizen efficiency on the assembly line at Akashi. (Click image to enlarge)

The company’s history is replete with the spirit of a tiger’s dream. Shozo Kawasaki, born in 1837 in Kagoshima to a kimono merchant, at just 27 years of age, established a shipping business in Osaka, the country’s industrial center, only to see it flounder. But the tiger in Kawasaki’s heart did not fail him. When a samurai from his hometown came to his aid, the young entrepreneur’s fortunes were revived. He opened Kawasaki Shipyard with assistance from the Ministry of Finance on land borrowed from the government by the Sumidagawa River.

We can imagine Kawasaki-san looking at the reflection in the river and seeing the future become reality. As the company’s symbol, he chose the kanji that represents the river. That symbol remains KHI’s today, and is rendered in the sculpted hedge that greets visitors to its Kobe headquarters. As I saw that hedge, I saw Kawasaki-san again in my mind’s eye, drawing the kanji with a bamboo brush, the ink flowing in a confident stroke as he defined the soul of the company he sired.At least one of Kawasaki’s products, the all-new Concours 14 has generated riding impressions that appear to validate the master’s confidence.

In early 19th century Japan, the samurai Kunii Taizen was head of the school of Kashima Shinryu, its teachings at the core of Japanese Martial Arts. The key concept is that of ‘Muso-ken’, the ‘no-thought sword’, its tenets reflected in the following aphorism:

Helmet: Shoei Diabolic 3 TC-5
Jacket: Spidi R-Course
Gloves: Spidi Race Vent
Pants: Spidi Unit Leather
Boots: Strada Evo Te-Por.
Kawasaki’s new Concours 14: the sport-touring bike becomes an intuitive sword. Photograph by Adam Campbell. (Click image to enlarge)

In sword, no sword – sword becomes one with the body In body, no body – body becomes one with the Divine Spirit Like a firefly circling, shining with natural brilliance No hesitation, no deception, no thought, no barrier.

Considering the motorcycle, the concept of Muso-ken is clearly analogous in the art of making the machine one with the rider. With the Concours 14, Muso-ken manifests itself in a sport touring bike that challenges the entire class.

Ultimate Motorcycling’s Publisher and President Arthur Coldwells has tested the new tiger, and his notes tell the story: "It’s a beautifully comfortable sport bike, but with cavernous bags and an electrically adjustable windshield. A monster motor, exemplary handling, and brakes to match give us a confidence inspiring, supremely powerful machine that is not taxing to ride—fast or slow. One can focus on the road, and not the bike!"

Describing the qualities of the Concours’ 1352cc in-line 4-cylinder powerplant, its drivetrain, and ergonomics, Coldwells’ acute critical faculties were impressed: "Performance is fantastic—everywhere. I forgot I was riding a shaftie. Literally, this is as good as a chain—nice smooth drive train with no lash or harshness. Two days of 200+ mile rides and I am still comfortable."

His desire to ride continued long after the press launch was over. Is the new Concours 14, then an intuitive sword? Sport touring aficionados will be ready to judge and undoubtedly agree.Attending this year’s Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix and AMA Superbike races at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca brought the entire process of discovery of KHI full circle. As I watched the event from the Riders Of Kawasaki (ROK) pavilion above Turn Five, I asked Kawasaki USA’s people about the character of the company. Russel Brenan, the Trade/Enthusiast Media Supervisor who accompanied me in Japan, offered: "We’ve always made extreme performance our calling card. We don’t make motorcycles for everyone, and we don’t make ‘smiley face’ bikes".

ROK club coordinator Derek Natvig echoed the sentiment: "We’re focused on racing, on performance; we’re a brand for enthusiasts. But, Kawasaki is also about fun, and we’re definitely not as corporate or buttoned-up as some others."

A trio of green machines hurtled past the chequered flag and I again remembered my time in Japan. I felt the exuberance of Kawasaki-philes in the sea of frog green flags flying in the stands of Autopolis as we watched the All Japan Road Race Championship. I saw Shozo Kawasaki, bamboo brush in hand, drawing the kanji of the river, and then the kanji of the tiger. The kanji became a river of ink flowing from his brush, and the ink became a road upon which I—and my tiger—flew.