Kimura was born in Iwaki-chō, Nakatsugaru District, in Aomori Prefecture, in August 1949. His family name was not Kimura. He was the second son of a family called Mikami, who had been farmers for generations. Not particularly wealthy, they nevertheless owned a considerable area of farmland and, as they had a reasonable cash income from the apple orchards, he has no memory of the family having any difficulties in making a living. This was a time when bananas were still a very expensive fruit. Apples were the typical fruit, and their price was stable. Amongst local Tsugaru famers, apple trees were regarded as money-making. If you cultivated apples, with the family all working hard, you could make a fairly comfortable living.
However, his grandfather was old-fashioned, and it seems Kimura would be scolded by him if he studied at home as a child. Study and similar activities were regarded as luxuries, and if a farmer’s children did that sort of thing they would certainly be told off. A firmly rooted belief remained in farming communities in those days that if their children aspired to going to a university in a big city, it would mean them having to sell their land. So any studying happened during the night, after parents had gone to bed.
He was never bought a study desk, and was sure to be discovered if he switched a torch on at night. Placing an apple box beside the window and studying by the reflected light from the snow on the window, his mother would secretly bring him a candle. He clearly remembers standing three candles up, as a single candle would cast a shadow from his hand.
‘I’d be told off by my teachers at school if I didn’t study. So I was caught between my grandfather and my teachers.’
Kimura laughs when he talks about it, but he probably didn’t mind studying. His best subjects were arithmetic and science. He was also brilliant at art for his age. So good that his teacher told him off when he painted landscape ink painting on paper meant for sliding screens. The picture went on to win gold prize in a competition, but his teacher always doubted that Kimura had done it on his own. He was sure an adult had helped him.
The thing he loved above all when he was boy was machines. Like any ordinary child, he played with toys when he was young. But the way he played with them was a little different. As a young schoolboy, he begged his grandpa to buy him a toy robot. By the time they got home the robot had been transformed. He’d taken it to pieces on the bus on the way. Whatever the toy, be it a car, a plane, or even something like a clock, he’d take it to pieces whilst the grown-ups weren’t watching. He turned a deaf ear when scolded. Toys were not toys to him; they were devices for understanding how things moved or gave off sparks. There was nothing that gave him greater pleasure when he was boy than figuring out how machines worked.
The 50’s and 60’s, his childhood years, would have influenced him. The television, the refrigerator, and the washing machine, were considered the Holy Trinity of domestic appliances. Mechanical civilization was taking hold in a Japan which was bouncing back from the shock of defeat in the war.
It was in 1946, just three years before Kimura was born, that Masaru Ibuka established the forerunner of the Sony Corporation, the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation, and Sōichirō Honda established the Honda Technical Research Institute. At the start of the 50s, Honda started production of its first motorcycle, the Honda Dream D-Type, and the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation started selling a succession of new devices including tape recorders and transistor radios. These new machines symbolized an affluent lifestyle, and embodied people’s aspirations.
Of course, they were a mere dream as far as most ordinary folk were concerned, and hardly the sort of thing children got their hands on. But children’s games always mirror the times. Kids today are obsessed with the Internet. Children in those days were obsessed with machines. It is a child’s nature, when they come across a mystery, to try and unravel its secrets. Taking to pieces machines they are most familiar with, notably wind-up robots and cars, seemed to be their destiny. Having said that, there can’t have been many like him, children who rather than playing with a toy would immediately take them to bits …
As he grew, Kimura began finding pleasure in assembling the devices he’d taken apart.
‘I was interested in electricity in middle school. I wanted to figure out how the signals which radios received become sounds. So I made a wireless. It was in my second year in middle school I think. I would be told off for doing that sort of thing in the house so I tested it outside. I led a cable off from just before the electricity meter. I don’t suppose you can do that sort of thing now, but in those days it was easy. Ha-ha … I did some naughty things. Stealing electricity! I ran a wire directly from a telegraph pole to see if I could get a radio working. Then I’d cause the circuit to short using a screw driver. Had it been in the house I suppose a fuse would have blown in the fuse box, but as I had a wire running directly from it, a telegraph pole fuse went. About forty houses around us had power cuts. I really got told off for that!
Kimura’s mischievousness didn’t stop there. Once he tried making a primitive computer based on circuit diagrams published in a specialist magazine. It was a computer from the days when valves were still used in circuits. He secretly borrowed valves from the broadcasting room at school. Kimura maintains that they were taken from defunct devices, but who knows what might have happened if he’d carried on making computers in this way. That Kimura’s school broadcasting club was able to continue broadcasting was primarily thanks to the inefficiency of valves.
‘I realized, after I started to build it, that I would need loads of valves. I’d started building it step-by-step from scratch without reading the book to the end.
The computer would be the size of a three storey building when finished! That’s when I realized it wouldn’t work. A middle school kid will never find that many valves, however much he chases around Aomori Prefecture.’
He made many amplifiers in his high school days. Pop groups were in their heyday. The output of an amp he made for a school friend who played the electric guitar, and which he finished after three days and nights without sleep, was so great it threatened to shatter the windows in the gym. In the event, the windows didn’t crack, but his amp certainly blew the speakers. The instant the guitars were plugged in and notes played there was a shattering sound from the speakers and that was that. The school speakers were designed to handle 50 watts at most, but the output of the amp he built was nearer 100 watts.
Round about the third year of high school, he became obsessed with motorbikes. He would cycle around farm tracks in the middle of the night and ride along mountain trails on bikes that today we would call motocross bikes. He had frequent accidents and broke bones. But the main reason he liked motorbikes was their engines.
‘One of the bikes I rode was a Benly Racing CR93. I bought second-hand bikes really cheaply from American soldiers at the Misawa military base. I did them up as it would have been a waste just riding the bikes as they were when I bought them. Mind you, whilst I imitated them in some ways, I’d no interest in roaring around like the other bikers really.
By tweaking the engine slightly, you could boost the bike’s performance. That was exciting.’
The energy from the combustion when a mixture of air and petrol is ignited by spark plugs is converted, through pistons and a crank, into a driving force. The mechanism is simple enough, but for Kimura it held profound secrets. Among the many human inventions, the internal combustion engine has to be one of the cleverest. The more you know about engines, the more the opportunities for ingenuity open up. Kimura was captive to their hidden secrets.
Had Kimura been born in the city, or if he had been born a little later, he might well have ended up as a brilliant mechanic with a racing team, or an engine development engineer with a car manufacturer. However, being born into a farming family in the Tsugaru area in the 1940’s, he would have been unaware that such occupations even existed.
‘Being the second son, I didn’t have to take over the house, so I didn’t intend to go into farming. I wasn’t bad with figures, and watching my parents doing the farming I decided there was no future in that. All I thought about at that time was efficiency. In my second year at high school, I passed the top bookkeeping exam. I reckoned I’d become an accountant, and in the year I graduated from high school I took an exam but failed. So I took another employment exam and got a job with a company in Kawasaki. It was a Hitachi affiliated company making pipelines for places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq.
I was a migrant worker I suppose. I took the Tsugaru Express and arrived at Ueno Station on the 23rd of March 1968. In those days the journey took about seventeen hours. There’s the song ‘Ah, Ueno Station’ – it was just amazing to be at that Ueno Station. There were big crowds and more platforms than I could count. I was overwhelmed. I eventually came to my senses, but I still didn’t know how to get from there to Kawasaki. I thought Ueno and Kawasaki were near each other, but far from it. I asked one member of station staff after another. I’d a heck of a time getting there, but when I eventually reached Kawasaki, someone from the personnel section was there to meet me at the station. That cheered me up. And you know what, the sun was orange! That amazed me. I’d always thought sunsets were red, but I didn’t see a red one in Kawasaki.’
Kawasaki in the 1960s.
Virtually no environmental measures had been taken at all. It was a time when the tall chimneys bristling from rows of factories meant prosperity. Pollution in the cities which formed Japan’s industrial belts was peaking. The black exhaust fumes pumped out by trucks made breathing at intersections almost impossible, and the sky was hazy, even on cloudless days. At night, illuminated by city lights, the clouds glowed eerily. When he returned to his dormitory in the evening, Kimura would find the sleeves of the clean white shirt he’d worn to work in the morning were stained with residues from the greasy fumes.
The rivers were as murky as drains and, if you walked beside them, the smell was so unpleasant you had to hold your nose. The mains water tasted so bad it was virtually undrinkable. Such a place would be hard to imagine for people from Hirosaki.
But Kimura didn’t feel he’d arrived in such an awful place. Rather, it appealed to him because this was a city with sophisticated manufacturing industries. His friends back home would have been amazed. It was the big city he’d dreamed of, and Kimura was in high spirits.
He was assigned to the cost management section. It was there that Kimura came across a real computer, not just a circuit diagram, for the first time.
‘Being qualified in bookkeeping, I always thought I’d earn a crust with my abacus, so I wondered what it was that computers did. It was an IBM computer, one of the old computers which you operated by putting punch cards into a reader. The thing I noticed, within a month, was that it seemed to amount to nothing more than a machine which used old data. However good the performance of the computer, it was useless unless you input data. Data is by definition dated. However much old data you collect and process, you won’t produce anything new. It won’t shed any light on the future. As far as I was concerned a computer was just a toy. I imagined that humans would one day be used by these machines. We’d be used by the machines we had created. Looking at the world today, that’s exactly what’s happened! Just as with computers, the number of people who can use only what they’ve been given or told by others has increased hugely. They aren’t using their heads. It’s the same with the Internet. Everyone thinks that the Internet holds all the answers.’
It wasn’t that Kimura disliked computers. He learned how to punch cards and studied how computers worked. Studying what happened in the black box hidden within a computer was as much fun as it had been taking robots to pieces when he was a boy.
Kimura remembers being happy living in Kawasaki. His job was interesting, and he was treated well in the office. His most important job in the cost management section was checking each section’s expenses. He was the one with unenviable task of going around the other sections encouraging them to cut their costs, yet for some reason Kimura was welcomed everywhere he went. When Kimura appeared the whole office brightened up, apparently. Probably thanks to his warm voice and loud Tsugaru accent.
Any time he had at the weekends he would stop by a tuning shop on the Shonan coast. He got to know the owner, and remained as obsessed with tuning engines as he had been in his high school days.
‘In those days it was mainly cars like the Celica 1600GT and the Skyline. We’d polish cam shafts until they gleamed like mirrors to increase engine power. We used our fingertips to check how the grinding was going, but we’re talking about thousandths of a millimetre. If you do it for long enough, you’ll be able to feel differences of 0.001 millimetre. Human senses are incredible. They’re far more accurate than using machines. Boosting the power like that, it was easy to increase the 120 horsepower Skyline to 300 horsepower. I felt it would be interesting to do this as a job, but in the middle of it all I was summoned home and had to go back to Aomori.’
Kimura had been with the company in Kawasaki for a year and a half when he left. The summons had been sent by his parents, which meant he was being recalled to the family home. His elder brother, who was son and heir, wanted to be a pilot and had entered the Self-Defence Forces. Akinori, as second son, had to take over.
The day he returned home was the day after a typhoon had swept through Aomori. His grandfather came alone to meet him at Hirosaki station. The other family members were all out in the storm-damaged apple orchards and rice fields.