Building hiroshima’s bright future

When Tetsuya Matsuda was shown a building in Hiroshima, few could imagine what the Chairman and CEO of Hiroshima Mazda would make of it. Today, the Hiroshima Orizuru Tower is one of the city’s most meaningful structures.

Describing Tetsuya Matsuda, the Chairman and CEO of Mazda dealership Hiroshima Mazda, as a successful businessperson is an understatement. Since taking over the company in his 30s, Matsuda, now 53, has been busy diversifying the business. This includes operating not only Mazda dealerships, but also hotels and okonomiyaki restaurants, which serve the popular Japanese savory pancake dish. The number of group companies in his ever-growing portfolio now stands at around 30.

“Our company was founded in 1933, making it the oldest Mazda dealership in the world. It was started by my grandfather Soya Matsuda, who was the second son of Jujiro Matsuda, the effective founder of Toyo Kogyo Co., Ltd., known today as Mazda,” says Matsuda. “But the original buildings and facilities were reduced to ashes by the atomic bomb in 1945, with my grandfather, who was President at the time, and all his employees losing their lives. We’ve since come back to where we are now thanks to an incredible amount of support from the local community along the way.”

This is exactly why Matsuda feels indebted to the city and why giving something back to the people of Hiroshima was at the top of his to-do list when he was offered the top job at 36. “When I became President, corporate social responsibility was a buzzword and everyone wanted to get involved,” says Matsuda. “What was common back then with companies in the automotive industry like us was to plant a tree every time a car was sold, as a contribution to preserving the environment.”

But that idea didn’t appeal to him. Climate change was a big issue even then and, while plausible on paper, Matsuda felt planting a tree for each car sale wouldn’t solve much. An issue like climate change, Matsuda says, is something that international brands and companies should take the lead on. Instead, he opted to do more for the locals. “We always put Hiroshima first in what we do, so we decided to revisit our roots with fresh eyes and start to investigate what more we could do to further merit the local communities and their grassroots activities.”

The Missing Piece

As a prominent business leader in Hiroshima, Matsuda has been involved in several war-related memorial activities and organizations, experiencing local peace movements first-hand. He also believes the atrocities of the war mustn’t be forgotten and should be remembered for generations to come, but he also came to realize that Hiroshima might be missing something equally important: the ability to look to the future.

The Hiroshima Orizuru Tower (middle, right) overlooks the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (left). Also known as the Genbaku Dome, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Across Hiroshima, there are several monuments and buildings dedicated to remembering the atomic bombing and the victims, including the famous Atomic Bomb Dome and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which are visited by over a million people every year. However, as Matsuda points out, none showcase today’s Hiroshima.

“There’s no doubt that it’s important to look back. The voices of the victims carry so much when one talks about the war and world peace,” Matsuda says. “I totally stand by Hiroshima’s role as an advocate of peace. The city also needs to let the world see how much we’ve achieved and progressed since the war, and what we have in store for the future.”

Matsuda made it his mission to show the world the city that Hiroshima had become and started searching for ways in which to accomplish this. In 2009, he found the perfect place: a 12-story building now known as the Hiroshima Orizuru Tower.

The View from the Top

Opened in 2016, the Hiroshima Orizuru Tower is an office/retail building that stands next to the Peace Memorial Park, a nearly 1.3-million-square-foot open space dedicated to remembering the victims of the atomic bombing. Orizuru means “folded crane” in Japanese and refers to the origami paper crane, which is considered a symbol of peace in Japan. A café and shop selling local produce occupies the ground floor, and there is also an exhibition space that tells the history of Hiroshima. The real feature of the tower, however, is the observation deck on the top floor.

“You can almost feel their unbelievable determination. The city is now a symbol of human strength.”

The building had been owned by an insurance company and a business associate asked Matsuda to take a look when it was listed for sale. He went along but had no intention of buying as he knew it would be too expensive to add to his company’s books. When he arrived, however, something completely changed his mind: the view.

“We can always look back but also need to look forward, as there is so much more for Hiroshima to offer.”

“The moment I stood on the rooftop, I fell in love with the view of the city,” remembers Matsuda. “It was beyond amazing. You could see the Atomic Bomb Dome below with the cityscape behind it. You can also see a range of mountains surrounding the city. My immediate thought was everyone must see this… It leaves you speechless when you think of the efforts that the locals have made to rebuild the city over the past 70 years. You can almost feel their unbelievable determination, and I thought the city was now a symbol of human strength.”

It was at this very moment that he made the decision to purchase the building, no matter the cost. In the end, his passion for Hiroshima won out. “I believed that we could turn this building into a new landmark that represents the future of Hiroshima, which the city had been lacking. Everyone should see the view from the top. We can always look back but also need to look forward as there is so much more for Hiroshima to offer than just keep revisiting the past,” says Matsuda.

Inside the Orizuru Tower, visitors will find the Orizuru wall, a glass enclave filled with paper cranes folded and donated by visitors from around the world. Orizuru—from the words ori (“folded”) and tsuru (“crane”)—is the most traditional form of Japanese origami, and inspired Matsuda to make the tower in Hiroshima its namesake.

It took almost seven years to transform the building and Matsuda admits there were times when the weight of the project took a toll on him. But it was all worth the effort.

“The project took many an unexpected turn along the way, and I always felt a lot of pressure,” Matsuda concludes. “But it was the right thing to do and it’s definitely the biggest project for me to do for my hometown!”

Words Shogo Hagiwara / Images Irwin Wong, Dan Froude

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