Zoom-Zoom meets Tomiko Takeuchi, the architect of the First-Ever electric Mazda MX-30, and one of the manufacturer’s most respected test drivers

Story Shogo Hagiwara / Photography Eric Micotto

Where are you from in Japan and what was your childhood like?

I was born in Okinoshima, where my grandparents are from, but I grew up in Hiroshima prefecture. I was really active, a real tomboy, always running around outside. In the spring or autumn breaks, I’d often go to visit my grandparents. To get there, I travelled on a Japan-made turboprop airliner, the YS-11. From a very young age, I loved the moment just before take-off, the feeling of the g-force. That was when I fell in love with transport and vehicles.

What and where did you study?

At high school I specialised in science, and at university I initially wanted to study aeronautical engineering. But a high school teacher told me I could study aircraft, cars and all kinds of transport by choosing controls and systems engineering. So that’s what I did at Kyushu Institute of Technology.

Was working at a car company something you always wanted to do?

As a student, I initially cycled to campus, but in my fourth year I got my first car. At that time I played in an orchestra, so I was able to transport my instrument and play in orchestras in neighbouring towns. All of a sudden, my world changed thanks to this one vehicle. I could get around much further and meet new people. That feeling really struck me. I decided to apply for a job at a car company, just before I graduated from university.

“It is important to test our cars in the real-life environments that our customers drive cars in, too ”

What was your first role at Mazda?

When I first started at Mazda, I was placed in the electronics technology development division to work on a wiring harness design. My team designed the wiring across the entire car. By being involved in that, I got to know the car’s many technologies and parts, and was able to work with different people, building good working relationships.

In 1999 you became a test driver evaluating cars. How did that move come about?

I always really enjoyed driving, so I always dreamt of working in the experiment and research division. At the time, there were more and more female test drivers, so I applied for the job.

Tell us more about being a test driver at Mazda.

At Mazda, test drivers are known as assessment drivers. They test not only Mazda vehicles, but also cars made by other manufacturers. I conducted assessments not just on the test track but around Japan, the US and Germany, too. It is important to test our cars in real-life environments that our customers drive our cars in. To become a test driver or assessment driver at Mazda, you need to get a series of qualifications. Mazda’s qualifications start at E, going up to A; that’s the standard course. To go higher than A, there’s the ‘expert course’. In 2004, I received one of the top three special licences – and to this day, I’m still the only female test driver with that special licence.

How has your experience at the test track helped in your latest role, as program manager of the First-Ever MX-30?

There are many reasons that being a test driver helped in my role as MX-30 program manager. The MX-30 is a global model, so many colleagues from inside and outside Mazda [in Japan] offered their support. And because I’d been a test driver, I was able to communicate my vision for the MX-30 using my own words. This particular experience has allowed me to establish the essential vocabulary to evaluate the cars down to their smallest detail. I put together a detailed, in-depth report in my own words to help the engineers fine-tune the various test vehicles I have worked on into a final production model.

Can you describe your pride at being the first female program manager at Mazda? Was this an ambition of yours?

As a student – and when I started at Mazda – I was always surrounded by men, so I’ve never been overly aware of my gender. I was overwhelmed with pride at being selected for the role. My boss told me that I had received the promotion because he knew that I “wouldn’t crack under the pressure in any circumstance.”

“The MX-30’s concept is ‘To be natural’, so I decided to really let go and relax while i worked on it. And I encouraged my team to be themselves while developing this product”

What were your priorities in leading the MX-30 team?

The program manager can’t know every detail about every aspect of a car’s development, so I made it a priority to really listen to my team members. By doing that, I could take on board the challenges each member faced every day and their frustrations. I could also bring together everyone’s expertise to make a great product. My vision was to work together, and be creative together. I wasn’t so much leading the team as giving a boost from behind the scenes. It was my conscious choice to make time to listen to what they have to say and attempt to find the best way forward for all of us. In my view, it doesn't feel right if someone is trailblazing the way single-handedly.

What are you particularly proud of on the MX-30?

More than anything, I’m proud of my team. The development period was longer than usual for the MX-30. In that time, they never gave up working towards the goal of producing Mazda’s first all-electric vehicle. And it was a particularly difficult project, as it has no previous models that we could reference. The product concept is ‘To be natural’, so I decided to really let go and relax while I worked on it. It wasn’t just me taking on this project, I was going on a journey with my team. I encouraged them to be themselves while developing this product, so the concept of ‘being natural’ reflects naturally in the MX-30. 

What would you like customers to feel about the MX-30?

Customers around the world who choose the MX-30 are embarking on challenges in their daily lives and jobs. Many of them work very hard. When our customers look at the MX-30, and touch it, and get in it, I would hope they feel relaxed and composed. Once they feel relaxed, I hope they can experience the pure joy of driving. 

And finally, how do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?

At weekends, I usually go to the nail salon or the hair salon. Right now, I also attend regular English classes to work on my English conversation skills. And since last year, every now and then I’ve been going to kimono dressing classes and tea ceremony classes. With the latter, I find that I feel recharged and more composed, ready to go back to work the next day. On long weekends, or when I get longer holidays, I like to go on drives or head out on my motorbike. I drive an MX-5, which I bought in 1999. It was the MX-5’s tenth anniversary that year and owners from around Japan got together. I never forgot their smiles, so I ended up buying an MX-5, too.