By now you would have seen enough Mazda ads to know that the phrase ‘Jinba Ittai,’ meaning one-ness between a rider and a horse, is central to Mazda’s brand image.
The phrase was first used by Mazda in a Japanese language brochure of the first NA 1990 generation MX-5 (sold in Japan as the Eunos Roadster). English versions of the brochure in the UK merely gave a literal translation of “Man and Machine as one.”
1990 brochure, Japan
1992 brochure, UK
Jinba Ittai only went global sometime in 2010, when Mazda embarked on a new global marketing campaign that centred on its Hiroshima heritage. Like Audi’s Vorsprung durch Technik, Mazda took a gamble and used a Japanese language tagline for all its overseas markets, but what a success it was.
What is less known to the world however, was that the phrase Jinba Ittai started out within Mazda as ‘Jinsha Ittai,’ meaning one-ness between driver and car. Clearly this made more sense than one-ness between rider and horse (Jinba Ittai). So why did Mazda replaced the Japanese word car with horse?
This answer can be found in a historical anecdote from 1987, two years before the first NA generation MX-5 was introduced.
Toshihiko Hirai (below) was the NA MX-5 program manager - Mazda’s equivalent to an executive chief engineer. Jinsha Ittai was frequently mentioned within Mazda but the slightly rebellious Hirai started printing the word ‘Jinba Ittai’ on his business cards.
The reason? Unlike a car, horses constantly read the rider’s behaviour and adjust its movements accordingly. For example, a skilled archer riding on a horse can adjust his position to aim for a target, having full faith that his horse will compensate for his shifting weight balance.
Hirai wants to replicate that feeling of trust and one-ness between riders and their horses in Mazda cars but of course, it’s impossible for cars to behave like horses. For Hirai that’s the whole point.
By establishing an idealised character that was impossible to quantify, Hirai set a target that is clear enough to get the job done but yet vague enough to offer endless opportunities for continuous improvements.
Unlike their Western counterparts, the Japanese view targets rather differently. The Western concept of a numerical target offers no further progress once a target is achieved. After becoming No.1, no further progress is possible and falling back to No.2 seems more likely.
With Jinba Ittai, achieving the ideal state now becomes a lifelong quest, one that’s passed from one generation of engineers to another.
Even after the MX-5 was launched, the template for Jinba-Ittai is still not complete. It is one thing to establish Jinba Ittai on a two-seater roadster, and quite another on a mass market family sedan or SUV.
In comes budding semi-professional footballer Yasuyoshi Mushitani, who in 1989, had stayed up overnight just so he can be among the first to order the NA MX-5.
An avid footballer who once played in the Japanese minor league before joining Mazda's Chassis Development Department, Mushitani once suffered a severe injury on a football pitch and had to undergo physiotherapy to learn how to walk again.
In that time, Mushitani developed an interest in the field of bio-kinematics. After having to re-learn how to walk again, Mushitani understood the how with better balance comes better confidence in walking. Mushitani wondered if the same learnings could be applied to make better cars.
He studied deeply on how our body moves and balances itself, how our spine and pelvis work to support bi-pedal steps - a fancy word for upright walking with two legs.
Mushitani also derived many different ways to measure a car’s balance when driving – including using an Initial D-style swirling water in a cup method. But as he is a real engineer and not a tofu delivery driver in some anime, water movement was observed using a marked bottle rather than an open cup, complemented by a ball on a G-bowl - the picture that you saw at the beginning.
Nearly 10 years of research later, this basic DNA of ‘Jinba-Ittai’ was developed.
Mushitani found that the ideal seating position for a human is when our spine’s side profile forms an ‘S-shaped’ silhouette, with the pelvis upright. This is the natural position the human body will become when we are in a zero gravity environment.
Our neck muscles also work hard to keep our head upright. Reducing any unnecessary motion of the head is the main purpose of Mazda's GVC (G-Vectoring Control) feature. Explaining how GVC works is a separate topic, but in summary, it uses a combination of ignition timing control to shift the vehicle's weight ever so slightly while cornering. The end result is reduced fatigue and driving confidence.
Supporting this ideal zero gravity-like seating position also why all new Mazda seats are now designed to maintain that ‘S-shaped’ position of our spine, while maintaining an upright pelvis position so drivers can better feel the car’s balance.
Our body’s natural sense of balance can be represented as a motion along a spherical shape. This understanding forms the basis for Mazda’s chassis tuning – where sprung mass are tuned to rotate along a virtual sphere.
Many car makers understand this as well but what separates a good and excellent handling car is the way diagonal motion is transmitted though the car.
Achieving ideal Jinba-Ittai requires diagonal edges of the car to respond without delay, in harmony with the sensation that a driver feels though his/her pelvis. In the upcoming, all-new Mazda 3, this is achieved using a multi-directional ring structure within the chassis.
As humans, our motion is also influenced by sound. Sounds like road and engine noises are crucial for a keen driver, as it helps them gauge how close a car is to its limits. At the same time, drivers also want a quiet drive. Achieving the right balance between the two is always difficult for driver-oriented cars, in the same way a BMW is typically not as quiet as a Mercedes-Benz.
Also, sound proofing materials are heavy and more weight also means higher fuel consumption and poorer handling, both of which are enemies of Mazda’s vehicle dynamics gurus.
To find the right balance, Mazda studied how humans perceive sound, and what they found surprised them. Their studies show that humans are actually less annoyed by the intensity of noise, but more by the rate of change in frequency and change in direction of sound.
For example, the sound energy inside an aeroplane’s cabin is far higher than a car’s but many passengers don’t find it uncomfortable, because our brain filters out the constant level noise as white noise.
With these new learnings, Mazda changed its strategy to deal with cabin noise, from merely adding heavy sound proofing materials to controlling the way sound energy is dispersed within the cabin.
Mazdas are driver-oriented cars but they are not a Mercedes-AMG or a BMW M. The goal is not to set a lap record, but to deliver joy and smiles in everyday driving conditions. Hence the focus on humans, rather than how best to attack a circuit.
“Basic DNA is the tree trunk, while the branches and leaves are things like handling, brakes and NVH [noise, vibration, and harshness]. Based on this, we engineer the car so that it behaves in line with human sensations and our innate sense of balance. For example, as well as speeding over mountain passes, you should feel perfectly in tune simply driving at 10 km/h in a car park — that is my Jinba Ittai,” said Mushitani.
The upcoming all-new 3 is the first of many more Mazda models to incorporate all these additional advancements in delivering an even more Jinba-Ittai driving experience. You may read our driving impressions of the Mazda 3 prototype here.