HERITAGE——<br>Jiro Shirasu & the Bentley 3 Litre Speed Model XT7471

Jiro Shirasu & the Bentley 3 Litre Speed Model XT7471

By Adminflying b Magazine

Jiro Shirasu and his Bentley

More than 80 years ago, a young Japanese man purchased a Bentley in England. His name was Jiro Shirasu.

At a time when it was still unimaginable in Japan for an individual to own a car, he drove this Bentley all over Europe.  What did this man — a figure known as a ‘living witness to the birth of the new Constitution’ in postwar Japan — see and feel behind the wheel of a Bentley in his youth?



Essayist Shinya Shirashu, standing in a spot from a photograph taken by his grandfather, Jiro, on a trip to Europe, gazing at the Bentley XT7471 from the same perspective as the older traveller. What did Bentley mean to Jiro Shirasu? Shinya, who once travelled the same route as his grandfather, will retell the story for us.


text:Shinya Shirasu
photo:Keisuke MAEDA
Translation: Mako Ayabe and Michael Balderi
取材協力:くるま道楽 株式会社ワク井商会 phone:03-3811-6170 URL:www.bbvideo.jp/kurumadoraku/
旧白洲邸 武相荘 phone:042-735-5732 URL: http://www.buaiso.com/



My grandfather, Jiro Shirasu, passed away in 1985 at the age of 83. I was a first-year student at university at the time, and I recall being surprised by the news report the morning after he died. The news media widely reported his death, calling him ‘a living witness to the birth of the new Constitution’ or ‘former Prime Minister Yoshida's right-hand man’.

‘It will be the 13th anniversary of the death of my husband, Jiro Shirasu, in November this year (1998). And yet, I am surprised that Jiro seems to be strangely popular again now.’

The words above, which my grandmother wrote in her book, express my feelings exactly. Even these days, there are magazine features and articles telling my grandfather’s story, which I never knew. He is called ‘the only Japanese person who was not submissive’ by GHQ (General Headquarters, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers), ‘a good fellow of the Showa era’, or  ‘the first Japanese person ever to wear jeans’, and the list of compliments goes on. However, what I know is a kind grandfather who slipped me a load of pocket money (especially compared to my maternal grandparents).

About 10 years ago, I learned via a TV program that the Bentley XT7471, the car my grandfather had driven while studying in the UK, was still in existence. The program showed the car roaring and dashing through the English countryside. The aerial footage of the Bentley's British racing green body resonated with the verdant scenery of the UK. 

Perhaps it was because my grandfather never talked about the old days with me, but the scenes I saw on TV did not readily  mesh with the side of his life that I knew. Indeed, he would go to Karuizawa or even as far as Kyoto in his Porsche while it was still dark. My fondest memory is of him teaching me how to drive at a golf course in Karuizawa during my high school summer holiday. But I have to admit that his driving back then was not very sharp, as he was typically driven around in a chauffeured Mercedes. So I found it interesting to see him sit back in the passenger seat and give me driving tips. I could see he really loved driving.

The story continues: about four years ago, to my surprise, I was informed that the same Bentley my grandfather had owned  was in Japan, so I visited the garage in Saitama Prefecture where it was kept. The car slowly approached me with an overwhelming presence, like a peacock spreading its fan.

Some time after my grandfather died, his house in Machida City became an abode for a peacock. When I came home at night, I was surprised to find a fluorescent peacock flickering in the dark. My grandmother said, ‘That must have been Jiro's reincarnation’, and seeing the car, which looked just like my grandfather, in the garage suddenly reminded me of the peacock. Perhaps it was this memory that made the 80-year-old car appear even shinier and more striking than ever. The registration number was also the same as his, XT7471. And that's not all: the car was still competing in rallies and could cruise at up to 100 mph.

I was struck by this. I like antiques, especially pottery, which can be broadly divided into two categories.  The first is called  ‘ornamental chinaware’, which is represented by Chinese ceramics, displayed for appreciation.

The second is called kotto (antique), and its true value is only revealed when used. It is the type you can hold in your hands, feel with your lips and love every day. I am addicted to the latter.

 The bowls and sake cups in museums make me sad. They are works of art that are imprisoned for life. Tea bowls are for drinking tea with relish; sake cups are for drinking alcohol; cars are for driving. It is obvious, but in a museum you are not allowed to touch them, much less use them. They are not free to feel the love of the user, the warmth of the hand, or even the sensation of being  filled with alcohol.

This is not limited to museums. There are many collectors who keep their pieces in the back of  a wardrobe because they are expensive or because they fear damaging them. Many cherish their collections as commodities, in anticipation of their value rising in the future, but they do not truly love them.

The current owner, Kiyoharu Wakui, says he was advised by an  automobile critic that the XT7471 remain in Japan, but not be displayed as a relic in an automotive museum.

Wakui is the self-proclaimed ‘temporary custodian’ of the XT7471 and takes care of it daily as one would a precious antique tea bowl. In his garage, his skilled mechanics, covered in oil, meticulously perform  maintenance on it. The car, which had long been the means of transportation for Jiro — who was also known as the ‘Oily Boy’ — and which was sometimes subject to severe discipline under his ownership, is part of a certain  cultural heritage. And it will continue to be cherished and passed onto succeeding generations. 

Wakui told me that he fell in love with the story of the car and was determined to get it at any cost. A large Japanese company with ties to my grandfather tried to purchase it at the same time, but the previous owner was adamant about not selling it to them. How, then, was Wakui different? It must have been his dedicated love and passionate attachment to objects. The same is true in the world of antiques. ‘If you pray for it, it will come to you.’ These are words uttered by my grandmother Masako, but one should  persevere and dream about what one loves all the time, and make every effort to achieve these dreams. Based on my experience, thoughts seem to be transmitted even to objects that do not speak.

Bentley is a brand that still shines today, but a special tribute is being paid to the models built during the pioneering period, around the decade of the 1920s, which are referred to as ‘W.O. Bentleys’. Of the total production of about 3,000 cars, there are  just over a third of these vintage Bentleys still in existence. That’s not all — the vast majority of them are in good condition, travelling around at 100 mph. My grandfather Jiro bought his rugged, matchless Bentley directly from a star racer called John Duff, who had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans that year, on 24 May 1924, with the same 3 Litre model. My grandfather was indeed one of the genuine Bentley Boys.

When I saw the vintage Bentley that my grandfather was so fascinated with, I had the following impression: in Japanese art, the history of an antique tea bowl is clearly identified by a note of authentication and a list of previous owners written on the box it’s kept in. In other words, if I were to compare this Japanese tradition with my grandfather's purchase of the Bentley, he had to buy it from Captain Duff as a matter of necessity. Both Britain and Japan are countries that value traditional culture. I believe that my grandfather's intuition may have led him to take such action. I have heard from others that my grandfather always sought ‘no substitute’ when it came to cars. The Bentley was indeed one of a kind.

Love of vintage cars. In this, there is certainly a lofty feeling, a reverence for old objects, a respect for tradition. But what makes my heart soar is the contented smiles of the people who live with zest and their exquisite expression of being alive.

Whether it was a recent trip to Kanuma or my trip to Europe some years ago (when I travelled from London to Turkey in a vintage Bentley), the Bentley Boys continue living in the spirit of the maxim ‘a gentleman must also be a sportsman’ and have inherited a refined style of amateurism.

How one should live one's life is a proposition for each of us. Whatever the pursuit may be, the masters of living or the connoisseurs of playing will live to the full — some drink wine, some pour sake, and some drive a car with the wind in their face.

‘Vintage’ has always been an object of envy. Only those who live aesthetically share the fullness of time.


Attractive instrumentation with large analogue dials mounted on a bare aluminium dash panel. A hemp-cord wrapped steering wheel. The same styling that Jiro Shirasu appreciated  80 years ago still excites today.



Shinya Shirasu

Born in Tokyo in 1965, Shinya Shirasu is an essayist who previously served as a state-funded secretary to former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. His paternal grandparents are Jiro and Masako Shirasu, and his maternal grandfather was the literary critic Hideo Kobayashi. He has a deep knowledge of Japanese culture and antiques, and is known for his active involvement in their dissemination and preservation. His principal works include Shirasu Jiro no Seishun (Jiro Shirasu's Youth) (Gentosha), in which he retraces the route of Jiro Shirasu's European travels, as well as Shirasu Masako no Okurimono (The Gift of Masako Shirasu) (Sekaibunka-sha) and Kobayashi Hideo Bitodeau Tabi (Kobayashi Hideo: A Journey to Discover Beauty (Shinchosha).

This is a revised version of an article that appeared in Flying B No 001 (2008). The information provided here was accurate at the time of publication.