Japan's dirty laundry hung out
By Christopher Johnson
TOKYO - In Japan's good old days (ie last year), badmouthing the boss was
something done behind the scenes, or not done at all.
In the past few weeks, mudslinging has gone public, with some of Japan's
biggest names smearing the reputations of even tycoons and prime ministers.
It's not only gaijin (foreigners) such as ousted Olympus president
Michael Woodford who are spilling the beans about the sumo wrestling behind the
scenes in corporate Japan.
Hidetoshi Kiyotake, ousted general manager of the Yomiuri Giants, the most
famous sports team in Japan, has been lambasting his former boss, Tsuneo
Watanabe, a media tycoon described by foreign writers as a "shogun" or "a cross
Rupert Murdoch and Richard Nixon".
Watanabe, 85, has mounted a public counter-attack, launching a million-dollar
defamation suit against Kiyotake, and saying a few choice words of his own
about former prime ministers including Junichiro Koizumi and Yukio Hatoyama.
Many cynics are questioning whether this release of pent-up frustration will
actually change anything in Japanese culture, which has long been touchy about
criticism. Much will depend on how courts in Japan deal with the Yomiuri libel
suit, and whether police investigators in Japan and abroad will expose any
criminal wrong doings about Olympus in coming weeks.
An investigative panel established by the firm, led by former Supreme Court
judge Tatsuo Kainaka, announced on Tuesday that it had indeed uncovered an
complex scheme to cover up $1.5 billion of investment losses that was devised
by a group of top executives. The probe is not authorized to pursue a criminal
Any arrests or convictions in these cases could add further public pressure on
the government to hold nuclear industry executives more culpable for the
catastrophic failure at the Fukushima reactors.
As is often the case in Japan, "gai-atsu" (outside pressure) has sparked
When Woodford, a Liverpool native, greeted a packed house of foreign and
Japanese press at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ), he tapped
the wooden podium and quipped "this is for my personal security". He then asked
"Can I say 'pissed off' in Japan?"
Though he doesn't speak Japanese, Woodford said he toiled for 30 years in
Olympus before becoming Japan's "only gaijin salaryman president".
He said Olympus wrongly acquired "three Mickey Mouse companies", sacked him for
blowing the whistle, and used "black propaganda" to discredit him. "They've
taken the company to its knees, not me. They wrecked the company by siphoning
off all this money on this nonsense," he said of the executives. "They were
slapping me - 'Know your place. We run the company, not you'."
He said his former boss, Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, could hire and fire whomever he
wanted. "I felt like a puppet."
He said another Olympus executive told him "get out this weekend" from his
Tokyo flat, and to "take a bus to the airport" instead of the company
limousine. Woodford said he shot back: "Are you a policeman? Are you going to
take them (mobile phones) off me?"
Woodford said he then rushed to the ice cream area in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park. "I
felt quite safe there."
Referring to the new president's first presser in Japan, he said that "if that
had happened anywhere but Japan, there would have been cabbages thrown at him".
While joking with most foreign and Japanese reporters, he also skewered
Japanese media for running "articles on Page 4 that looked like the Olympus
Public Relations department." He called one Japanese woman at the FCCJ "Mr
Kikukawa's favorite reporter."
He blamed Japan's "internal decline" on "mediocre managers", companies making
products "that people don't want to buy", and an internationally perceived
"drop of quality". "There's no creative destruction in Japan," he said, citing
two "unwritten rules" about Japan's system of cross-shareholdings: "You never
sell, and you never criticize."
He called Japan's recruiting system "a sausage machine" that emasculates new
graduates. "Japan needs people who are going to challenge and scrutinize," he
said. "I wouldn't run a company in a harmonious way. I'm shaking the tree. Some
monkeys, and a few gorillas, have fallen out."
He said the Olympus incident will discourage foreigners from seeking leadership
positions in Japan. "Do you think after my experience they will be queuing up?"
During the presser, Woodford asked journalists to put up their hands if they
thought he was right to go to the foreign media first, not the Japanese police.
"The fact that most people agreed with his decision not to go to the Japanese
authorities is an indictment of the whole system," Karen van Wolferen, author
of The Enigma of Japanese Power and 15 other books that have sold more
than a million copies in Japanese, said after the presser.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan and other foreign associations have
called for Japanese corporations to appoint more independent outside directors
and deal more openly with collusion and conflicts of interest.
But Yukio Edano, Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry, said that
other countries might be worse. "To say that Japan has no corporate governance
is going too far, way too far," Edano said. "Historically, looking at past
cases related to corporate governance, Japan is at least at the same level as
the US or even better, in term of effort and results."
While Kikukawa and others at Olympus have kept a low profile, former Olympus
president Toshiro Shimoyama told Gendai Business magazine that it was "a
mistake to bring a foreigner on as president".
The Economist, among others, had fun with this. "If every foreigner who didnít
understand Japanese culture were fired there would hardly be a gaijin businessman
left in the country."
Nobody, meanwhile, could accuse Kiyotake of not understanding Japanese culture.
A journalist and former section chief at the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest
daily with about 10 million readers, he ran to the press when his boss
allegedly threatened to run him out of the castle.
On November 11, Kiyotake, 61, publicly criticized Watanabe, 85, who owns
Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings, for "a serious violation of compliance" by allegedly
meddling in the company's baseball affairs. Watanabe denied the allegation, and
the Giants fired Kiyotake a week later for "inappropriate action".
Watanabe declared to reporters a few days later: "I have lined up 10 top-class
lawyers. Court affairs are what my side excels in. I have never lost a court
battle." The mainstream Japanese press also turned on Kiyotake, accusing him,
among other misdeeds, of hiring 10 foreign players.
Kiyotake said he chose to speak at the FCCJ to reach Japanese freelancers
normally outside the restrictive kisha-club system of staff reporters
with cozy ties to official sources. Speaking only moments after Woodford,
Kiyotake said he wanted to protect players and coaches from future bullying,
and he wanted "people in American sports teams to understand what's happening
"They are trying to create confusion by claiming it's a family squabble or a
mud-slinging match," Kiyotake said. "In the Yomiuri [newspaper], there are
people who can't speak out. If you were told by the most powerful person in the
organization, 'You are going to be destroyed', you would feel terror in your
Watanabe countered with a two-hour interview at Yomiuri's main competitor, the
Asahi Shimbun. "I am democratic," he said. "While there are some media that
have called me a dictator, I think that's interesting and it also sells."
He then allegedly called former Yomiuri owner Matsutaro Shoriki, known for
promoting nuclear energy in Japan, "a dictator". When Asahi asked if Yomiuri
could have an editorial policy differing from his opinion, he said point blank:
"That does not happen very often."
He confirmed that Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa asked
him in 2007 to pass on a message to then-prime minister Yasuo Fukuda to form a
grand coalition to break a political deadlock. "It would not be bad to have a
cabinet that could implement what is included in Yomiuri's editorial policy,"
he said. "If it is a cabinet that tries to implement policy according to the
editorial stance of the Asahi Shimbun, we would have to work to topple it."
According to the Asahi, he also accused the ruling DPJ of having "two very bad
prime ministers". He chastised former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama for
allegedly writing on his blog what Watanabe told him off the record. "I feel
that politicians have really sunk to low levels."
He said he liked younger politicians such as Shinjiro Koizumi, who "is not as
eccentric or haughty as his father [former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi]".
But he said current leader Yoshihiko Noda "might not be too bad". "I feel he is
close to about 80% of our editorial stance. He is honest and is eager to act."
At one point of the interview, according to Asahi, he declared, "Since I have
said so much about the Kiyotake incident, I won't say anything more. Silence is
golden, hah, hah, hah."
Tokyo-based freelance Christopher Johnson, www.globalite.posterous.com,
is author of Siamese Dreams and Kobe Blue.
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