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Sunday, Jan. 29, 2006

COUNTERPOINT

With Horie's downfall, who can young Japan look up to?


Special to The Japan Times

The media has had a field day with Takafumi Horie, the 33-year-old founder of the communications firm Livedoor.

In the days leading up to his arrest last Monday, news reports appeared about him being under suspicion for allegedly illegal business dealings. The television stations featured footage of him cavorting about Tokyo's glitzy Roppongi district in his red Ferrari and speaking to company employees about plans to conquer the world's markets. We learned that he had a private jet, a lavish and sexy lifestyle and money to burn. Every Japanese newspaper article I read about his movements around Tokyo began with a description of what he was wearing -- T-shirt, jeans and sweater. The media's own message was clear: "It's fine to make yourself a conspicuous exception to the rule; but you had better make sure you are continually successful. In Japan, if you fall, you will be trampled on."

And Horie, whose guilt has not yet been proved in a court of law, has certainly been trampled on.

He has been, in recent years, not so much of a tycoon as a young people's idol. His back-door assault on the Japanese business establishment was brilliantly conceived, from his first hi-tech venture, On the Edge, which he set up while a student at Tokyo University, to his money-spinning Internet strategies at Livedoor.

In Japan, as everywhere, most people have neither the brash courage nor the fiendish perseverance to challenge the business establishment. But many people in this country secretly admire those who do. Horie was a role model for young people entering the workforce and those in older generations who wished they themselves had not opted for a life dedicated to the drab duties of the "salaryman."

Genuine alternative

For a time it looked like there was a genuine alternative to the tight-lipped, ashen-face, arch-conservative executive. It had been those very same men, dismissively confident in their no-nonsense airs, who had given us recession, deflation, and a decade and a half of social malaise.

Horie was a breath of fresh air, Ferrari or no Ferrari.

Before his arrest, in the media at least, his flaunting of wealth was presented not as arrogance, but as flamboyance; his disarming, informal personal style was not impudence, but charm. Since his arrest, these very characteristics have taken on the shady tones of pre-trial ostracism and condemnation. The media have turned on him without conceding their own role in his social aggrandizement.

But what a difference a decade makes.

Livedoor was founded in 1997. The years between 1989 and 1999 saw the death of three giant figures in the world of business. Those three men were role models for postwar generations.

Konosuke Matsushita, known in Japan as the "god of management," was the founder of National Panasonic. He began his career wiring equipment at Osaka Electric Light Co., and himself later designed and manufactured sockets and lamps. He died in 1989.

Soichiro Honda, of the Honda Motor Co., as a boy worked in his father's bicycle repair shop and later apprenticed as a car mechanic. Eventually he designed and created among other things what was arguably the world's best motorcycle, and certainly the best-selling ever to this day, in the shape of the small-engined step-through. He died in 1991.

Akio Morita, a physicist by training, co-founded the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corp. after the war. They went on to make magnetic tape and tape recorders, subsequently renaming the company Sony. He died in 1999.

These three men were not content to "join the ranks of a first-rate company" and work their way up the ladder until their seniority rewarded them with power. They were hands-on, creative, imaginative entrepreneurs, whose chance came essentially in the immediate postwar years. Social disarray, moral collapse, economic disorder . . . it is in times like these that opportunities for bounding success outside the system arise. The first decades of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) were similar. When one social order -- in that case the decrepit feudalism of the late Edo Period -- proves to be dysfunctional, society awaits the emergence of a model that will signal renewal.

New style of communicating

Horie, among others of his ilk, had come on the scene at just such a time. The "lost decade" of the 1990s, stretching well into the new century -- combined with the exciting new technologies and the synergies they created with other businesses -- provided the chance to supercede large established enterprises stuck in the mud of old management and marketing practices.

Horie can only be commended for taking advantage of what his times were offering. Even his words were coming to symbolize a new style of communicating. He used the expressions soteigai and soteinai. Soteigai may be translated as "I didn't presume . . . " and soteinai as "I presumed . . . " He was wont to characterize his opinion with "I didn't presume this" or "I presumed that." This "presume" took off, and all sorts of people in Japan were "presuming" this or that.

But let's return to him as a role model.

One image of Horie is pre-arrest: a dashing man-about-town with a multi-billion-dollar hi-tech empire and an inordinate love of luxury. Another is post-arrest: a discredited, disreputable, puffed-up wheeler-dealer. In the end, he is, by media default, both. His company, in the meantime, is in tatters. But the loss to Japanese society is measured not only in decimated stock prices.

This country once had people in business to look up to, such as the likes of Matsushita, Honda and Morita. That era is gone. No one in the future is likely to start as a bicycle repairer or car mechanic and establish a world-class financial empire.

Horie's example is no longer a beacon in the darkness of the lost decade. The tragedy for this society is that there appears to be no light on the horizon either to indicate which direction to follow.



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