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Monday, Jan. 30, 2006

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

Alchemist or apprentice: a guide to Livedoor hype


Takafumi Horie, aka Horiemon, is in disgrace. He and other senior executives of Livedoor, the Internet company, have been arrested on suspicion of violating securities laws.

Everybody calls Mr. Horie an alchemist now. They have taken to doing so ever since allegations about his questionable business practices came to light. Alchemists generally fall into two categories. They are either frauds or fanatics.

So which one is Mr. Horie?

The alchemist as fraud is nowhere better depicted than in Ben Jonson's very appropriately entitled play "The Alchemist." The protagonists of this, one of Jonson's best known works, are all confidence tricksters of the first order. They are out to baffle and to swindle. They have no illusions, they have no ideals.

The alchemist as fanatic, however, is an altogether different kettle of fish. Here is the true believer. He is convinced he has the power to accomplish the impossible, and all kinds of other things besides. One such personage of great renown was Dr. John Dee, the 16th century scholar who was suspected of attempting to assassinate Queen Mary by means of sorcery. Readers who are interested might like to refer to the novel "The House of Doctor Dee" by the author Peter Ackroyd, who is himself quite an alchemist in his own linguistic way, although most certainly not of the fraudulent variety.

In practice, it is not always easy to tell the two kinds of alchemists apart. In all probability they cannot really tell themselves to which camp they actually belong.

One way to spot the difference is apparently by means of the Philosopher's Stone. Genuinely committed alchemists are supposed to searching constantly for the Philosopher's Stone. The stone is almighty. It can make people live forever. For its further properties, kindly refer to book one of the Harry Potter series.

So was Mr. Horie in pursuit of his very own Philosopher's Stone or was he just a cocksure swindler, pure and simple? One never really can know of course, but the way this whole saga is unfolding seems to suggest he may actually be neither one nor the other. The more I see his antics on screen, the more he reminds me of -- not an alchemist -- but the sorcerer's apprentice, who has no clue how to end the debacle he has begun.

In fact, all of the parties involved in this whole Livedoor affair seem to have been afflicted the sorcerer's apprentice syndrome. The private individual investors who stampeded en masse into the stock market with very little regard for the risks involved certainly look that way.

The same applies, actually even more so, to the Tokyo Stock Exchange and Japan's financial regulators. They were united in their avidity to lure small investors into the increasingly moribund Tokyo stock market. Having succeeded in so doing, the TSE and the authorities have discovered they do not have the means to keep the whole show under workable control.

The real worry about this whole situation is that a once bitten, twice shy mentality pulls the regulatory framework all the way back where we came from -- a place where alchemists of any kind were banned from setting foot in society.

Such a society is vulnerable. A truly robust society should be able to withstand all kinds of strangeness without becoming prey to such poison or sorcery. As for Mr. Horie, he should perhaps reflect on the words of Honore de Balzac, another master of linguistic wizardry, who once famously wrote: "Sudden riches are either the product of coincidence, or the result of legalized theft."

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University School of Management.


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