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Sunday, Jan. 14, 2001

WEEKEND WISDOM

Writer bucks corporate norm


Staff writer

Writer Hamao Yokota seems to enjoy portraying an eccentric image.

The front door of his house in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward has a pair of checkered trunks nailed above it with "Welcome" painted on them. Also posted is a sign saying, "Beware -- anaconda kept here."

In his cluttered living room, he plays jazz piano with a sushi delivery menu on the stand instead of a music sheet. "(The menu) helps with the improvisation," the 42-year-old says with a grin.

But behind the surface of a bizarre lifestyle is a man whose quest for happiness has led him to rebel against and mock the idiosyncrasies of the major bank he worked for. The effort in turn seems to have helped him find his true element.

Yokota, which is his pen name, made headlines in January 1992 when he published an expose on the bank he was working for while still employed there. He has since published over 20 sequels.

His cool, cynical observations of life in what was then one of the most venerated of Japan's "establishments" have captivated readers, with the series selling 2 million copies so far.

After the embarrassing episodes came to light, the bank put him on "the ultimate demotion path," Yokota says, placing him in a section where his daily routine included delivering cash to race tracks.

He quit in May 1993, 12 years after he started working there and 16 months after his first expose was published.

Although his career path vanished, so have those of many other bankers who stuck around. Unlike Yokota, their futures have gone down in tandem with the reputations of the institutions they worked for.

Japan's banking industry has seen a turn for the worse since Yokota began penning his books. Following the burst of the asset-inflated bubble economy, banks have seen bad loans snowball and scandals come to light. The collapse of major financial firms has caused public confidence in the financial system to spiral further down the drain.

"When I quit, everyone said I was wasting years of hard work," he says. "There was a common understanding that, if you put up with hardship and manage to stay (at a bank) until you are 40 years old, you would get paid 20 million yen a year. But these days, the people who scorned me then say I left at the right time."

In the past, bankers in Japan were virtually guaranteed a golden future as long as they complied with whatever unreasonable demands the head office made, according to Yokota.

"Banks have long delayed reform while firms in other industries have abandoned traditional corporate virtues such as group conformity and loyalty to their employer," he says. "But many people at banks remain obsessed with how they can stay on until retirement."

News of recent industry realignment moves has also left Yokota skeptical. He dismisses the possibility that any of the Big Four banking groups to be formed in Japan will emerge as a global player.

"Now all of these banking groups have become too big to fail," he says. "I personally don't feel like using banks except for remittances and housing loans."

Yokota, however, says he is hopeful that attempts by nonfinanciers such as electronics giant Sony Corp. and supermarket chain operator Ito-Yokado Co. to enter the banking sphere will breathe new life into the long-stifled industry.

"They know what their strengths are and will try to focus on those areas," he predicts. "Besides, it personally excites me to see change. I would rather see more people (in Japan) opt for change, regardless of the outcome."

Yokota compares banks to zoos.

"Animals that have grown up in zoos fear leaving their cages," he says. "I was like that, too. But once out, you realize how free you are and how happy you are to be free from assignments you are not good at. It makes you think harder about who you are and what your life work is."

For him, he says, it is writing.

"Even though my income might have decreased, that's what I really enjoy doing."



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