Persona non grata
There are people in a society who are chosen by the circumstances of their day to be symbols of a generation. Takafumi Horie, former president of the communications firm Livedoor Co., was just such a person. He was elevated to a great height, but was swiftly brought down, an icon conspicuously yanked off the wall.
The media created him as a symbol, giving him the sobriquet Horiemon; and it is the very same media that has denounced him. Now before his trial, Horie is dead in the water, and the media are having a field day with his remains.
The most cutting reportage has come from the arch-conservative Sankei Shimbun, part of the very media conglomerate, the Fuji Sankei Group, that Horie had his Google-like eyes on.
“Let’s Bring an End to the School of Horie,” announced a Sankei Shimbun editorial title on Jan. 24, 2006. The editorial went on, “The curtain has come down — and not a moment too soon — on the darling of the day.”
Oh, I love this phrase, “darling of the day” (jidai no chouji)! It says it all. The media had adored this golden boy. Hardly an article went by without a mention of his spiky hair and T-shirt. No television coverage of him seemed complete without alluding to his super-trendy Roppongi Hills lifestyle. And it wasn’t only the media. Politicians, too, wanted to be associated with his flashy image.
The likes of former prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa and former finance minister, Masajuro Shiokawa sang his praises as a prototype of the business leader of the future.
Horie was also adopted by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as one of his electoral “children” in September 2005. He was presumably to have had a cameo role in the “Koizumi Playhouse” of 2006.
Chief cabinet secretary, Tsutomu Takebe said of him: “Horie’s a great guy. You feel with him that there are many unlimited possibilities spreading out all over. If only I were young again. God, I envy him.”
Now no one envies him and absolutely no one wants to know him. Whether guilty of any crime or not, Horie, just months ago “the darling of the day,” is a pariah.
His undisguised acquisitiveness both public and private, which the general public and the media in Japan never condemned in his brief heyday, is now portrayed as a symbol of the vacuous values of the younger generation.
This is the true tragedy of the Horie phenomenon. He and others like him seemed to be redefining an alternative ethos for Japanese business. Now that ethos is being shown up as a mask for greed. The upshot is that Japanese society is left without a new model for entry into a career streamlined toward success. You’re damned to drudgery if you do join the rat race, and damned to insecurity if you don’t. So what else is new in Japan?
The warning signs are up in the media for all to see: push yourself ahead, yes; but never flaunt your wealth.
There have been three eras in the history of modern Japan in which opportunity of an inordinately seductive type has presented itself to the country’s young. During these three eras, young people were given the chance to jump the career queue and establish themselves as the new entrepreneurial orthodoxy.
The first was in the Meiji era (1868-1912). The collapse of the corrupt feudalistic order of the late Edo period and the sudden introduction of scientific and technological innovations from Europe and the United States was a boon to young entrepreneurs.
The economic development of Japan has always been geographically uneven; and naturally it was port cities, particularly those in the Kanto and Kansai regions, that rose to the challenges of development in Meiji Japan.
It was here that, by and large, the great financial empires of the 20th century were conceived and established.
The second era that offered a new role model of the young entrepreneur came in the years after the defeat of Japan in 1945.
The ethical foundations of Japanese society had been smashed. Reconstruction of the nation, both physical and moral, was put in the hands of a generation of democratically oriented planners. Many of the new heroes
of manufacturing and management were self-made men like Konosuke Matsushita, founder of National Panasonic, Soichiro Honda, of the Honda Motor Co. and Akio Morita, co-founder of Sony.
The years since the collapse of the Bubble in the early 1990s (1992 is generally given as “the year the air puffed out”) have been dubbed “The Lost Decade.” It is precisely this decade — which, almost to the year, saw the deaths of the three giant business figures mentioned above — that became the third great era of opportunity; and the Heisei Model was born. This model allowed for the use of venture capital for the establishment of vibrant new companies that exploited new technologies and fasttrack management practices. If it had happened in America with AOL, Google and similar companies, why couldn’t it happen in Japan as well?
The death of Emperor Showa in 1989, the bursting of the Bubble, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of January 1995 and the sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway a couple of months later were all landmark events in their own way. Japan was shaken.
Japanese were psychologically ready for change. Young innovative entrepreneurs in the rest of the developed world, particularly the United States, were making fortunes, some in a matter of months, from hi-tech developments.
It was time for Japanese, too, to bypass the large corporations, with their unwieldy management culture and seniority-based chains of command. In addition, established companies were abandoning their promise of lifelong employment. The watchword of the decade — and into this century — became insecurity. Japanese people were, for the first time since the immediate postwar period, fearful for their future. People started spending much less and saving much more.
And these nest eggs were not only pecuniary; there was, and still is, little nest egging going on in the conjugal bed. Year upon year the birthrate in Japan has fallen. It certainly looks like Japan in the 21st century is a dwindling country of all Dinks and few winks.
Along came young entrepreneurs like Horie. He established his first internet venture, On the Edge, while a student at Tokyo University. (He subsequently dropped out of the university. It is the ultimate luxury to get into Todai and then shun the place.) He founded Livedoor in 1997. There was hope that you could get ahead in Japan with a good idea and a little help from your friends. The public, young and old, cheered him on.
Japanese people are generally secret admirers of people who break through social and economic barriers. They stood by and watched Horie’s attempted takeover of the Fuji Sankei Group with a sympathetic curiosity.
As in the Meiji era and the post-WWII years, a great deal changed for young people in our Heisei era, from employment
goals to fashion and the way they spoke Japanese. Horie’s confident and easygoing presence alone seemed to be demonstrating that the ashen-face, mouse-gray executive suit and slicked back hair was not the only power look in town. Horie was doing “Cool Biz” before the prime minister cottoned on to it. He coined a catchphrase, souteinai and souteigai, or “I presumed that…” and “I did not presume that….” He was a role model par excellence for anyone intent on challenging, ignoring or snubbing the status quo.
What do these three eras — Meiji, the postwar years, and the last 10-odd years — have in common in terms of the societies that they nurtured? They represent what is no less than a rewriting of the social contract in Japan. Roughly every 50 years since 1900 Japan has turned its social contract around, opening up not just windows but gaping French doors of opportunity for young people to enter and act upon their ideas. All three eras have come into being thanks to a failure or collapse of the previous social order.
And yet, in a sense, this third one, which we are now in, may be the one which fosters the least success and social progress. If that does, indeed, come about and the young are left out in the cold of Japan’s traditional corporate culture, then Japan will be left behind, not only by the western countries that it once emulated and challenged, but also by the eastern countries that are now beating it at its very own old game.
Horie, 33, was, according to his nickname in Livedoor, the company “mascot.” The financial whizzes that forged the company’s number-busting successes were the three other men, all 38, arrested along with him. If Horie represented the Brylcreem in Livedoor, finance boss Ryoji Miyauchi provided the brains below it.
Horie, Miyauchi, Fumito Okamoto, thenpresident of Livedoor Marketing Co., and Osanari Nakamura, then-president of Livedoor Finance Co., have been charged variously with violations of the Securities and Exchange Law, such as inflating the value of the company through stock swaps, stock splitting and insider trading.
They and their methods have been totally discredited in the public eye.
This all presents the question: Was Livedoor just a hi-tech front for a finance company? If so, the only role model that Horie represents to young people in Japan today is the role of unbridled greed, without ideals, without goals that benefit society at large, without the hope of creating a truly effective challenge to the staunch, smug elite old guard of Japanese business. His Cool Biz will be turned into No Biz at all.
During the Meiji era, and after World War II, Japan had a firm sense of direction and a belief that the individual can make a difference in improving the welfare of all Japanese.
Those individuals were as ambitious and, in many cases, as money-motivated as Horie. But they either possessed or led the public to believe that they possessed an overriding social aim: that personal aggrandizement would lead to the betterment of the entire Japanese society.
An era of great opportunity came upon us again in the Heisei era, with the nation at sea for the first time in half a century. Horie became the new captain of industriousness, thanks to both his own flamboyant and stylish presence and to a media campaign that embellished it. The same media has now mercilessly denounced him as “the darling of the day.” From darling to demon in a matter of days.
Did his ostensible greed have a social objective behind it? Would we all have been better off thanks to his efforts? Now we will never know.
Horie is out of the picture, framed by the media: the non-person of the Lost Decade. And thanks in good part to this, the Lost Decade has now produced a Lost Generation.
Where does this leave the rest of us in Japan? What direction should our society take now? There is no visible affirmation of goals for the general welfare in Japan; there is little hope for young Japanese to buck the system and create a new one of their own.
Japan is conspicuously inert.
Horie has become a new symbol, one of the powers of the media to make and break icons. But, no worries, they will surely find us a new “darling of the day,” and all of the above will be forgotten.