Takafumi Horie is one of the most famous men in Japan. He amassed a substantial fortune by his early thirties by starting a company called Livedoor and becoming a pioneer in the late-starting business of hostile takeovers in Japan. He will soon go to prison for a crime that, most observers agree, would not normally send a first offender to prison. His real crimes, most agree, were that he offended the Establishment and did not apologize at his trial.
Not that he did not commit a real crime, of course; he was accused of providing false information about his company’s finances to increase its prospects and stock price, which most agree he did. (He maintains subordinates carried out any illegalities.) Most also agree that such actions are taken, by many Japanese companies, in a way that does not come to the attention of the authorities. Some say this is because Horie stretched the boundaries of what is unofficially allowed, and some feel Horie was singled out because he had antagonized the Japanese business establishment.
Japan is a country that values many characteristics Americans would consider old-fashioned: Tradition, modesty, formality, consensus, doing things the right way, respecting one’s seniors, and setting aside one’s interests in favor of those of the group. Horie not only did not follow these values, he flaunted his disregard for them. He launched hostile takeovers in a country where that was simply not done. He wore T-shirts to meetings with the biggest wheels of Japan, Inc., which many felt was a sign of deliberate disrespect. He boasted that he would become the richest man in Japan, and famously said he could buy anything with money.
Japan is the ultimate ‘go along to get along’ country. Little is more important than keeping good relationships – with relatives, schoolmates, co-workers, and even competitors. High-level businessmen make and keep friendships with government officials. One has no problem imagining business and government leaders drinking together in an expensive restaurant, commiserating over how terrible Horie is for Japan. What can be done, one asks? Well, I heard through the grapevine…
Another thing that is very important in Japan is the apology. Japanese routinely apologize for things that are not their fault; it’s considered polite. Apologies are part of the fabric of society; they keep things harmonious. The apology need not be sincere, of course. One must at least give the general appearance of sincerity, but what is in one’s heart is not considered important. What’s important is that by apologizing, the person has indicated their submission to the greater society, the humbling of one’s own ego. Society can then generously forgive the person, conditional on the offender’s future good behavior.
Schoolchildren who break school rules are expected to write what could be called an apology form. Businessmen whose companies go bankrupt apologize for causing distress to their employees and stockholders. Executives who get caught cooking the books make convincing apologies during their trials. It’s common for first offenders of non-violent crimes to confess, apologize in court, and receive suspended sentences. It’s not unlike a plea bargain in the U.S., except there’s a trial.
Horie, unsurprisingly, did not confess and did not apologize. No doubt he knew he would go to prison as a result, but he has never gone along to get along. Some Japanese see it as standing on principle, while others see it as an ego out of control, thumbing its nose at society. The average age of the former group is much lower than that of the latter. Japanese society is changing, most agree, just very slowly. Horie is a harbinger of that change, but he moved too far too fast, and society has slapped him down.
The Horie case shows that Japanese society will overlook or forgive certain types of crime or misbehavior, but only if one is a club member in good standing. In Japan there is a saying – “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Horie stuck way out, and has been hammered down hard. His prison sentence is two and a half years, and he will likely be back – unrepentant, no doubt, but more careful.