Japan’s corporate hero

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Back in the 1980s, before Japan’s “Lost Decade” of stagnant growth, management gurus lined up to praise the country’s collective spirit as the basis of a sustainable economic miracle.

Since then, of course, the West has been consistently espoused as the best.

And even the Japanese wish they could break free of their consensus shackles, according to this week’s issue of The Economist — hence, the huge popularity of management hero Kosaku Shima of conglomerate Hatsubishi Goya Holdings.

He thinks outside the box, acts decisely, is not scared of telling people what he thinks and has been successful even though he has always sat outside political factions within his company.

And in June, Shima (see picture above) truly broke the mould when he was promoted to shacho (president) of his company at the tender age of just 60 – very young by Japanese standards.

There is one slight problem: he is a manga or cartoon character.

“Shima is influential – business people want to be like him but can’t,” says Yuko Kawamoto, management professor at Waseda Uniiversity in Tokyo.

“Maybe there is hope for Japanese society. We want to change, but do not have the courage.”

The grim reality for the average salaryman, according to The Economist, remains a life of drudgery and of stifled opinions because of the dreaded fear of causing a superior to lose face. As a result, bad decisions go unchallenged and become ingrained policy.

Japan’s chemical companies have often broken the mould through innovative technologies – and were talkiing about and acting on energy efficiency long before the current oil and environmental crises.

Sumitomo Chemical is also about to start-up a huge petrochemical complex in Saudi Arabia – along with Saudi Aramco – and is talking about a major second wave of investment at the same site. This also involves breaking the mould as it’s the first occasion that a Japanese chemicals company has invested on its own in a big overseas cracker project.

But the perception remains, fair or otherwise, that the chemicals industry could and should have undergone more restructuring.

Fair or unfair?

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