Q: What were the this year’s big New Year films on Japanese TV?
A: The Great Escape and Ghosn with the Wind.
Former Nissan supremo Carlos Ghosn’s dramatic escape from house arrest in Tokyo in December, ahead of his trial for financial irregularities, has produced plenty of jokes and divided pubic opinion in Japan. Some see Ghosn’s successful flight to Lebanon as damning proof of his guilt, while others still believe he deserves a measure of sympathy and support.
Whether Ghosn really was, as is being reported, smuggled out of his closely surveilled Roppongi residence in an instrument case after a private concert, in a scheme masterminded by his second wife Carole and facilitated by ‘paramilitary groups’, will no doubt become clear in time. All we do know is that his escape via a private jet was successful and he is currently living in Beirut. The latest sensational rumour is that he met Hollywood producer John Lesher in Tokyo last month to discuss a possible biopic. Was Ghosn told he needed a dramatic plot twist?
What is beyond doubt is that the escape is an embarrassment of immense proportions for the Japanese authorities, who have invested huge amounts of resources in the Ghosn case. Reportedly three separate agencies were keeping tabs on the disgraced Nissan executive prior to his escape. His phone calls were monitored, his internet access withheld, and he was not allowed to speak to his wife over Christmas. Even more embarrassingly for Japanese police, Ghosn already had a history of staging elaborate deceptions – he attempted to evade the press when leaving court in March by disguising himself as a construction worker.
Ghosn’s dramatic moonlight flit marks the bitter end of his Japanese adventure, which began when he first joined Nissan as COO in 1999. At the time, given the seemingly impossible mission of turning round a failing company with debts of more than 20 billion dollars, Ghosn worked a financial miracle by trampling on the traditional Japanese culture of corporate etiquette (he made English the company’s official language) and cutting jobs with a brutality that appalled as many as it impressed.
To those on the outside, Ghosn was a popular businessman and acquired a guru-like status. He was given the nickname ‘seven-eleven’ for his tireless work ethic, he stood out in the bland corporate landscape, and became something of a Japanese celebrity. He came seventh in a poll asking who was most worthy to be PM, ahead of the incumbent Shinzo Abe, and was even immortalised in a series of manga comics as a sort of business super-hero.
Traditionalists, and those on the receiving end of his deep cuts were less impressed. Rumours of his enormous salary, and his legendary meanness also went down badly in a corporate culture where bosses are traditionally paid only marginally more than their subordinates, and are expected to live modestly and anonymously. In Japan, corporations are still seen as representatives of the nation, and career advancement is as much about responsibility as ambition or receiving perks. Maintaining a lavish personal lifestyle and having six homes – as Ghosn did – while being responsible for the slashing of 21,000 full-time jobs, is about as un-Japanese as you can get.
Ghosn’s comments about the Japanese legal system since his arrest have been similarly divisive. He has claimed that the Japanese justice system is ‘rigged’ and ‘guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant and basic human rights are denied’. This caused fury among his detractors, but he has support in some quarters. Like Ghosn, criminal suspects are frequently held in custody for long periods in Japan, until they are exhausted and confess to their crimes. The pejorative term hitojichi-shiho (hostage justice) is used to describe the practice, which the Japanese Bar Association is currently reviewing and has vowed to eradicate.
Then there is Japan’s notorious 99 per cent conviction rate, which Ghosn obliquely referenced in his comments. Undeniably, this is disturbingly high, though apologists argue it is partly explained by low prosecutorial budgets, which mean only the strongest cases make it to court. And whatever you think of the Japanese criminal justice system, it appears to work – at least in its deterrent function – the country has one of the lowest crime rates and safest streets in the world.
Along with his denunciation of the justice system Ghosn has cried conspiracy over his prosecution, claiming that the Japanese establishment were alarmed by his plans for greater integration of Renault and Nissan and the fear it would have seen the independence of the Japanese corporation dissolved within the bloodstream of the Renault super organism. Ghosn claimed that a coordinated high-level campaign was thus mounted to oust him and protect Nissan’s independence from the foreign threat.
Few here buy into that scenario, though. The general feeling is that, as with many visitors to Japan, Ghosn’s initial popularity and apparent success went to his head, he failed to understand the culture, (or ‘read the air’ as the Japanese put it), became overconfident and careless, and offended and alienated his hosts. Basically, one way or another, his fall was inevitable.