[Viewpoint] Learning wisdom from Japan

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[Viewpoint] Learning wisdom from Japan

When I was a Tokyo correspondent in the mid-1990s, I met a guy during a visit to Toyota Motor’s Tsutsumi plant. He boarded a shuttle bus running inside the complex and explained the operation of the plant in detail.

He was the deputy head of the public relations department. A PR manager sitting next me later at the dinner table whispered to me, “He is Akio, the great-grandson of the founder.”

Today, Akio Toyoda is the president and CEO of Toyota.

A graduate of the prestigious Keio University, he joined the family business through the regular recruiting process, taking the same exam and interview as fellow college graduates. And he was promoted along with his colleagues.

The PR manager next to me said, “The plant guide position may be the first special treatment offered to him. Being a plant guide, he gets to meet every employee at Toyota in a year or two. Every employee must make a pilgrimage to the Tsutsumi plant, the cradle of the Toyota spirit.”

When Akio was promoted to be a director in 1999, then-President Hiroshi Okuda warned, “I am giving you a chance to become an executive because you are a member of the Toyoda family. From now on, it is up to your ability and talent. After all, blood gets diluted with time.”

Exceeding expectations, every two years Akio was promoted, first to managing director, then to senior director, then to vice president. Because he oversaw domestic sales as well as overseas production and marketing, he was ready to take over the automobile empire.

Ironically, what made him a successful executive and manager was the 16 years of experience as a regular employee.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that he stood in front of his late grandfather’s portrait and said, “I have not yet done anything for the group, aside from taking a bow before you.”

Soichiro Honda, the founder of the Honda Motor, was known to be extremely harsh to his children. He made sure none of his children become involved in the business. Hirotoshi, the eldest son, was a skilled technician and founded by himself Mugen, a race car engine and parts manufacturer.

He had trusted his finance team, but he was arrested for tax evasion in 2003. Around that time, a statue of Soichiro was erected, marking the 10th anniversary of his death, but his wife lamented that he had not been a good father for failing to protect the son.

Lately, offensives against conglomerates in Korea are crossing the line. The magnitude is more serious than the chronic ailment that comes every five years, before the presidential election.

Government authorities are aiming at sensitive spots such as irregular gifts and inheritance.

As the polarization of our society is becoming aggravated, people are looking at the conglomerates with jealousy and contempt. Nevertheless, the beating on the conglomerates should not be lightly considered as a political gesture before the election. The corporations need to reflect on themselves and contemplate whether they have failed to understand the expectations of Korean society.

Both Toyota and Honda are named after the founders’ last names. In Korea, not even private companies bear the name of the founders. The Toyoda family’s share of Toyota stocks is about 2 percent. But Toyota Motor has become a world-leading automobile maker because family members and professional executives alternated in the top spot.

Akio’s accession to the post of president was smooth. Unlike Korea, conglomerates are hardly censured in Japan, even when it is struggling with serious polarization, including the lost decade. In Japan, company owners inherit “authority” rather than stakes.

Inheriting the management rights among the family is likely to become harder in Korea.

In a short while, the stake that the owner’s family has in the company will become smaller - in the single digits, just like with the Toyoda family.

It may be far from the reality, but television dramas often feature young second and third generation members of the founding family working as a director or a section chief at the company. Their lives are getting more and more distant from the expectations of society.

At this rate, beating on the conglomerates will only become harsher. We have more to learn from Japanese companies than manufacturing strategies.

Korean companies need to learn wisdom to keep up with the expectation of society and be loved by the citizens.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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