Trials Spotlight Japanese Business Values ; the Enron-Like Trials of Two High-Roller Executives Signal Disdain for the 'Americanization' of Business

Article excerpt

It's a Japanese identity thing, a quirky legal drama, and a generational standoff - with a touch of Wall Street-bashing.

The stars, or fallen stars, are two young Tokyo risk-takers once lauded as icons of entrepreneurial brio - but whose flip attitudes and behavior, not to mention alleged law breaking, are branding them as examples of what's amiss with the national spirit.

The separate arrests and ongoing prosecutions of Takafumi Horie and Yoshiaki Murakami took place with great speed. Less than a year ago, both men were flying high - admired, quoted, and sought out by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Last Friday, Mr. Murakami pleaded not guilty to charges that he engaged in insider trading in a case that, last summer, nearly toppled the respected governor of the Bank of Tokyo, Toshihiko Fukui.

At a time when Japanese income gaps are steadily widening and wages have remained flat for five years despite an improving economy, the alleged white-collar criminals have captivated the Japanese media as symbols of fast-money flirtation and profit- mongering that breaks with the familiar old-boy network. Their ignominious behavior has also come to epitomize a perceived loss of traditional unity and public spirit in a society where even the wealthiest are expected to keep their heads down.

Mr. Horie, a cheeky dot-com baron who's tried to acquire baseball teams and TV channels, has been on trial for several months for lying about his Internet firm's earnings. Murakami, a Carl Ichan- like corporate raider, founded one of Japan's most successful investment funds. If convicted, they could face fines and jail time. Both plead innocence, though neither claims to be a choir boy of capitalism.

The twin cases revive slaps at what is widely seen as Japan's "Americanization" - translated as an attitude where making profits trumps the public good. Murakami is often given negative marks for his appreciation of the business style of New York financial house Goldman Sachs.

Observers on both the political left and right find some agreement on the public morality aspect: "Social cohesion is collapsing due to the lack of a public mind, and Horie and Murakami are symbolic of the entire approach of Japanese business society, which is all about money, money, money," says former finance minister Eisuke Sakakibara. "The prosecutors may have a priority ... that this trend should stop."

On the right, Masahiko Fujiwara, whose best-selling book, "Dignity of a Nation," focuses on restoring a samurai spirit in Japan, argues that, "Horie ... became a role model for youth, even a guru, despite the fact that he dropped out of Tokyo University.... He has no bushido spirit, no sense of values," he says, referring to Japan's traditional warrior code of conduct. "He's like an American, having the idea that everything can be bought with money. …