Banking worlds collide in Japan

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The Independent Online
WHEN Mitsubishi Bank and the Bank of Tokyo (BoT) announced their plan to merge into a Japanese Y73 trillion (£520bn) megabank last week, no one seemed to have a bad word to say. The beaming presidents, respectively Tsuneo Wakai and Tasuku Takagaki, appeared side by side at a press conference, talking about orderless economies and surfing the waves of financial change. The chairman of the Keidanren economic federation predicted a new era of financial stability and revitalisation. And everyone else in the business world breathed a sigh of relief after a fortnight of gas attacks, mad gurus and credit scandals.

But at BoT, the smiles were closer to winces. "People here are very, very confused," said one employee. "Mitsubishi is a great bank but it's much more domestic than BoT, more Japanese in its ways. We're small compared to them, and there's no question about it: BoT will disappear."

Only a Japanese could describe BoT as small - measured by assets it is the 18th largest in the world. But the remark raises interesting questions about the nature of the new bank.

As one of the country's leading commercial banks, Mitsubishi sits at the heart of the gargantuan Mitsubishi keiretsu, a vast industrial grouping encompassing trading houses, insurance companies, heavy industry and electrical manufacturers. BoT specialises in international financing, managing much of the foreign currency holdings of Japan's Ministry of Finance, and handling the government's foreign aid contributions. But the very differences that make the merger such a neat fit have also produced two quite distinct corporate cultures.

In some ways the partners appear to have much in common. Both were founded in 1880 during Japan's Meiji period, when a militarised industrial power was built on the remains of a feudal rice economy in the space of 40 years. Both had grand and powerful connections - Mitsubishi with its own keiretsu, BoT with the imperial family, who were its part-owners. While Mitsubishi consolidated power at home, BoT served as an instrument of Japan's international expansion, underwriting the country's first foreign bond issue in 1911.

BoT is a fast-moving and outward-looking international outfit, but Mitsubishi is a proud Japanese institution: solid, conservative, even a little staid. "During the 1980s Mitsubishi was very cautious," says Mark Faulkner, financial sector analyst at S G Warburg in Tokyo. "To its credit, it didn't get burned. Now it is calling that wisdom, but at the time it looked a lot like slowness, failure to get into aggressive business. BoT employees tend to be more experienced overseas in places where business doesn't just fall their way."

Mitsubishi is the bank your mother would want you to join; BoT is the one to impress the girls.

A willingness to tolerate cultural differences will probably prevent open warfare in the new Tokyo Mitsubishi Bank: head-on clashes and corporate blood-letting have never been the Japanese style. "BoT people aren't going to fight this," says an employee. "But it's a melancholy time; almost like losing your family."

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