Thinking Japanese

Click to follow
In his latest book, Pacific Rift, Michael Lewis, author of the best-selling Liar's Poker, explores the gulf between Western and Japanese ways of doing business. One of his guides is Shuji Tomikawa, a Harvard-educated Japanese property dealer working for Mitsui in New York. In this excerpt, Lewis relates how he and Shuji met a party of Japanese businessmen at Kennedy airport for a tour of Manhattan, using a rather unusual map . . .

SEATED in the rear of the silver stretch limousine, Shuji pulled out his map of Manhattan. It wasn't one of those paper gas-station jobs you pick up when lost in the middle of nowhere, but a three-foot-high billboard made of some poisonous kind of plastic. In the course of his stay in New York, Shuji would eventually show the same map to perhaps a thousand visiting and equally ignorant Japanese, including his superiors at Mitsui. On the map he had highlighted in pink what he perceived to be the prime areas of Manhattan, and in blue what he felt were the next best. Everything else - perhaps 95 per cent of Manhattan - was left white and ignored. It should have been titled 'The Japanese View of New York'.

There was more than a little subjectivity involved in the colouring. The cluster of brownstones around Central Park West and 77th had been left white because they happened to contain Shuji's apartment. Shuji didn't want his superiors to think he lived too well. The badly used neighbourhood around Third Avenue and 79th, an honest blue, was coloured pink because it happened to contain Shuji's pet condominium project. Shuji just smiled when I asked if he ever considered the effect that these strokes of his pen might be having on Manhattan property values.

The map was a kind of Michelin guide for money. Japanese money travels like Japanese tourists: once the destination is agreed upon, it arrives in busloads. Honolulu, Los Angeles, and now New York have become the star sites for major Japanese real estate investments - the pink cities on the map of America. Shuji says the concentration occurs because Japanese people are not sophisticated, and that New York used to be the only city east of the Rocky Mountains where Japan Airlines flies. He isn't inclined to fight the myopia. 'Japanese only care about New York,' he says. 'Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis - people don't care about these cities. They are the same to me, except some of them have different weather.' Read that as 'They would all be white on the Japanese map of America.'

An economist would say that as prices in pink Manhattan rise, the returns will fall - as they have already - and that natural economic laws will redirect Japanese investment toward Indiana or some such place. Shuji isn't so sure.

'The opportunity might be better,' says Shuji, 'and it might be more profitable, but it would take 10 years for me to persuade Tokyo to build condominiums in Indiana.'

THE GROUP from Fukuoka acquired a second limousine for the ride into the city. As we pulled away from the airport and on to the highway, the limousine in which I rode filled with cigarette smoke, and the characters of the two men from Fukuoka began to emerge. One of them wore a black belt with 'NCAA' stencilled around it in white letters. He wanted more than anything to sleep, and his head bounced against the window-pane to the vibration of the potholes in the highway. The other was chubby and bossy: the senior administrator. He announced after a few minutes that he was unfazed by jet lag and that the tour of New York should proceed as soon as possible. This pronouncement was superfluous, since Shuji intended to run him and his fellow government inspectors into the ground. But it did contribute to the mood of urgency.

The Japanese stared out of the windows at America. Shuji pointed at the Manhattan skyline, then to a lone skyscraper recently erected in Queens by Citicorp. It rose from a cluster of ancient warehouses beside the highway as if it had been dropped carelessly by the giant that had created the city of towers in the distance. Shuji explained that Citicorp had just sold a majority stake in its flagship building on 53rd and Lexington to a subsidiary of Dai-Ichi Mutual Life Insurance. They were left with this oddly placed structure. The group from Fukuoka was incredulous. 'No Japanese company would ever sell its flagship like that,' explained Shuji.

A weaving pickup truck cut in front of our limousine; its driver honked and gave our Japanese driver the finger. Then, out of nowhere, a kid in a black Firebird roared past, swerved, and nearly sideswiped us. Every overpass, it seemed, was streaked with graffiti. If the Japanese guests were shocked by any of this, it didn't show. They giggled like schoolchildren and reached for the jar of hard candies on the bar. They were eager, they said, to see Trump Tower.

Having had six minutes to check into their rooms at the Plaza, the Fukuoka Endurance Players were back on the street. Shuji began the tour at Trump Tower; he would permit them about 10 minutes inside. Then five minutes in Tiffany's. Fifteen more in an apartment owned by a friend of Mitsui in Olympic Tower. Then swiftly by foot to Rockefeller Center, the AT&T Building, and finally, gloriously, to the Exxon Building - the flagship of Mitsui's overseas empire.

With Shuji in the lead, the group gathered momentum. At every corner, it seemed, he pointed up to some structure owned by the folks back home. The Paine Webber Building was owned by Nippon Life; the Tishman Building was owned by Sumitomo Real Estate; and the ITT Building by a maverick land assembler named Shuwa Corporation. And so on, until Shuji leaned over to me and said, 'At the end of this tour, they will tell me how their necks hurt; they always say how their necks hurt from looking up.'

At one point I asked the bossy Fukuoka administrator what he thought of the tight tour schedule. 'He said it doesn't matter, the tightness of the schedule,' said Shuji in translation, 'just the fact that he has seen everything; he wants to go home and tell people he has seen all these things.'

Truly, it is amazing the suffering these people are willing to endure for the sake of status. It was clear that the streets of New York caused the minds of our group members to fill with dread. No one wandered; no one strayed. As Shuji cut through the New York crowds, his right hand behind his back in the manner of the Duke of Kent inspecting ball-boys at Wimbledon, he sometimes lost the bossy administrator from Fukuoka. On these occasions the round man broke into a fast trot and once even ran through a red light. In four months in Tokyo, I had never seen a sober Japanese cross a street against the signal, although I'm told it has happened once or twice.

As the group zipped along, New Yorkers snickered at the funny little Japanese trying to snap pictures while on the run. Because Shuji had no interest in playing sheepdog to a group of intrepid wanderers, he used the Fukuokans' fear to keep them close. To discourage the portly administrator from lagging, he told the Fukuokans not to be bullied by the 'wine-bottle gangs'. The wine-bottle gangs are central to the Japanese mythology of New York. They supposedly bump into Japanese tourists, drop and break cheap bottles of wine, and scream for compensation. 'They ask for their dollars 50,' said Shuji, 'and the Japanese people give it to them]'

The victimisation of Japanese by New Yorkers turned out to be one of Shuji's favourite subjects. The wine-bottle gangs seemed tame next to the taxi drivers who, if their meters read dollars 37.50, made the gullible Japanese pay dollars 375. And the taxi drivers were puffballs compared to the real estate tycoons.

The way New York developers cheat Japanese investors is a recurring and engrossing subject among the Japanese. Around the end of 1987, when Japanese money began to flood New York, the developers discovered they could cut deals with these new investors that passed all of the financial risk and only part of the financial return to the Japanese. About this time, Mitsui first started looking at Manhattan properties. New York bankers and brokers began to appear with big brochures and promise Mitsui that if it only handed its cash over to some developer, it would earn a minimum of 14 per cent annual compounded return. The reality turned out to be not nearly so lucrative. 'They lied to us,' said Shuji, simply.

Then he pointed to a few of the bullets dodged by Mitsui - smaller disasters in and around Times Square: empty shells of buildings that started with Japanese money and ended in tears. No 1 Broadway Place, on the corner of 44th and Broadway, had been erected for a fee by New York developer Eichner Property Management, using money from the Japanese construction company Hazama. It was in default. Another three had been built for a fee by Zeckendorf Properties, using money from C Itoh and three Japanese real estate companies, Tobishima, Kumagai-Gumi, and Kohnoiki Gumi. When Zeckendorf began to falter, Tobishima was forced to buy 50 per cent of the company.

The point of these examples isn't that all New York real estate developers are sharks - though, as far as I know, that could be true. The point is that America presents its own unsystematic obstacles to the Japanese. They are designed to separate the rich new player, the Japanese, from his cash. And they do. Shuji can tell stories all day long about cost overruns on construction financed by Japanese money. 'If we wanted,' said Shuji, 'we could look at New York business practices as a kind of trade barrier.' Or as an American employee of Mitsui put it to me, 'For the Japanese, this place is a den of f***ing rattlesnakes.'

'Pacific Rift' by Michael Lewis is published by Hodder & Stoughton at pounds 9.99

(Photographs omitted)