Out of Japan: Public business is kept private

TOKYO - I went to watch a Japanese company's shareholders' meeting last week and found myself inadvertently becoming a bit player in a theatre of the absurd. It was a bizarre experience.

The meeting, of the recently privatised railway company, JR East, was expected to be one of the stormiest of the 2,008 listed companies holding their meetings, not altogether coincidentally, on the same day last week. A special breed of gangsters, known as sokaiya, were expected to turn up to disrupt the meeting, serious questions had been raised about management policies and the railway union was protesting about compulsory redundancies.

Sokaiya are a colourful breed of rogues, sometimes violent but mostly just an irritation, who extort money from companies by threatening to disrupt shareholders' meetings if they are not paid off. Typically they wear cheap suits, loud ties and frizzy hairstyles common to most of Japan's organised criminals.

They were spawned by the corporations they now prey on: after the war, when the old monopolistic zaibatsu conglomerates were rehabilitated by the US occupiers, a problem arose with the imported Western notion of a company's responsibility to shareholders. The solution was straightforward: employ thugs to shout down, and if necessary threaten with physical violence, any shareholder who wanted to complain.

Today, companies are banned from using sokaiya, so the out-of- work hoods bite the hand that fed them: instead of intimidating troublesome shareholders, they have bought small shareholdings and intimidate the company. Billions of yen every year are paid by companies to sokaiya to shut them up. Shareholders' meetings are held on the same day to spread the sokaiya as thinly as possible.

JR East was only recently privatised and last week was its first shareholders' meeting. A magazine, the Shukan Bunshun, had published a long expose in advance. The sokaiya were going to capitalise on union-management friction.

Determined to present a good image, JR East hired a large hall in the New Otani Hotel in Tokyo and had it sealed off with a small army of security guards one day in advance. A staged shareholders' meeting, using management and some actors as the audience, was held on the eve of the meeting.

On the day, hundreds of policemen surrounded the hotel, checking all the access roads. Helicopters hovered overhead. The meeting was to start at 10am but at 6am 400 shareholders were spirited into the hotel, where they occupied the first six rows. There were no aisles between the chairs, so the brave 400, who turned out to be JR East employees, were in effect a human shield for the executives in front.

As the main body of shareholders' arrived the press was siphoned off and directed to a media room 16 floors above the hall. In the media hall were video screens, which were to show the meeting - without any sound.

Punctually at 10am the meeting started and on the screens in the media room the company's chairman was seen mouthing a speech. The cameras were focused on the podium only and did not show any of the audience. Other directors appeared, mouthing incomprehensible speeches. After a while it dawned on some television cameramen that they were watching a recording of the rehearsal the day before. Everything was going too smoothly.

Downstairs the security men were still keeping journalists away, but posing as a foreign guest in the hotel one could inch a little closer to the main hall, close enough to hear that the meeting was bedlam.

Furious denunciations of the management by union members were being accompanied by heckling from sokaiya, while the human wave at the front of the meeting tried to drown out complaints with repeated applause and cheering for the board.

Upstairs, the PR men were briefing reporters on how smoothly the meeting was going, and that as far as they knew no sokaiya had turned up. And the Japanese media, which must have realised it was being used, accepted what it was offered. It was a remarkable exercise of Japanese kabuki, the make-believe theatre with formalised plots and highly choreographed reactions. In the newspapers the next day were the headlines: 'Shareholders' meetings pass off quietly.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line IT Engineer

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Co...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent