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.'