Collateral damage in Tokyo

Collateral damage in Tokyo

Ghosn’s arrest also threatens to derail Japan Inc.’s furtive attempts to diversify its boardrooms. Japanese companies long have been criticized as insular, hive-minded, old-boys clubs run by men, and almost exclusively Japanese men. But recently, in a nod to the need for more global perspective, some Japanese companies have risked dabbling with non-Japanese CEOs.

Ghosn pioneered the way by parachuting into Nissan in 1999 and saving it from bankruptcy.

Other high-profile foreigners have followed. Britain’s Howard Stringer, for one, was tapped to lead electronics and entertainment giant Sony Corp. And Frenchman Christophe Weber heads pharmaceutical giant Takeda. But the road is often bumpy.

In 2011, British-born Michael Woodford was famously ejected as the CEO of optical equipment maker Olympus Corp. after just two weeks at the helm. His crime? Exposing years of corruption meant to conceal more than $1 billion in losses and dubious financial transactions.

Ghosn has yet to be formally charged. But he is already being tried in the Japanese media.

Newspapers dutifully report that the embattled auto executive asserts his innocence to prosecutors. But they are quicker still to publish the steady drip of leaks about the allegations, thoroughly tarring Ghosn’s reputation and making any comeback here all but impossible.

“It feeds a narrative in Japan that foreigners have a short-term outlook and are only in it for the money,” said George Olcott, a guest professor at Tokyo’s Keio University who sits on the boards of many big Japanese companies. “I fear they will try even harder to justify not hiring a non-Japanese. That will slow down Japanese competitiveness in many ways.”

Succumbing to such stereotypes could backfire as Japanese automakers and suppliers scramble to expand their expertise in the next-generation technologies key to tomorrow’s cars. Japan suffers a critical shortage of technicians in such fields as software and artificial intelligence.

Tapping talent from such places as India, Ukraine and beyond is a must, Olcott said.

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