Professor Ian Buruma at Bard College -and author of numerous books, including Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 and The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan, discussed in his latest op-ed to the NY Times the downfall of Nissan’s one and only Carlos Ghosn.
Carlos Ghosn, our very own French-Lebanese-Brazilian former CEO of the Nissan and Renault motor companies, has spent millions of dollars to avoid being tried in Japan for financial misconduct.
And after he was infamously smuggled out of the country to seek refuge in Lebanon, he has been at the center of multiple legal and financial debates – even ones which prompted Japan and the world to delve deeper into the Japanese legal system itself.
Mr. Ghosn justified his escape from Japanese justice by depicting himself as the victim of “bias.” He further insisted on multiple occasions that he had no other choice, as he claims the Japanese legal system is “rigged” and “unjust.”
He also insists that his Japanese colleagues at Nissan had “colluded with the prosecutors to oust him” because they were afraid that the French company Renault would swallow up its Japanese counterpart.
In his opinion article Carlos Ghosn Was Too Big Not to Fail in Japan, Buruma writes: “The Japanese justice system is flawed, to be sure, but the Ghosn saga stands for more than an illustration of its failings. The rare appointment of a foreign C.E.O. at the head of a venerable Japanese company had seemed like a sign that things were changing in Japan.”
“In fact, Mr. Ghosn was as much a victim of his own arrogance as of his failure to realize how little Japan had changed,” he said. “Japanese prosecutors place too much store in getting confessions.”
“Their power to jail someone for extended periods without charge increases the chance that confessions are neither voluntary nor accurate.”
On the Japanese legal system, he further elaborates: “The conviction rate hovers at 99%, too high not to be fishy, especially considering that convictions are often based on confessions.”
“Mr. Ghosn, who was used to being treated with exaggerated deference, was shocked to be locked up, interrogated for long hours, and deprived of contact with his family,” he points out.
Mr. Ghosn, as Buruma puts it, was a highly “unusual” CEO in Japan. Brought in to “save” Nissan from going bankrupt in 1999, he succeeded at making this happen beyond expectation and cemented himself as one of the most powerful and influential businessmen in the world.
Buruma claims throughout his opinion piece that Ghosn was treated differently and more severely for the mere fact that he is a foreigner who did not fit into the typical image of what a powerful figure is in Japan.
On this point, he stresses: “Powerful figures in corporate Japan or in politics may on occasion engage in worse corruption than the crimes Mr. Ghosn is accused of — discreetly behind closed doors.”
He added, “Lucrative positions and other financial rewards are exchanged for political favors, but such transactions are handled quietly between faceless men in dark suits, out of the public gaze.”
So was Ghosn’s celebrity the problem? Ghosn was applauded by the Japanese, and by foreigners, who were hoping that Japan would become a more open, inclusive and less isolationist society.
But as Buruma concludes: “The vindictiveness of Japan’s prosecutorial system and the conservatism of Japanese corporate culture will do much to slow that process down.”