In this chapter of Minority Shareholders, I continue the story of Norio Takano. He is not a specific person; he is a character created for my book out of some high rollers who had existed during the bubble period.
As a young lawyer, I witnessed the generation of enormous wealth from scratch. A minority shareholder of a family company brought an action to the court and succeeded in taking hundreds and thousands of yen. I saw it firsthand. Ten years after the bubble popped, I started work related to corporate governance. In this book, my fictional characters tell the story of problems that persist in joint-stock corporations. What is an organization called a company? What if Norio Takano were reborn in this era?
This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual characters or organizations is entirely coincidental and unintentional. ー Shin Ushijima
Read earlier chapters of the series.
CHAPTER 18: Something to Live For
Continuing from Chapter 17: Norio Takano has just explained why he wants to create a meaningful legacy that helps minority shareholders like Auntie Sumida. However, his lawyer, Tadashi Ooki, could not help confronting him.
"As Nobunaga Oda said, 'People are destined to die; what should we do in life to keep our spirits alive in peoples' hearts?' So minority shareholders in unlisted companies are what keeps your spirit alive in peoples' hearts?" he asked Takano. "You're going to offer the topic to people so that they can talk about you after your time, right? It's going to be your legacy. People after your time will enjoy talking about you looking at the exuvia of your life."
"Give me a break," Takano responded.[...] "There is no telling what lies ahead in the future. When you reach sixty-eight, you understand this very well. Even so, I believe I will live to be seventy. It rests on no grounds, though."
Takano broke into a smile. "Maybe I will live to be seventy. I take comfort in saying so. I'd still have one and a half years to go. Or in other words, I'd have only one and a half years left. Can you take that in? I don't want to die with remorse when I'm on my deathbed, and I don't want to die regretting what I've done in my life.
"Of course, I may have something to regret. But when the time comes, I want to convince myself that I've experienced many good, meaningful things and that it's finally time to leave this world. I don't think that death is a rest, nor is it a serious incident that cuts you off from everything."
'Not the Person I Wish I Were'
"Nothing exists beyond death. Everything vanishes. You'll be swallowed into the darkness. That's all. No, no, even death doesn't exist. I'll just leave this world, I'll vanish and the others will remain."
"You may be right. But I feel like I was born as a drop of dew, and now I'm spending my days feeling myself dry up. People say it goes by in a heartbeat, but I'm keeping my nose to the grindstone day in, day out." Ooki honestly thought so.
"That means you still remain as ambitious as when you were a boy. You can't help keeping your nose to the grindstone. It's pathetic. I'm not like that. At least, I'm different now. Desiring no life, no name, no rank, no money. I want to live that way," said Takano.
"Oh, Saigo again. That means you have failed since you've earned such a huge amount of money, right?"
"True. I'm not the person I wish I were yet. I had been obsessed with money and only cherished myself and a few people around me. All the others were, I thought, people who lived in a remote world and had no connection with me. Even if I kindly interfered in trying to straighten out their lives, I would never be able to plan it well or even get my message across to them. They were connected to me only in terms of money. Hence, only money mattered.
"But, even though they are not related to me, I have come to know that such people do exist in reality."
Looking at Things in a Different Light
"Knowing that they exist quite close to me before my eyes, I can't say I will live on totally ignorant of their existence," Takano continued. "There would be no problem if I didn't see them. But somehow they have come into view, just like the cow Confucius saw panting."
"You are…you always look at things in a different light. If we die, we are the same. It's only while we are alive that we complain about being hungry or being cold. We are nothing short of trash when we are dead. When we are afflicted with physical illness, we feel the pain of sickness is unbearable because we are alive."
Takano knew that he was losing his cool. Whenever he spoke with Ooki, his emotions got the better of him. "Yes, the pain of sickness is unbearable. That's why Jun Eto killed himself. Hemingway shot himself. But [Stephen] Hawking is alive.
"Taking care of your health is one thing, and dying is another. Your world instantly ends once you drop dead. The thing is, you cannot die so easily. You may laugh at it, but I have a medical checkup quite periodically. I have a lot of time on my hands, unlike you. Thanks to that periodical checkup, I had thyroid cancer detected two years ago. I went through a quick treatment and now I'm alive as if nothing had happened to me.
"I drink, and I get drunk when I drink. Being in my cups, I fall asleep. But anyway, I am due to die someday. I try to make myself conscious of the fact that I'll leave this world at some point in the future, the not-too-distant future. Funnily enough, these days I find myself checking the obituary column in the newspaper."
The Demon of Sixty-Six
"I never did this two or three years ago," mused Takano. "It never bothered me until the New Year after I turned sixty-six, and has been on my mind ever since. Up to then, I would only check the obituary column for someone I knew.
"When I found someone I knew, I thought, 'Oh, they have gone.' That was it. But since that New Year when I was sixty-six, I've been more concerned about how old a stranger was when he died than whether he was acquainted with me or not. And in my head, I count how many more years I have till that age.
"If they died at the age of eighty or upward, I feel relieved because I still have a long time ahead of me. But is it really so? I have only twelve years left until eighty… no, to be more exact, eleven years plus some months.
"I wonder if I will be able to stay fit for half that time. Or, can I be as fine as I am now for a quarter of that time? If so, I have even less time left to me. I know it's no use thinking about that. Like Khayyam wrote, 'Let's not think about the future or the past. It's fine as long as we can enjoy the moment while it lasts… that is the purpose of life.' But I hear a voice inside me saying that things are not going that way."
Making Time for Wine
"I can enjoy the moment drinking champagne called Blanc de Blancs by Salon because I pay the utmost attention to keeping my health in good shape. In other words, I try to stay fit for the purpose of drinking good wine.
"But at the same time, I have to keep an eye on what's going on in the world. Shares and real estate soar and plummet. Land and buildings risk losing their value if the surroundings change. Even though you have assets, you have to keep on the alert against them every day.
"I'm no longer interested in making profits, but I don't want to see my assets depreciating. That's why I cannot leave my business to others. Those who have money are pathetic. They are slaves to their money.
"In the time of Khayyam, lords of manors could live peacefully. But it's different now. Even at this moment, my treasure may be turning into lead. I have to get rid of it soon and change it into something else. It's my nature. But fortunately, I'm not in debt, which lessens my worry."
Takano closed his eyes and stopped speaking. Ooki waited for Takano to open his mouth again.
"I set apart some time for wine o'clock just for my self-satisfaction. Once it hits six I spend the time in my cups. It's been my habit since I reached sixty. When I get drunk, I go to bed, so my time halts after the evening. I have nothing particular to do after I get drunk."
Who Guarantees the Moment?
"I'm happy that Eiko is a good cook. She spares no trouble to make delicious food just for me. I don't know until when this felicity lasts. Eiko gets older as I get older. What is destined to come is sure to come some day.
"At six, after taking a shower, I sit at a table and pop a champagne cork. The pop sounds like a cue for something. What should I do after I get drunk? Nothing, just stay drunk. You know, that Persian poet in the 11th century said, 'Enjoy the moment.' But how can we? The moment disappears instantly. When it disappears, it's already the past.
"Who guarantees the next moment will come? Previously, whenever I had a chance to view cherry blossoms, I was always miles away. My focus was on how to generate money at that time. I convinced myself that cherry blossoms would bloom the next year.
"But since that New Year when I was sixty-six, I have been worried that the next chance to view cherry blossoms will never come. So, I clearly remember the cherry blossoms I viewed when I was sixty-six. I didn't go around by car to Chidorigafuchi and Kudanshita as I had done previously.
"I only had Akutagawa's words on my mind: 'To his eyes, the blossoming cherry trees there looked as dreary as rags in a row.' Certainly, they looked it to my eyes, too. I had adored the shower of cherry blossoms once before, but it has now sunk into the deepest corner of my mind."
Like Dancing in the Wind
"Once I had been waiting for a traffic light to turn green at the crosswalk in front of Toyokawa Inari and in front of Toraya's main shop along Aoyama-dori Avenue when I saw the cherry blossoms falling and flowing in all directions like snow dancing in the wind. It was beautiful. I was greatly touched by its otherworldly beauty. But in recent years when I see the same scene, it doesn't move me as much. It only makes me feel that the same thing happened to me before. That's all.
"But, of all things, it leads me to the fact that I am creating and living in an unrealistic world of my own. I'm sick and tired of lying to myself day in, day out. Ooki, I said that you are a high flyer, but I understand when you have something to accomplish, you tend to create an unrealistic world of your own.
"I have lived that way all this while, but I've realized I don't have much time ahead of me. You cannot be sure there will be a tomorrow.
"When I was young, I would often whisper to women who were not so beautiful that they were beautiful. I sometimes do this even now. Actually, I think I'm getting worse.
"Looking her in the eye, I court a woman whom I don't love by saying I love her. Of course, that's because I want to sleep with her. But sadly my body doesn't function well enough to have sex. It's pathetic; a sparrow wearing red shoes cannot help but keep dancing until it reaches 100 years of age with the red shoes still on."
"People can't change. Affairs with women are only a part of my incorrigibility. These days, I feel increasingly repugnant about the words I use in my business. When I am doing a presentation, I speak while hiding my true motivation in an attempt to stack the deck in my favor. The instant I am done with it, I feel inclined to utter to myself, 'I know nothing but the words of a heretic, so I should keep my mouth shut.'"
Ooki smiled. "'The words of a heretic.' It takes me back. It seems that the spirit of Rimbaud translated by Mr Hideo Kobayashi that I read 50 years ago still remains alive in you, right?"
It was the way they exchanged their opinions. They had repeated it so many times since they were senior high school students. One day, they were having a heated discussion on the second floor of Ooki's house, so much so that Ooki's mother came up and laughed saying, "Well, well, I thought you had a loud radio on upstairs." Both of them were absorbed in talking about their futures; they were both eighteen.
Ooki, ignoring Takano's provoking statement, nonchalantly encouraged Takano to go on. "I ask you once more. What on earth motivated you to do it? For what? Who are you? Are you going to start the Crusades?"
"I told you. I have realized the fact that there are many unfortunate people before my eyes."
"Unfortunate are not only those people before your eyes, just as Confucius' s apprentice said."
The Other 'Auntie Sumidas'
Ooki held his breath and after a while, he released his breath with a small sound. Takano waited, then opened his mouth.
"Look, Ooki. I learned a lot from Auntie Sumida's case, and I thought about the other 'Auntie Sumidas' existing across the nation. I feel sympathy for them. I can't figure out why I feel that way. It's strange. You find many heart-wrenching stories in this world. But I just imagine how many Auntie Sumidas there are in Japan, and it breaks my heart.
"I don't have to care about such complete strangers. But, for the life of me, I can't take my mind away from the second or third Auntie Sumida, who came to me for help. Some of them were worried about their inheritance tax. They knew the story about the guy who was a shareholder of Dainihon Jochugiku.
"In reality, there exist some innocent men and women who lose sleep over their inheritance tax after hearing that story from Auntie Sumida. But they have cause to worry about their inheritance tax because they know their companies are of high value. They may face the risk of being swiftly evicted from their homes because they are compelled to pay through the nose for inheritance tax due to their garbage shares. To make matters worse, they have children who are still in school."
"You have a point. What you say makes sense. I bet in Japan there are so many people in dreadful situations like that man who was a minority shareholder of Dainihon Jochugiku. Certainly, what you are planning to do does help people."
Planting Trees One a Day
"Humans are not always egocentric. Altruism is one of the important traits that humans have. Mencius says, 'When a child is on the verge of falling into a well, anybody will try to save it.' Everyone feels compassion," said Ooki. "The latest research shows that even monkeys have that feeling. I'm absolutely sure that what you are going to do is good for the world."
"I'm impervious to any shame and too sophisticated, so tear-jerkers don't really affect me, but just create a small ripple in my mind. However, being the warm-hearted person that I am, tears sometimes well up in my eyes. But not more than that since I am one who has survived the dog-eat-dog world of business."
"Yes, I know you have. Feelings of sympathy vary from person to person. So, you encountered something that moved you deeply…at the age of sixty-eight, right?"
"Exactly. And you, my friend, a very shrewd lawyer, kindly enlightened me as if to add insult to injury."
"Oh, did I? Was it something officious? But, Takano, you said you felt sympathy. Which means you're lucky to have recognized what sympathy is."
"Lucky? If you say so! But I'm serious. I'll do whatever I can. I'll plant trees. I'll keep planting one tree a day till my dying day.
"It will take more than a lifetime for my trees to grow, stretch their branches and expand their foliage since they are trees that take long to grow. I don't mind, I want to die in the middle of the trees' growth. I'll keep planting until death is staring me in the face. It's quite natural that I will not be able to see my trees fully grown. It's not a gamble. I'm sure I will win."
"It's not a win-or-lose game, though. Still, unfortunately, I will not be able to see the results. I will not be able to enjoy the day when I can have a rest after a walk under the shadow of the trees from morning till evening. And I will never know how tall they will grow.
"But after my time, someone will need to continue planting trees and watering them without fail until they take root and grow. Otherwise, they may wither and die halfway. Isn't it too good a fairy tale for a man who has been involved in foul play? Anyway, I will do what I can. I won't let unfair things happen before my very eyes."
"Planting trees. It's a good idea!" Ooki breathed a short sigh and murmured as if to speak to himself.
Takano continued speaking enthusiastically about his thoughts. "Humans are born to die. It's our destiny. So for humans who are due to die, nothing is as important as something to live for.
"Money is not something you live for. Nor is a woman you love after you become habituated to her, nor are jobs. People tend to get used to things…so easily.
"I have enough money now to sustain my lifestyle. I keep making money just to prevent a decrease in what I have. The idea that it will decrease bothers me constantly. Again, that sparrow in red shoes…my nature never changes, but I'm tired of it, so I want something to live for in preparation for my departure to the netherworld."
"You have no idea how blessed you are. Redefine yourself…hmm. You're right. With luck, you can offset your shameful past. That's what you intend, right? It's like killing two birds with one stone. It's an interesting idea, too."
A Can of Worms
"By the way, is your wife informed of your plan?" Ooki asked him.
"Eiko has nothing to do with this," Takano spoke inarticulately but in a firm voice. His voice showed his strong will to reject any kind of intervention by anybody. It sounded ice-cold, showing his decision not to budge even an inch, almost like negotiating with a corpse.
Ooki felt put out. Takano had to have a world of his own, which he could not share with his wife, with whom he was deeply in love. Ooki, even a friend from senior high school, had no way to intrude into his world. Ooki decided to change the topic.
"And what do you want me to do?"
"Help me, since you're a lawyer."
"Do you understand you are going to open a can of worms? If you touch unlisted companies, you'll end up creating a lot of problems that even the court cannot deal with. The ebb and flow of smaller business corporations has a significant effect on the future of Japan.
"Are you aware you're saying you're going to unfreeze all family companies in Japan?"
"Unfreeze?" Takano looked at Ooki.
"Yes. The total sum of retained earnings of all business corporations including listed companies runs to ¥400 trillion JPY ($2.9 billion USD), of which ¥150 trillion JPY ($1.08 billion USD) is retained by unlisted companies, that is, family companies. A majority of such companies are under the control of their owner-presidents. They don't care about their minority shareholders in the slightest."
"You're saying you are going to torch such owners. Do you understand what you're saying?"
"Oh, no, I'm not going to do that."
"I'm sure you are. If it becomes possible for minority shareholders to sell their shares, the owner-presidents will feel unstable. You just said you're going to demand that the owner-president improve the management.
"This means you're going to brandish a knife at a majority of less-than-enthusiastic owner-presidents. This will eventually give rise to legal claims by minority shareholders of unlisted companies, demanding that the companies buy their shares. It's politics. Mr Koshimizu can understand this scheme. It's a plan to liquidate the retained earnings of ¥150 trillion JPY, which are kept frozen in unlisted companies in Japan.
"No, it goes beyond that. It's a plan to eliminate latent profits in real estate and stockholding and create money. For that purpose, giving the right to buy to minority shareholders would be the most efficient way. Mr Koshimizu would say, 'We will get back our lost two decades,' and he is sure to help pass a Japan Unfreezing Bill through an act in parliament."
"Huh, Japan Unfreezing Bill? Sounds very dangerous. It's like 'Japan Reform Bill General Rules' by Mr Ikki Kita. I'm not interested in such a story before the war. I just want to lend a helping hand to those minority shareholders before my eyes."
Continues in: Minority Shareholders, Chapter 18: An Association for Family Company Governance
Minority Shareholders is a work of fiction and any similarity to real characters, companies and cases is purely coincidental and unintentional. Sign up to join our mailing list and look for the next chapter every Saturday on JAPAN Forward.
Author: Shin Ushijima
The founding partner of Ushijima & Partners, lawyer Shin Ushijima has an enormous wealth of experience in international transactions, mergers, and acquisitions, dispute resolution, system development, anti-monopoly law, labor, and tax law. Concurrently, he heads an NPO called the "Japan Corporate Governance Network." And in his leisure moments, he writes fiction. Additional details on Shin Ushijima's career, awards, publications, and more are available at his website: Ushijima & Partners, Attorneys-at-Law.