Carlos Ghosn’s 65th birthday on Saturday looks to be a sweeter affair that he might have anticipated, now that the former Nissan Motor CEO is free on bail after 100 days in a Tokyo jail.
In a bizarre kind of reverse perp walk, Ghosn emerged from the Tokyo detention center in a dark blue uniform with reflective orange suspenders, powder blue baseball cap and surgical face mask. It was the kind of garb that the usually dapper high-flyer wouldn’t be caught dead in – never mind before the world’s TV cameras.
He did not dawdle. Ghosn entered a car reportedly sent by the French embassy, as media helicopters swirled overhead. Call it kabuki – law-and-order style. And what a tale he’ll have to tell his French diplomatic de-briefers on Wednesday night.
Ghosn is not as free as he’d like to be, of course. The Brazilian-born, Lebanese-raised Frenchman will be under constant camera surveillance, a condition of the US$9 million bond he posted. That he is seeing daylight at all, though, marks a tantalizing turn of events for a man who filled the role of corporate enemy No. 1 in a nation where foreign chieftains remain rare.
And rarer still, arguably, after the torrent of bad headlines that “L’affaire Ghosh” generated around the globe. One that couldn’t be more ill-timed for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to attract more senior gaijin talent to Japan.
So where does Ghosn’s release leave the man, Nissan and Japan Inc in general?
After coming up for air, and enjoying a few nights in his own bed, Ghosn must mount his defense. That looks to be a steep task given the tsunami of allegations, leaks and conspiracy theories surrounding his November 19 arrest at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Officially, he’s charged with under-reporting his income and breach of public trust.
As he hunkers down with his lawyers, he faces the risk of re-arrest. In Japan, prosecutors enjoy a conviction rate approaching 99%. Most defendants confess. Those who hold out tend to break eventually and sign a confession.
Ghosn has proven a glaring exception and prosecutors aren’t happy. They have already, unsuccessfully, appealed his bail agreement. Odds are, they will continue trying.
Yet Ghosn’s role within the broader three-way Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance is complicated. Though he’s no longer chairman or CEO, he holds seats on the boards of all three companies. And, presumably, a desire to continue playing a role in the automotive juggernaut he helped create. That is, of course, if he wins his case – a big “if” in Japan.
In a January interview with Nikkei Asian Review, Ghosn said “plot and treason” were behind his downfall. Soon he’ll have the chance to clear his name. Making this even more of a get-your-popcorn-out moment is Ghosn’s new lawyer, Junichiro Hironaka. He’s as aggressive an attorney as you’ll find in Japan and won some big acquittals. Stay tuned.
From the first headlines, Ghosn’s ouster smacked of a palace coup. Though many theories made the rounds, the most logical is this: Ghosn was inching toward a full-blown merger between Renault and Nissan, and Nissan wasn’t having it.
That explains the oddly personal terms with which Hiroto Saikawa, Ghosn’s protégé, disparaged his former boss.
Saikawa, Nissan’s current CEO, accused Ghosn of being the “mastermind” of “significant” fraud and of a “long regime” at the Yokohama-based company. Of course, two things can be true at the same time.
Perhaps Ghosn was a “micromanager,” as Saikawa alleges. It also seems that Ghosn did, indeed, let delusions of grandeur get the better of him.
When Ghosn arrived in Yokohama in 1999, age 45, Nissan was a debt-ridden disaster veering toward the corporate graveyard. He quickly reversed epic losses, cut debt and restored Nissan’s global standing. That inspired “The True Life of Carlos Ghosn,” a manga series.
Yet Ghosn became lost in his own legend. The private-jet fleets, off-the-books compensation schemes and Nissan-financed properties around the globe smacked of hubris.
Whatever becomes of Ghosn, it’s imperative that the alliance stay intact. The trajectory of the auto business demands scale and diversified supply chains. It’s time Renault and Nissan put egos aside.
Renault must realize that Nissan is now its cash cow and treat it with due respect. That means having its own CEO in Yokohama, not some umbrella leader in Paris.
The thing about the Nissan scandal is that it has produced no heroes. Neither Saikawa nor Renault’s newish Chairman Jean-Dominique Senard has covered himself in glory.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s behind-the-scenes machinations fell flat, Abe largely looked the other way and Japan’s legal system took hits in the court of global opinion.
Abenomics is one of the biggest losers. Though growth remains tepid and wages flat these last six years, improved corporate governance was touted a clear win. Abe’s moves to impose a UK-like stewardship code and calls for more outside directors cheered foreign investors.
None of these steps avoided the fiasco at Nissan. Nor did they obviate quality scandals at Nissan, Kobe Steel, Mitsubishi Materials, Takata Corp, Toray Industries and others. They didn’t prevent accounting scandals at Olympus Corp, Toshiba Corp and elsewhere.
They surely weren’t bold enough to bring Tokyo Electric Power Co, whose negligence gave us the Fukushima nuclear crisis, to heel.
The Ghosn debacle also raises uncomfortable questions about whether gaijin bosses get a fair shake. Why was he in jail for more than three months when CEOs whose dodgy airbags killed people and whose power plant caused the evacuation of entire cities were not?
In 2011, remember, British CEO Michael Woodford wasn’t treated as a hero when he blew the whistle on years of fraud at Olympus. Instead, he was shown the door and demonized. “L’affaire Ghosh” raises valid, and prickly, questions about what’s really changed.
Bottom line? Japan Inc still answers to no one.