Buzz: The latest talk.

Back to Contents of Issue: May 2004

Anime Fair 04, Super CEOs, Koizumi ...

Sony's Seer

Sony had a tough time in the media last year. The so-called "Sony Shock" gave investors a scare, and although the shares have recovered entirely from their torment, it's still hard to shake the feeling that something else could go wrong. But when we dropped in on Nobuyuki Idei, the chairman and group CEO, those fears very quickly dissolved. Idei may have come in for some personal criticism for his handling of the world's top consumer electronics brand, but he seemed relaxed, thoughtful and optimistic, and his comments were vintage Sony stuff: Idei spoke eloquently of wireless futurescapes, converged mobile devices, video games beyond our wildest dreams, nanotech computers ... and he hardly drew breath. He dismissed the current generation of mobile phones as a shadow of what the devices would one day become -- and even predicted the advent of artificial intelligence. An aging man's fantasy? Perhaps. But that is what Sony has always done best -- come up with bold ideas that are more adventurous than reality. By raising the bar of technological optimism, Idei seems to be giving Sony the best legacy possible.

The Koreans Are Coming!
We popped into Tokyo International Anime Fair 04 at the end of March. While Japan is notorious for its penchant for branding everything "international" without actually being that way, this year's Anime Fair was a notable exception. The proliferation of English-language guides, promos, speakers and interpreters made a loud declaration: Japanese animation has worldwide appeal, and its producers are ready to reach out.

166 animation minis and megaliths participated in this year's event, held in the cavernous halls of Tokyo Big Sight on Odaiba, the synthetic island in Tokyo Bay. 31 of those anime makers were from abroad, six more than attended last year's gathering. And get this: The winner of this year's Grand Prix went to a foreign maker -- Korean animators Dongwoo for their ten-minute "Africa," a socially conscious anime with brilliant technique and a sobering message. Look out, Cutie Honey!

Refueling Toyota
Another fellow who impressed us recently was Fujio Cho, the boss of Toyota. Unlike Sony, Toyota has not suffered shocks recently and is in alarmingly good health, making Detroit's "Big Three" carmakers look like rank amateurs. Toyota has grown confident enough to be happy with the way currency markets are operating at the moment. Ironically, the chief difference between Cho and Idei is that Cho seems to be nursing some apocalyptic thoughts about the future of his industry. He is concerned that as China's growth reaches for the stars, the oil supply down here on earth will run out more rapidly than people previously imagined. This has pushed Toyota further ahead than any other company in building cars to run on alternative fuels. The technological difference between Toyota and its rivals should not be thought of in terms of months -- but years. It may seem odd that a company making such quality profit from the internal combustion engine should be obsessed with its eventual demise. But remember: It is precisely that sort of thinking that persuaded Thomas Edison to start looking beyond gas lamps.

From Little Acoms
Earlier this year we chatted with the president of Acom, the consumer loan company that continues its inexorable march into the lives of everyday Japanese. The company's old facade as little more than a jumped-up loan sharking operation had been painstakingly scraped off, leaving instead a glitzy, well-oiled outfit that looks like it has a serious business plan. Whether or not that business plan is good for society is another matter: The company appeared most interested in dishing out loans to sections of society that are, on average, higher credit risks.

So it really did seem a groundbreaking moment when the conservative Mitsubishi Tokyo Financial Group (MTFG) decided to tie-up with little Acom. As well as demonstrating a new appetite for riskier business lines, the dramatic shift to consumer loans is seen by most observers as a clear admission by MTFG that it may be a while before the corporate loan business returns to profitability. Japanese bank lending has tumbled every month for over six years, while the total lending balance of Japan's consumer credit firms is estimated at more than JPY10 trillion.      @

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