Suzuki's Inner Chamber

Back to Contents of Issue: July 2002

YOU CAN VISIT ANY NUMBER of CEOs in big corporate Japan and never see the slightest sign of personal taste. The decor speaks for itself -- it is a disaster of the ongoing variety. Apparently, to receive a salary dulls the mind, the appetite and the eye. By contrast, walk into any self-employed shacho's office, and you will find evidence of what he thinks looks good on all sides.

Thus it is with Koichi Suzuki's spread, up on a high floor at his Takebashi head office. He is the only person I have ever known in business in Japan -- in nearly 40 years -- who keeps the Collected Works of Natsume Soseki (the same chap who appears on the JPY1,000 note, as Japan's most distinguished novelist of the modern period) on his shelves for ready access. Furthermore, when talking, he'll pull out a tome or two to consult.

Suzuki's office walls are decorated with interesting works by an artist friend of his -- Shigehiko Matsukura. As I chatted to Suzuki the other day, a big work by this man, with patches of gold and black, stood out on the wall behind Suzuki. The rich colors shot through our conversation, giving me something to rest my eyes on. Another wall was decorated by a finely drawn pencil work of an ancient Italian walled town, by the same Matsukura.

"Tristram Shandy?" Suzuki asked me the other day. Had I read the 18th century novel, Laurence Sterne's comic classic of randomness? Well, actually no. "My favorite is Jane Austen," says Suzuki.

So there you are. Where else in the halls of Japanese telecom companies do you run into a person whose familiarity with Western culture extends to 250-year-old classics?

Suzuki did his undergraduate studies at Waseda University in Tokyo. He was there in the heyday of left-wing student madness in the late l960s. He would have been a contemporary of Hissho Morita, the young man who died with Yukio Mishima at Ichigaya on November 25, l970.

His first job, he told me, was with something called the Japan Management Association, or JMA for short. He took the job, when he was 26 -- "I had got married, I had to support my wife."

It was not an obvious choice for an ambitious youth of that era. Mostly his contemporaries went into sickening life insurance companies or they buried themselves in government in Kasumigaseki. But the JMA, if you know your Ps and Qs in industrial Japan, is a very, very key group. It was set up by none other than Nobusuke Kishi, a godfather of modern Japanese business, in l937, to get science and technology into the recesses of Japanese industry and power Japan's war machine.

After World War II, the new priority became exports instead of arms. They were pursued with the same zeal that Japanese industrialists had put into war.

In brief, Mr. Suzuki had managed to insert himself -- at age 26 -- into a key group, to know Japanese industry. "I visited 400 companies," he says. When he says "visited," he means "worked at," I understood. Mostly, he was advising on production engineering -- poking into the details on the assembly line.

His interest in software, I gathered from him, dates to that era. Ditto his familiarity with the Internet. In due course, he came to experiment with sending email messages, using Unix software. Then some people he knew came along with a proposal that he join them at a firm they called Internet Initiative Japan.

Life plays tricks on a person. This is how Suzuki happened into IIJ -- with a 10 percent personal holding in the company, because those who had tempted him into the firm turned out to need his cash.

Has he looked back? Often. Does he feel that he could have played his cards better? Yes. In 10 years, anyone makes lots of mistakes, and could, with the benefit of hindsight, have played things better. But Suzuki, now approaching the standard retirement age in Japan, expresses few regrets. With 500 crack engineers at his disposal, he has to keep moving forward. My guess is that he has a decade to go with IIJ, perhaps more. Thus far, judging by what other Japanese entrepreneurs say, he scores nine out of 10 as a self-taught engineer, perhaps not more than five out of 10 as a manager. Yet his record of achievement makes Suzuki a remarkable man. So too does his aura of invincibility. I like him.

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