Photo/Joi Ito licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The Asia Foundation’s senior advisor in Washington, D.C., Abigail Friedman, recently spoke with Masamoto Yashiro, early Asia Foundation grantee and one of Japan’s most widely respected business leaders who rose to top positions in the energy and banking sectors.
One of the first offices opened by The Asia Foundation was in Japan in 1954. As one of the Foundation’s earliest grantees, what are your recollections about those days and your experience as a grantee?
When the war ended, a very large percentage of houses and offices were destroyed by air raids. Hyperinflation began to impact everyone’s life, and we had very little to eat and few clothes to wear. The general economy only started to pick up with the Korean War as Japan became a supply point for U.S. military forces in Korea.
I came to know The Asia Foundation’s predecessor organization (the Committee for a Free Asia) in the early 1950s through an American friend. He introduced me to the head of the organization’s Tokyo office who soon after offered me an opportunity to go to the United States to attend the 1952 National Student Conference being held at Indiana University in Bloomington. I remember flying in a Pan American double decker Stratocruiser, stopping over at Wake Island for refueling and finally arriving at San Francisco airport. I was really surprised to see vast areas and well-paved highways leading to the city. I wondered how it was possible for Japan to have waged a war against such a vast and rich country.
Reflecting on my business careers, there is no doubt that this early postwar exposure to the United States was the starting point for my working in two American companies, Standard Oil (today’s Exxon Mobil) and Citicorp.
As an accomplished business leader, looking back, what are some remarkable memories that you would want to share with young people going into business today?
Although I experienced many highly memorable situations over the last six decades, two in particular stand out.
In 1985, when I was with Exxon in Houston, I attended an executive committee meeting together with my boss, who was the president of the Exxon Asia Pacific regional company. One of our Japanese-affiliated oil companies was not generating satisfactory profits and my boss recommended disposing Exxon’s interest in it. Yet he also said to the chairman, “Yashiro does not agree with me so I want to have him express his own view.” I said that I thought we should not hasten to terminate a 25-year-long close relationship with that company only because of its current poor performance; we instead should do our best to help it improve operations. The chairman then said he agreed with me. This experience was striking to me as such an interchange of different views among senior executives probably would not happen in Japan’s corporate life. I was very surprised with my boss’ fairness and broad-mindedness, as well as with the chairman’s willingness to overrule his immediate subordinate.
The other case shows how a top leader of a large corporation must have a profound knowledge of the industry as well as substantial analytical skills. In the fall of 1982, when senior executives of Exxon were discussing the following years’ annual budgets, everyone assumed that the prevailing high crude oil price and the tight supply/demand balance of crude oil would continue at least for the next several years. But Jack Bennett, CFO at the time, disagreed. He began describing what he thought would happen to the oil industry. He said: “Gentlemen, while you all are assuming the high crude oil price and the tight supply will continue, I do not think such a scenario will be correct in the next few years. The oil demand itself because of high prices will soon start to decline and the need for new tankers soon disappear. Rates will begin to drop; therefore we must develop new plans based on such a scenario.” In fact, from 1983 what Bennett described as likely to happen started unfolding, and the crude price by 1986 dropped to a mere $6 per barrel from $30 plus in the early 1980s.
What is your sense of Japan today and what the future holds?
After two decades of no growth in the deflationary environment, I now see the Japanese economy at long last starting to grow moderately. The Abe administration for the first time in the recent history of Japanese politics is making decisions rather than merely engaging in endless discussions about age-old problems confronting Japan, enhancing women’s roles and responsibilities in Japanese corporate life, dealing with the declining population problems, fighting against vested agricultural interests, enhancing the use of English as an important global communication tool, and defense issues in the fast changing geopolitical environment. I am very glad to see some Japanese government ministries recently taking concrete steps to promote their female officials to high positions. I also believe that Japan must liberalize its immigration policies.
If Japan succeeds in fighting its post-bubble deflationary problems, some European countries that are now facing similar problems might benefit from this experience. Similarly, Japan during the 1960s and early ‘70s experienced many of the same air and water pollution problems confronting China today. Japan’s experience in these areas could be useful to others.
At its 60th anniversary, what do you regard as The Asia Foundation’s main contributions to Asian development going forward?
I believe that The Asia Foundation’s thematic focuses are in keeping with the changes taking place in most Asian countries: environmental challenges; the need for good corporate governance; and women’s empowerment where by the way we see its greatest need in my country, Japan.