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Interview: Kenshi Hirokane

by Chih-Chieh Chang,

Manga artist Kenshi Hirokane, famous for his social, economic and political manga series aimed at adult male readers like Kosaku Shima and Kaji Ryūsuke no Gi, was invited by Smart magazine to give a talk regarding recent economic trends and workplace politics. An alumni of the prestigious Waseda University School of Law, Hirokane is unique among manga artists, who are often shy and introverted; instead, he travels abroad and makes many public appearances, expressing opinions not only about manga but also on economic issues and the lifestyle of a successful businessman – there are guides about customer service, leadership, and wine selection featuring his manga characters. Titled “Looking for Taiwan's Kosaku Shima,” the talk tonight was hosted by Raime Chu, editor-in-chief of Smart magazine, accompanied by two additional guests: Fei-Peng Ho, founder of Business Weekly and vice chairman of Cite Publishing, and Frank Mao, senior vice president of Paradigm Asset Management.

Q: Would it be possible to put Taiwan into the story of Kosaku Shima? If so, would you have any specific Taiwanese location in mind?

Hirokane: I'll do so if the plot invites it. I visited Kaohsiung harbor and its large volume of containerized traffic was fascinating, and it certainly is a good choice to act as a transshipment hub. Taiwan is also very suitable to play as a middle man in business transactions between China and Japan.

Which real-life industries will you use as a model in the upcoming stories?

Shima's company (Hatsushiba Goyo Holdings) is a manufacturing company that is dedicated to the welfare of mankind, and so the future would likely be batteries for vehicles, environment-friendly products, solar panels, etc.

Why did you start a prequel (Young Shima Kōsaku) after Shima had become the president? Will there be more prequels?

It was a project proposed by the publisher (Kodansha). Currently I have titles serialized in Morning and Evening, twice and once a month, respectively. Young Shima Kōsaku is in a way similar to the first three episodes of Star Wars; readers can now see how Shima was originally employed and gradually promoted to a section chief. The serialization will probably take two to three years; I'm still about thinking what I should draw after that.

Shima entered the company at the height of Japan's bubble economy in the mid-1980s. The current economic status in Taiwan, Japan, or anywhere else in the world, however, is vastly different from 25 years ago. What kind of abilities and/or characteristics should a new graduate possess other than the ones Shima had?

Back then, Japanese companies had had a lifetime employment system, where an employee spends his entire career at one company. Young men today, however, are much likely to change jobs and leave when handed a better offer. Being able to speak multiple foreign languages, having certificates of professional accomplishment, being trained in modern communication skills, etc., things that would be useful anywhere. It's like having special items or equipment in a video game: you have to keep stashing them in your backpack, so to speak, so you can take them out and equip them whenever the situation calls for it.

How long had you been working in the corporate world before becoming a full-time manga artist? The corporate politics in your manga are very realistic; how did you come up with that? Do your readers send you real-life examples from their corporate experiences?

I worked at Matsushita/Panasonic for three years and three months. Very few readers would tell me the secrets of their workplaces, however, so I mostly drew inspiration from my college classmates, former senpai, dōki, and kohai (coworkers who entered the company before, at the same time, and after you, respectively) at Panasonic via phone calls. Furthermore, back in Matsushita my cubicle was very close to the offices of the big bosses, so I could see various and sundry interest groups wrestling with corporate politics, seeing firsthand their highs and lows. Shima's romantic relationships, however, were modeled after stories I'd hear via word of mouth.

What will Shima do after his term as president of the company?

There are many options: he could become a chairman of Hatsushiba, or an executive of the Japan Business Federation (formerly Japan Federation of Economic Organizations or Keidanren). He could retire and become a volunteer, or set up a brand new company. I'm more inclined to have him enter Keidanren so he can devote himself not just to one company but help the economy of the entire nation of Japan.

Can young people today achieve the same status as Shima in the economic recession?

Shima too had experienced a recession; his company laid off as many as 9,000 employees. I know many people who can't find or have lost their full-time job, and so they have to keep doing contract or part-time work. Right now it's very important to maintain a good relationship with your current employer so you can hang on until the economy recovers.

Shima has delicate relationships with people around him, particularly with women. What are your suggestions for the do's and don'ts of workplace relationships?

Let me give an example in the manga industry: say, artist A and B have a similar level of artistic skill, but artist A seldom takes advice from editors and never socializes, while artist B listens to editors carefully and often has drinks with them. If a new manga magazine needs a title artist, whom would the editors choose? Artist B for sure! Many great masters of manga have become masters not just because of their artistic skills, but how they handle their business relationships.

We know that socializing is important, but how does one make himself more sociable?

You have to understand the cultural background of the people you are dealing with; be a Roman when you're in Rome. If you keep enforcing your own identity – such as insisting on Japanese cultural traditions while staying in a foreign country – that could be considered very rude and impolite.

Avoid serious topics when starting a conversation with someone you just met. A drink or two can also ease up the tension. Remember that some topics are taboo; for example, don't talk about religion, politics, or asking about the health of the people in an American party.

Fei-Peng Ho: Allow me to add a true story: Mr. Huang, the president of Sharp Point Press, had casually mentioned that he liked Italian food during Hirokane-sensei's previous visit to Taiwan. Afterward, when Huang visited Japan, Hirokane-sensei brought him to a luxurious Italian restaurant. Huang was surprised and asked: “Did I ever tell you I like Italian food? Do you come here often?” Hirokane-sensei replied: “You told me once when we met last time. And no, I've never been here, but I asked around my friends and colleagues who know a lot about Italian cuisine, and they all recommended this place.” That's a good example of how keen and caring Hirokane-sensei is.

Shima has met many people who have helped him in critical situations. How do you go about finding people like that?

You don't find them. You have to perform your best, and others will want to help you.

Ho: Agreed. You have to radiate an aura that shows you are worthy of trust. Nobody will help you if you've been betraying others.

Frank Mao: Don't just concentrate on trivial matters and short-term interests. Think big, and you'll have a better shot at success.

Shima has to face competition from within the company from time to time. How should you handle competition like that so it does'nt become a full-scale feud?

Personally I don't quite like competing with others. I'd rather just keep my own pace, working toward a planned goal. Take golf, for example: if I set a standard of 45 strokes for 9 holes today – okay, Mr. Ho, I know that standard is low so don't giggle – and I finish in 43 strokes, it would still be a success, even if all of my accompanying friends have less than 40 strokes.

Similarly, it would be a failure if I finished in 48 strokes, even if others' are 50 or more. Sometimes you might find that you are already way ahead of your “competitors” if you can keep going steadily towards your goal.

Does Kosaku Shima embody your personal standards for a successful businessman, or do you have other standards in mind?

I'd say luck is nearly as important as personal ability. I've asked various Mamasans [female managers] of cabaret clubs in Ginza about the successful habits of businessmen, from a CEO in his 70s to a 20-year old rookie:

  1. They're careful about every detail. Most men would just sit down and start drinking after entering a cabaret club, but a careful man would first ask his superiors about how long the party will last, whether taxis are needed, among other details like that before they get drunk.
  2. They can participate just about any conversation, even if it's not about something he's personally interested in. You have to be prepared for any topic.
  3. They can learn the techniques of others in a short time and make them their own.


In East Asian nations like Taiwan and Japan, it is rather difficult for female workers to become the president of a company. What do advice would you have for business-minded women?

In fact, female company presidents in Japan are more numerous than many people would expect. While some of them started their career by helping their husbands, there are still many others started their own companies from scratch. One example: the president of Kodansha is a woman.

Whether being male or female, the president of a company should always have a group of assistants and advisers to provide different opinions. While not every female president is the same, generally speaking female leaders are more subtle and are more likely to take an indirect approach, which may be a plus for corporate management.

Ho: As many as 70% of my employees are female, and I feel that if a woman is highly conscious about herself than I see no difference between the genders. Women are particularly tough against adversity. However, I dare say that some glass ceilings were added by women themselves; they might be hesitant to pursue a better position just because they worry about what others might think.

Mao: In my experience, female workers and entrepreneurs are very active in financial, cultural, and businesses that require creative minds. On the other hand, women are less active in traditional industries.

It looks like Shima never worries about money. Why? Does he have personal investments?

He is a company president right now and doesn't manage investments in person. Even if he were to invest, it would be for the company, and in most cases that could be delegated to asset managers. Besides, the new company in the book, TECOT, focuses on welfare and are less interested in investing.

Mao: As an asset manager, I suggest people work hard and deposit their savings into investments in a timely manner with a fixed amount of money. This way has the smallest risk, so don't expect a huge bonus. Funds in emerging markets would be more suitable for part-time investors than traditional industries’; the latter requires careful monitoring and can be very time consuming. An effective and trustworthy investment will only be rewarding after 5-10 years; be very careful if one claims to start earning money much faster.

Ho: I don't trust my money to be handled by others, particularly after recent scandals and the fall of Wall Street companies like Lehman Brothers. Well, Mr. Mao is trustworthy (laughs). I invest my money on the people of my own company. If I had NT$10M, I'd distribute it to five people with NT$2M each so they can get on with their proposed projects. This reduces the risks, and even if four out of five fail, the successful one can often cover the losses.

I have two houses in Tokyo Metropolis: one of them can bring me tens of thousands of yen every month; the other one, however, was rented to my daughter, who stopped paying me the rent after just three months. So as an investment it was a total failure (laughs).

How do you observe so many details of foreign countries when you travel abroad, at a level even most career reporters can't?

I do the homework: before setting foot there I gather as much information as possible via books, TV programs, personal contacts, etc. I don't watch movies or drink free wine on the airplane; rather, I use the time to study history and maps of the country I'm going to, so once I've landed I already have a picture of the surroundings. After arriving at my destination I'd talk to the locals, e.g. people at the Panasonic factories. After all, only the locals can get a grip on what's going on there.

Ho: There's a guy in our company nicknamed “Mr. XinYi Road Section 3,” because he was educated only in schools that were located within around 2 miles of eachother. He was well-educated with excellent academic records. But one time he came with me while I drove to Hsinchu, and the radio program was talking about how “youngsters today have little knowledge on international affairs...they can't even tell Pakistan from Palestine.” Three minutes passed and he asked, “Do people in Taiwan really need to know the difference between Pakistan and Palestine?” I almost lost control of the car!

I had driven from New York City to Quebec, as well as 2500 km in Inner Mongolia. While the Internet can provide us with information today, there are things you still have to see with your own eyes.

Shima gets promoted whenever he returns from an overseas subsidiary. Is overseas experience a necessity for career development in Japan?

Japanese companies today have to send up to half of their employees to subsidiaries abroad. It used to be that Japan was the richest country in Asia and it only had to focus on its domestic market, while South Korea had far less money and their domestic market was smaller, so they had to look for overseas opportunities. Now Samsung is larger than Sony or Panasonic.
To be successful in a foreign market one has to understand foreign points of view and philosophies. I know that in some inland regions of China, families prefer tabletop refrigerators over full-size floor types, and washing machines have to be able to wash vegetables!

Japanese companies used to design products with the best functions and highest quality, along with hefty price tags. They kept thinking “there are always customers who know how to appreciate products of the highest quality.” At the same time, South Korean companies have been selling less sophisticated but more affordable products, which turned out to be very successful.

Every company has only one president; how can you live a fascinating life like Kosaku Shima's if you can't achieve that position?

Being a president may not be the happiest thing. I've seen happy homeless guys, as well as agonizing company presidents suffering under too much pressure. Everyone has his own definition of happiness; it's more important to understand your own abilities and find your own little world.

Readers' questions:

I rarely see Shima dealing with government officials. Is that really the case in Japanese companies?

In my books Hatsushiba only dealt with semi-government entities on rare occasion. I'd say a successful company should have little to do with politics; focusing on creativity is more important.

What would you suggest to someone who wants to train his or herself to be more observant of economic trends of the world like you?

In fact, I have a personal think tank: editors, college professors, political figures and bureaucrats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, etc. I received references for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation from the MoFA while drawing Kaji Ryūsuke no Gi.

What's your take on the rise of China's economy?

China's fast-growing GDP has become 3rd of the world, right behind Japan. It may even catch up to the US in 2020-30. While China has a long time feud with Japan politically and diplomatically, economically the two countries have already reconciled and shaken hands– and I dare say with both hands, forming close economic ties. In contrast, the US has close ties with Japan in politics, but a great rivalry in economic fields. The recent Toyota incident is a good example.

Speaking of Toyota, what would Shima do if he were to face a similar crisis?

In Japanese companies, “apologize first” is Rule #1 when dealing with any crisis or complaints from customers. The company president and his senior staff would bow 90 degrees at the press conference. However, doing so in the US would have a negative effect, as it would be a sign of accepting full responsibility, and customers would then demand the highest compensation possible. If Hatsushiba faced such a crisis in US, the first thing to do would be to conduct a full-scale investigation to find out what exactly the problem is before making any apology.

The only matter in which Shima fails big is his marriage. Is this intentional due to plot design, or does his charisma have limitations?

It was for the plot. After all, this manga is aimed at adults, not children, so I have to add some romantic elements. The scope of the story would be very limited if he could only be in love with one woman, but having ex-marital affairs would be scandalous. Therefore I had to have him divorced.

One more question before we finish: what else have you learned from those cabaret club managers in Ginza?

(Laughs) Girls are always the cutest!


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