Who is Takeshi Kondo, new head of Highway Public Corporation?
Tomohiko Taniguchi (Editor at Large, Nikkei Business Publications)
If there is one position in Japan that would NOT befit Takeshi Kondo, former member of the House of Councillors, it is the head of the Japan Highway Public Corporation (JH).
But on 13 November, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi surprised the nation by announcing that he would appoint Kondo President of the JH. Among those not only surprised but also disgusted upon hearing the news, was Hiroshi Okuda, Chairman of Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation). Okuda distributed a comment in which he strongly condemned the decision:
"He (Kondo) was sent to the arena of national politics by, and with the full backing of business communities across the nation", Okuda said. He stated this opinion in the official Keidanren comment to remind Koizumi and Kondo that had it not been for the support of Keidanren and other big business organisations, Kondo could not have passed the upper house election of 2001 in the first place. Hence, he went on to say, "it is to my regret that he is resigning abruptly as Member of the Diet though he has not even completed his term".
As has now become customary, Koizumi neither consulted with Okuda and other Kondo-backers in advance nor allowed Kondo to spend as much time as would be necessary to seek agreement from those who had pushed him into politics. So part of the problem is that the decision very much damaged the "face" of business leaders.
There may be another factor to explain why Okuda became furious: there is a shared sense among those who know Kondo well that heading an extremely domestic, arguably backward, semi-governmental organisation such as the JH where there would not even be a scant chance for its President to speak English, not to mention French (both of which Kondo happens to speak rather fluently) is not what Kondo was supposed to do. "What a waste of Kondo's resources", Okuda may well have wanted to say.
Besides, whether Kondo can handle an organisation as large as 8,500 employees is itself questionable. The last title Kondo had within Itochu, one of the largest trading houses, where he had spent his entire career before seeking office in politics, was as head of the company's Washington office, a boutique operation with only a handful of employees. He may eventually have made it to join the managing board of the trading company, as Director he even continued to work as a staff to Chairman Minoru Murobushi, rather than leading a big division under his management.
Koizumi claimed that Kondo came from the private sector, a prerequisite Koizumi imposed upon any candidate succeeding Haruho Fujii, a maverick ex-bureaucrat forced to resign as President of the JH. However, this was only half-true. Kondo does come from a huge private entity, yet he has never proven competent as a manager who can run anything larger than his former Washington office.
So who is Kondo really?
In sum, he is not so much a company executive as a lobbyist. And as such, he was one of the most qualified one could ever find in Corporate Japan.
Ryuzo Sejima gained national fame in the early 1980s when the then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone handpicked him to let him lead the Nakasone Cabinet's administrative reform projects. A sense of mystique always surrounds him as a member of General Staff Division of both the Imperial Headquarters and the Kanto Army during the war time. Sejima was amongst the top Directors with Itochu when Kondo joined the company in 1964. Kondo would find himself working as Sejima's secretary some years later, after a stint spent in Paris as a student. It is during this period that a decision seems to have been made inside the company that Kondo should be raised not as a salesman, but rather very much as an intelligence officer.
So in the early 1980s Kondo was seconded to Sears World Trade (SWT), a subsidiary the US retail giant Sears, Roebuck & Co, established to follow what the US was then obsessed with: to create the American equivalent of Japanese "sogo shosha (general trading companies)". While the Sears venture came to a rather miserable end soon afterwards, the connections Kondo made during that time would prove indispensable during the ensuing period.
For in 1987 it came to be revealed that one of Itochu's long time customers, Toshiba Machine, had sold to Soviet Russia a milling machine with which one could quieten submarine screws. Massive waves of Japan-bashing would inevitably follow. As the then head of the Washington office, Kondo made himself a registered lobbyist, worked hard amongst legislators and their aides so that Itochu, proven innocent, would be immune from any allegations. Herein worked the connections he established whilst with the SWT. For the people who ran the failed trading company included: Roderick M. Hills, who was nominated as SEC Chairman by President Ford and whose wife Carla, also a Cabinet member during Ford Presidency, would become the USTR under Bush administration; Frank Carlucci, a room mate of Donald Rumsfeld, who would himself make Defense Secretary under the Reagan administration. Kondo cultivated his ties with these people, who would later introduce him to a plethora of Republican heavyweights, like Jim Baker. Without these connections, he may have found the hostilities on Capitol Hill toward Japan incurable.
It is also worth noting that Carlucci is now Honorary Chairman of the buy-out fund firm Carlyle, virtually a former Bush cabinet in exile. Kondo's business connections therefore are also still very much alive.
Then why put a man like him, one of the best connected people with Washington insiders, in charge of JH? A wiser Prime Minister could have used Kondo in the arena where he excels: international affairs.