Buddhist monk and legendary Japanese patron Kazuo Inamori dies at 90

DISAPPEARANCE. Founder of the Kyocera group, “savior” of the JAL airline, Kazuo Inamori died on August 24. Back on a unique journey.

He was revered in Japan as a legendary patron, management mentor, philanthropist and Buddhist monk. Kyocera, the company he founded in post-war Japan, announced on Tuesday that Kazuo Inamori died on August 24 at the age of 90. He left discreetly, in his dear city of Kyoto, which had given the name to Kyocera, for Kyoto Ceramics.

On this day in 2015, Le Figaro attends, in the vast hall of the Kyoto International Conference Center, a ceremony, a mixture of an Oscars evening and a dive into the thousand-year-old Japan of the Shoguns. Nothing is missing, tea ceremony, number of Nô theater and philharmonic orchestra. Dressed in a white kimono belted in gold, on the stage, Princess Takamodo, cousin by marriage of the Emperor of Japan Akihito, concentrates the gaze during this thirtieth edition of the presentation of the prestigious Kyoto Prize, endowed with 150 million of yen (1 million euros at the time). At his side, discreetly stands a small man with gray hair, in a tuxedo.
This is Kazuo Inamori, president of the eponymous foundation which has awarded the Kyoto Prize since 1984.

The founder of two industrial empires, Kyocera and KDDI, who had become a management guru, discreet in the foreign press, gave an interview that year to the Figaro. For most Japanese, the “Dr Inamori” is above all the savior of the national airline Japan Airlines. He was about to turn 78 when, in 2010, the government called him to try to straighten out JAL, which had just been declared bankrupt, crushed in debt. The massive layoffs had been decided before his arrival. With an iron fist in a velvet glove, Kazuo Inamori will impose heavy sacrifices on the part of the employees but, in two years, the miracle is there, JAL is saved. By the way, the providential boss operates a revolution in the company, exclusive customer of Boeing. JAL places its first order with Airbus. Commercial common sense dictated to have two suppliers rather than one, but another element weighed in the choice of Inamori: “I had met Fabrice Brégier (the boss of Airbus) in Davos. He made a good impression on me, he seemed to me to have personal integrity”, justifies the octogenarian. The choice of men. It is the act that he considers the most important in the life of a boss. If you’re a poser, if you’re not humbleconfirms a Kyocera executive, it will be difficult to please the Dr Inamori. »
At JAL, Kazuo Inamori applied “his” management method, the “amoebic management”. In French, the term amoeba pejoratively evokes parasites. The best translation would be “cellular management”. The Japanese entrepreneur managed his companies by dividing his workforce into small autonomous teams, responsible for their budget and their objectives, the “amoebas”, capable of dividing as the company evolves. The turnaround at JAL has redoubled the appeal of the teachings of Dr Inamori. He has published several books, gives conferences in Japan and China in front of hundreds of SME bosses.

cathode ray tube revolution

Kazuo Inamori developed his management philosophy in the field, in half a century of entrepreneurship. He did not come out of the “boot” of the big universities like Todai or Kyodai, but more simply that of his native region of Kagoshima (southern Japan). With his diploma in hand, he preferred the proud, imperial and industrious Kyoto, where thousand-year-old palaces and temples, craftsmen and students rub shoulders with reference equipment manufacturers such as the manufacturer of Rohm transistors, that of Nidec motors.

At the age of 27, a chemical engineer, he left his first employer – a rare occurrence in Japan -, married the day after his resignation and created his own company, Kyoto Ceramics, the future Kyocera. The company is one of those groups that are little known to the general public with regard to assembly manufacturers like Panasonic or Toyota, but which perhaps form the real industrial aristocracy of the Archipelago, underground, capable of producing an infinite quantity of sophisticated parts essential for consumer products. The first product from the SME Kyocera will be a small ceramic tube, an insulator for a television. We are in 1959, at the dawn of the invasion in homes of the cathode ray tube.

Unknown to the general public elsewhere than on the Japanese archipelago, Kyocera is nevertheless omnipresent in the world. Its high-precision ceramic-based components are found in automobiles, computers, and even the Hubble Space Telescope. The company has declined ceramics in tens of thousands of referenced products, kitchen knives, solar panels or surgical prostheses. In 2015, the conglomerate employed more than 70,000 people worldwide.

Opposition support

This success is not enough for Kazuo Inamori. In 1984, aged 50, he created his second company: a telecom operator that would challenge the public monopoly. KDDI is still today the second largest player in Japan. Major shareholder of Kyocera, the Dr Inamori found himself almost a billionaire in dollars, according to Forbes. That same year, 1984, he created his philanthropic foundation and the Kyoto Prize, a way of giving back what he felt he had received, by rewarding two researchers but also an artist each year. “Because science and technology are not enough for true happiness”, philosopher Kazuo Inamori. Among the very diverse winners are the musician Pierre Boulez, the sociologist Bruno Latour and the director Ariane Mnouchkine.

Its very unique political positioning also makes it a outsider. If a big Japanese boss was close to the opposition, it was Kazuo Inamori. The Liberal Democratic Party (PLD) has remained the centerpiece of the ruling majority since the war. It maintains the best relations with economic circles, forming, with the bureaucracy as the third point, what the “Japanologists” have called an “iron triangle”. However, Dr. Inamori had chosen to place himself outside the said triangle, supporting the opposition so that his country could become a genuine two-party democracy. At the beginning of the 2000s, it was he who brought together, with forceps, the scattered opposition forces on the political spectrum within the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). There was his Trojan horse: a young deputy from Kyoto named Seiji Maehara. In 2009, his efforts bore fruit: the DPJ achieved the unprecedented feat, never repeated since, of overthrowing the PLD. A year later, Japan Airlines, the country’s leading air carrier, went bankrupt: it was to Kazuo Inamori that Seiji Maehara, who had become Minister of Transport, left the handle to straighten it out. Bet held in two years.

Alms, shaved head

The common thread in Kazuo Inamori’s life is not politics, however. Rather Buddhism. The Buddhist precepts were transmitted to him by his mother and his father, a small printer from Kagoshima, in the south of the Archipelago. Young Kazuo really discovers religion as an adolescent when, struck down by tuberculosis, he believes he is doomed. He immersed himself in philosophy books that marked him forever. At the age of 65, he took a break from his hectic life as a businessman to briefly retire to a temple of the Rinzai Zen sect in Kyoto. He became a monk and, his head shaved, gave alms for a while. But his spiritual master tells him that his mission is in the city. This mixture of genres, monk and captain of industry, even in Japan, is not trivial. “It earned him criticismexplains a friend, he was criticized for not choosing. »

This displayed spirituality, tasted by good Japanese society as a “soul supplement” in this austere industrial environment, did not work its charm on everyone. “After Kyocera took over KDDI, the company was taken over by some kind of unpleasant personality cult“, recalls lawyer Stephen Givens, who worked for the operator at the time. “When we dined together, I saw more of a businessman than a priest or a philosopher. He treated his staff horribly», reports for its part a European industrialist. Dr. Inamori was not an easy boss, confirmed several relatives in 2015. “If he doesn’t scold you, he doesn’t believe in you”confided a former American executive of Kyocera. “He is the toughest man, with the biggest heart”, added a friend who hadn’t left him since his debut in Kyoto. In Japanese collective memory, he will remain the benefactor through the Inamori Foundation.

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Buddhist monk and legendary Japanese patron Kazuo Inamori dies at 90