Top Japan Tobacco exec urges state to sell shares

Katsuhiko Honda, who has been informally appointed the next president of Japan Tobacco Inc., urged the government Thursday to sell more of its shares in the firm to make its privatization more meaningful.

“It is necessary to expand our freedom (from the state) over the management of the company, and we will do our utmost toward that end,” Honda, 58, told a news conference at the headquarters of the formerly state-owned firm in Tokyo.

The Finance Ministry is Japan Tobacco’s main shareholder, with 66.7 percent of the shares.

Honda, who is currently vice president, has been tentatively appointed successor to President Masaru Mizuno. A formal appointment is expected after Japan Tobacco holds a shareholders’ meeting at the end of June.

He will be the first career Japan Tobacco executive to head the former government monopoly since it was privatized in 1985.

Mizuno and two previous Japan Tobacco presidents were former bureaucrats from the Finance Ministry, the government agency that used to oversee the tobacco company.

Mizuno, 67, who will become chairman, said Honda has been selected as new president because he was deemed to “best fit the post” after “studying a broad range of candidates regardless of their backgrounds.”

In a move that reflects the Finance Ministry’s continued influence over Japan Tobacco, however, the company will name Tadashi Ogawa, a former administrative vice minister of the ministry, as special adviser.

During Thursday’s news conference, Mizuno acknowledged that Ogawa is expected to become the firm’s chairman eventually. Honda, vice president since June 1998, has been playing an active role in expanding Japan Tobacco’s international business.

Last year, Japan Tobacco bought the international tobacco business of RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp. for $7.83 billion.

Honda spearheaded Japan Tobacco’s negotiations for the deal, which made the company the world’s third-largest tobacco company with seven of the world’s top 20 cigarette brands.

Honda joined Nippon Tobacco in 1965 after graduating from the law department of Tokyo University.