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Olympus fiasco was ‘lost opportunity’

Fraud case mystifies Woodford aide and translator Waku Miller

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Waku Miller, a resident of Tokyo for over 30 years and a veteran translator who recently served as a spokesman for Michael C. Woodford — former president and CEO of Olympus Corp. — said he found it odd how indifferent major Japanese shareholders were even after a massive loss coverup by the camera and medical equipment maker was uncovered.

“All the foreign shareholders were demanding explanations, demanding the board quit, and let outside directors come in and run things properly,” Miller said as he described what he saw as a stark contrast between Japanese and non-Japanese shareholders in response to the scandal.

“None of the major Japanese shareholders said one word in support of Woodford for calling attention to a $2 billion fraud. And not one of them had one word of criticism for the management that allowed this to happen,” he said in reference to the position of institutional investors who endorsed the new team of top executives picked by the departing board in a special shareholders’ meeting in April.

The high-profile scandal, he said, was a wonderful — but lost — opportunity for Japan to recognize that this was clearly a corporate governance issue and a lack of effective oversight — “there were no checks and balances there.”

The U.S.-born Miller — noticeable with his shaved head and black-frame glasses and clad in samue (traditional work attire) — was always seen sitting beside Woodford to serve as translator at news conferences and interviews. He also supported Woodford in the shareholders’ meeting as well as separate sessions with investors, and was present when the former Olympus chief held meetings with prosecutors, police and regulators.

Miller also served as a contact person with the media on behalf of Woodford, who had little direct contact with the Japanese press, after he saw what he observed as a slow media response to the move last October by Olympus to oust him as president. Woodford was axed after he raised doubts about the firm’s past questionable acquisitions of other firms in a scheme that Olympus later admitted was used to cover up investment losses dating back to the early 1990s.

“The Japanese media weren’t touching this at all. I would visit media and explain the story. I helped develop stories in the media about it,” he said.

A translator and director of an editorial design firm dealing mostly with corporate public relations, Miller said he volunteered to interpret for Woodford, whom he called his “good friend.” “I wanted to do something to help. At that time, I thought there was a good chance that if we got the truth out, (Woodford) could come back as president,” he said. However, Woodford gave up on a proxy fight to get him reinstated as head of the firm prior to the shareholders’ meeting.

Miller met Woodford over a decade ago when Miller visited KeyMed, Olympus’ U.K.-based subsidiary then led by Woodford, to write a story about the company for a magazine published by the British Embassy in Tokyo. They never worked together on business, but enjoyed spending leisure time together when Woodford was in Japan

Although Miller has no background in legal matters, he watched the Olympus case from the unique position as Woodford’s spokesman and from the dual viewpoint of a foreigner and longtime resident of Japan.

“At first we thought we were doing this to help a friend. But after a while, we thought, ‘We’re not doing this for Michael, we’re doing this for Olympus. Come to think of it, we’re doing this for Japan.’ There’s something horribly, horribly wrong,” he said. “If there was one thing we could do (to make a change), both inside and outside Olympus, it was to say, ‘Let’s require by law that listed companies have a certain minimum number of outside directors, and two, let’s make sure that outside directors can be charged in court — criminal or civil — if they don’t do their job.’ “

Miller was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and moved to Arizona with his family when he was 3 and grew up there. He went on to study at Arizona State University for 2½ years, and transferred to American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. He then studied contemporary music at California Institute of the Arts, and attained a master’s degree in music from the American Conservatory.

He studied to become a professional classical trombonist, but admits he “wasn’t very good at it.” So he wondered what else he could do, and came up with the idea of traveling abroad.

When he realized he did not have enough money for that, a friend who had lived in Japan advised Miller to go to Japan and teach English if he needed to earn money to travel. So he did, and taught at an English school that his friend had taught at. He met a receptionist there, who later became his wife, and they have had two children. He has since lived in Tokyo.

After learning the basics of the Japanese language through a three-month intensive course at a language school in Tokyo upon his arrival, Miller said he told himself he would only read the news in Japanese. “I stopped using a Japanese-English dictionary, and used only a Japanese dictionary. Of course when I found the explanation for the word, I could not read the words in the explanation, so I had to look those words up,” he said.

He started the translation job after spending a year in Japan, and has since translated about half a dozen Japanese books into English — on varying topics, such as Japanese demographics and analysis of productivity in automobile plants around the world.

Last year, he received a special translation award from the Japan Society of Translators for his most recent translation of the book “Sho” (“Taction”) by calligrapher Kyuyoh Ishikawa, which portrays the history and theory of East Asian calligraphy.

“When you write and publish something, you don’t know if anybody’s paying attention. For me, the happiest thing about getting an award was that at least somebody was paying attention — at least somebody read it. That’s the most exciting thing,” he said.

Calling himself a shugyo-so (trainee monk), Miller says he has been greatly influenced by the book “Shobogenzo,” a collection of 95 fascicles concerning Buddhist practice and enlightenment written by Eihei Dogen, a Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher.

He also cited his encounter with whom he calls “the best monk he knows” — Waju Murata, a monk at Ryushoji Temple on the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture. Miller listened to a talk that Murata gave of “Shobogenzo” in Tokyo, and was intrigued by it. Miller says he visits Murata at the temple several times a year.

It was from Murata that he received his Buddhist name “Waku,” which he now uses as his first name, instead of the American name Brian.

“Wa” was taken from “Waju,” and “ku” means “air” or “nothing.” Miller said he took the idea from the Zen word he likes — “muichimotsu,” which means humans originally don’t possess anything, so there’s no need to cling on to anything.

Miller has an extensive interest in traditional Japanese culture, ranging from pottery and tea ceremony to noh. He has a collection of Japanese pottery — mainly Bizen — has his own tatami room in his house where he can prepare tea, and also goes to see noh once a month.

He said he finds a commonality in all those things — that is, how he thinks they alter the concept of time.

“For me, whether it’s tea or pottery or noh, I think the most fundamental appeal of all of them is what they do with time. Once (tea or pottery or noh) starts, it just puts you on a different frame of reference,” he said.