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An ‘outsider’ finds insight into Japan’s bad-loan crisis

by Victoria James

Just 33 years old when she headed the Tokyo Bureau of the Financial Times, Gillian Tett took an unusual route to the heart of Japan’s business world.

The Cambridge-educated anthropologist began freelancing for the British Broadcasting Corp. and the FT from the villages of Soviet Tajikistan, where she was researching a Ph.D. on Islam and nationalism. Recruited for FT’s graduate-trainee program, she joined the paper full time in 1993 and was transferred to Tokyo in 1997. In 2002 she took a sabbatical to work on “Saving the Sun,” a study of the bad-loan crisis that overwhelmed Japan’s Long Term Credit Bank, which was then sold to foreign investors and relaunched as Shinsei.

Now the mother of 6-month-old Helen Marie, Tett returns to work next month as deputy head of Lex at the FT in London. She was recently in Tokyo to promote the newly published Japanese translation of “Saving the Sun.” She spoke with The Japan Times in an interview and by e-mail.

Has your training as a social anthropologist influenced your work?

Unless you understand how money is moving about the economy, it is impossible to have any meaningful analysis of a society or its culture; and unless you look at cultural issues, it is difficult to ever understand how a financial system works when it is outside your own culture.

American bankers and financiers, for example, tend to assume that other cultures have the same attitude to money that they do. “Money is money,” they say — or they assume that the profit motive is as universal as gravity. But that isn’t true. What I have tried to do is look at the world of finance not simply in terms of macro-economics, but also in terms of cultural differences. The story of LTCB and Shinsei forced me to do that more than ever.

The modus operandi of anthropology is to listen and to observe at the grass roots. When I did my Ph.D., I lived in a little village in Soviet Tajikistan for a year and watched daily life there, spending hours looking after goats and babies — often at the same time! When I was doing my research for my book I tried the same approach, and throughout I tried to not be too judgmental.

Some people don’t like that approach at all. In America, in particular, I was criticized for being too “wishy-washy,” and the American publishers imposed the book’s subtitle on me (“A Wall Street Gamble to Rescue Japan . . .”).

But the publishers didn’t change the text. I hope the book itself reflects my belief that it is important to respect cultural difference — and listen to different points of view.

Did you encounter any challenges as a young foreign woman heading up a bureau here in Japan?

I think that being a woman actually helped me, in a way. In Japanese eyes I was very young to be doing my job (I was 33 when I was appointed). If I had been a man, it might have raised eyebrows. But because I was a woman, I suspect that many Japanese just thought I was irredeemably weird anyway.

I often think that I had the status of a Martian. In fact, because of that, the Japanese people who I needed to talk with tended to remember who I was, which was handy when I was trying to get interviews — and they tended to think that I was outside the normal rules. In some ways, I had wider access than some Japanese might have had, at least in the sense that I could break rules more freely.

In any case, I never really felt that I was at a disadvantage because of being a woman. Of course, if I had been Japanese, it would have been a totally different matter — I have masses of respect for any Japanese woman who can achieve things in Japan.

What was your biggest scoop?

One that I remember particularly clearly was stumbling on the figure for how much money the Japanese government was spending on the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa back in 2000 — it was vast!

I was stuck down in Miyazaki Prefecture at a G-8 foreign ministers’ meeting that was deadly boring. There was nothing going on, and the hall was full of local Japanese officials who were desperately trying to be helpful. Eventually I asked one — almost as a joke — if they could tell me how much the event cost. They came back with an amazingly precise figure, but initially I didn’t believe it, since it was so much! But I checked and rechecked. Then the Financial Times held the story for a couple of days since they couldn’t believe the numbers either — it was almost 100 times more than the Germans had spent on their summit a few years earlier!

But in the end we published it, and it had a big impact. The final irony was discovering that the theme of the G-8 meeting was “tackling global poverty.”

Aside from that, lots of things startled me in Japan. The endless coverups in the banking sector, all the policy lies, all the dirty goings-on in the financial world — and some of the more aggressive tactics that some foreign bankers used. Even now, things startle. When I wrote my book, for example, I never, ever imagined for a millisecond that Harunori Takahashi [former EIE International president] would come back and sue Shinsei and the government and win a sizable sum of money. Time and time again when I was writing the book, I kept thinking “I couldn’t make this up if I tried.”

Your book ends on a pessimistic note, suggesting that foreigners in Japan are able to profit from but never adequately understand the culture. Is that really how you feel?

Well, in retrospect, the ending of the book was a bit more pessimistic than I had planned — in subsequent editions I have changed the epilogue to be a bit more upbeat. But many foreign businessmen who have dealt with Japan are left with this abiding sense of bafflement and frustration, often expressed in a humorous way.

At the same time, what strikes me about the financial world is that so many foreigners do find ways to arbitrage these cultural gaps — and make a lot of money. Almost as soon as Japan started to open its doors, back in the 19th century, canny foreign traders spotted that Japan was operating on a different gold and silver standard from the rest of the world, and they rushed to exploit that. One hundred fifty years later, they are still doing it.