Author draws strength from illness to warn of market crisis

by Tomoko Otake

A life-threatening illness often focuses a person’s mind on the meaning of life. For writer Main Kohda, the fear she may have developed cancer changed her life.

Kohda, author of the highly acclaimed book “Nihon Kokusai” (“Japanese Government Bonds”), was at the forefront of global financial markets in the 1970s and 1980s when she was working at the Tokyo branch of U.S. investment bank Bankers Trust, now Deutsche Bank. In 1988, she left and started a consulting business.

But in May 1994, she learned that a tumor in her uterus needed to be removed immediately. It was later found to be benign.

With death knocking on her door, Kohda said, she realized her true mission in life: conveying her thoughts about Japanese society based on her long experience of “being sandwiched between Japanese and overseas business cultures.”

“When I thought that I might die, I looked back on the fast-paced life I had been living,” Kohda, now 50, said. “I strongly felt that I wanted to put my experiences and my messages to society on the record.”

Kohda, her pen name, has chosen fiction as her narrative style. “I first wrote my life story in essay form, but felt that I couldn’t make it sound as true as I wanted,” she said. “I realized that by using the third person, I could convey the truth more convincingly.”

In fact, the story of a bond market crash depicted in her third novel was so convincing that it became a 135,000-copy best-seller.

In “Nihon Kokusai,” published last November, Kohda exposed issues surrounding the nation’s surging government debt, which had long been on the minds of many people but never addressed as poignantly. How can the government keep issuing bonds as if they are free money? Why do people keep buying them despite the negligible interest? Why is it that banks, which have been recapitalized through injections of public money raised through bond issues, are rushing to invest in yet more bonds? And why aren’t people worried about a market meltdown, which could happen at any time?

Kohda points out that continued purchases of government bonds by banks and other investors in an effort to reduce the risk has had the opposite effect, increasing the level of risk in the bond market itself.

The novel, for which she conducted more than 100 interviews over two years with market players, a police detective, Finance Ministry bureaucrats and members of the media, caused a sensation not only at home but also abroad.

In penning the book, Kohda’s biggest wish was to enlighten the public about the consequences of a possible market crash, she said.

“People in this country have an inexplicable sense of confidence,” she said. “Despite the huge government debt, they think it’s someone else’s problem, or that a kamikaze (divine wind) will somehow pull the nation out of the doldrums. But my feeling is that unless everyone thinks seriously about these issues, Japan will be in big trouble.”

A seemingly endless series of scandals involving financial institutions, bureaucrats and police officers in recent years has moved young people to strive to change the status quo, she said.

But no matter how capable and motivated such individuals are, their presence is obscured by the organizations to which they belong, be it government bodies or corporations, Kohda added.

Some have given up on Japan and sought refuge overseas, Kohda said, citing professional baseball player Ichiro Suzuki and scientist Shuji Nakamura, both of whom have succeeded in the United States.

“Many of my friends have left this country, too,” she said. “They ask me, ‘Why are you still in Japan?’ But I say, ‘I still have appeals to make toward (the people of) this country.’

“I think this country is blessed with many great assets, including its culture. Through my work as a novelist, I want to pass my words of encouragement on to younger generations.”