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Shareholders, former employees watch as Toshiba’s fortunes fall

by

Staff Writer

For Toshiba Corp. investor Ichio Hosoda, who bet on the ailing electronics conglomerate to provide him with a nest egg after retirement, what is happening to the 142-year-old company is something he cannot and does not want to believe.

When Hosoda, from Nara Prefecture, spent part of his savings on Toshiba shares in May 2015, it seemed like a secure investment that would provide him with a little more leeway to prepare for his future.

But Hosoda, 56, has instead lost nearly ¥1 million from the recent plunge in Toshiba’s share price.

“To me, Toshiba seemed like an unmistakable choice,” Hosoda told The Japan Times in a recent interview. “I thought Toshiba was a very trustworthy company.”

Hosoda is not the only one who failed to foresee that the time-honored giant and its roughly 190,000 employees were headed for a crisis. Four other investors interviewed by The Japan Times recounted similar feelings of horror as the company reported it was on the verge of plunging ¥150 billion into negative net worth after an accounting scandal and a massive writedown at its U.S. nuclear unit.

If the excessive debt remains at the end of March, Toshiba will be downgraded to the second section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. From there, it will be delisted if its ongoing asset selloff fails to reverse the situation within a year.

Hosoda said his trust in Toshiba started to crumble after the accounting scandal broke in 2015, revealing “inappropriate” practices that helped it overstate earnings by ¥152 billion over seven years from 2008 to 2014.

The scandal forced out eight executive officers, including former President Hisao Tanaka and predecessors Atsutoshi Nishida and Norio Sasaki.

An independent third-party report found that the presidents had pressured their subordinates to pad profits over the years.

“I think the scandal showed that Toshiba has become a company that only cares about capitalism theory,” Hosoda said, referring to its apparent obsession with profit goals. “A company would lose its value if it didn’t care about the social good or well-being of its employees.”

A former shareholder from Aichi Prefecture who declined to be named said that Toshiba had been more than just another electronics maker in his mind.

“I never thought such a top-notch company like Toshiba would be involved in such a big accounting problem — not even in my dreams,” the 70-year-old man said, adding that he lost more than ¥1 million from the share plunge sparked by the scandal.

“I had no negative image toward Toshiba, given that I’ve been a longtime user of Toshiba’s home appliances and that the company has produced many charismatic leaders.”

Toshiba’s roots can be traced back to 1875, when inventor Hisashige Tanaka, who gained fame as a creator of wind-up dolls and clocks, set up a factory to make telecommunications equipmentin Tokyo’s Ginza district.

The predecessor of today’s Toshiba was established in 1939, when his factory merged with now-defunct Tokyo Denki (Tokyo Electric Co.) founded by Ichisuke Fujioka, who produced Japan’s first incandescent lightbulbs. This later became Tokyo Shibaura Denki (Tokyo Shibaura Electric Co.), which shortened its name to Toshiba Corp. in 1984.

Toshiba became a household name in appliances after creating Japan’s first electric washing machine, vacuum cleaner, rice cooker and color TV. It also claims to have made the world’s first mass-marketed laptop computer.

For many in Japan, Toshiba is known better as the leading sponsor of “Sazae-san,” the animated TV series beloved by generations. It has been the main sponsor since the cartoon debuted in October 1969. Toshiba reportedly intends to continue sponsoring the program, although it refuses to confirm this.

Toshiba has been an influential figure in business as well, producing many famed leaders.

Perhaps the most well-received figure is the late Toshio Doko, an engineer who became president in 1965 and chairman in 1972.

Doko was a charismatic leader who later headed the influential Japan Federation of Economic Organizations, which was later renamed the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren). He advocated radical reform of old corporate structures and exerted a strong presence in the revitalization of not only Toshiba, but the Japanese manufacturing sector as well.

“I had admired Toshiba because of Mr. Doko, assuming that Toshiba’s employees and corporate culture would have been positively influenced by his doctrine,” the 70-year-old Aichi shareholder said. “But I never thought Toshiba would become such a dishonest company. The essence of this problem is not just the failing business of a Japanese electronics giant. I think the root lies in the corporate structure of Japan’s mega-companies in general.”

Former Toshiba employee Masashi Goto agrees.

Goto, a former nuclear engineer who entered Toshiba in 1989 and retired in 2009, said the corruption was created by “unnecessary top-down pressure” from its executives.

“At the time I entered the company, there was less pressure from the top executives. But that landscape had changed toward the end of my career as they started to control the way employees worked under the pretext of streamlining the business,” he said.

Toshiba’s fall accelerated as employees were forced to devote most of their time on reviewing trivial mistakes and given less time to concentrate on each project, he said. As the pressure from above became more intense, some then began to whitewash their mistakes or leave risks and uncertainties unresolved without consulting their bosses.

“What anchors their behavior is the salaryman’s desire to protect himself — no one wants to put their position at risk by telling the truth,” he said, adding that he believes the excessive pressure gave birth to the accounting scandal.

The driving force behind that pressure was an urgency to make up for the huge losses being generated by U.S. nuclear unit Westinghouse Electric Co., acquired in 2006, Goto said.

During his time, Goto said nuclear power was considered a “low-risk business” that enjoyed constant demand and steady profits ensured by Toshiba’s cooperation with stakeholders that included general contractors and utilities.

“The company upheld a strategy of categorizing its nuclear power business as a stable income source together with other businesses like flash memory, which could be either lucrative or fruitless from time to time,” he said.

But the situation changed dramatically after the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

“I think the fundamental problem of Toshiba lies with its failure to understand the risks of the nuclear business correctly,” he said.

“When proponents of nuclear power talk about the nuclear plant business, they tend to paint the brightest — yet unrealistic — future and proceed with the business based on the premise that everything will go as planned,” Goto said, adding that Toshiba purchased Westinghouse under that premise.

“Considering the social responsibility it has to fulfill, I can’t say Toshiba is a pitiful victim,” he said. “But I feel sorry for the employees, especially because many of my colleagues are still working at the company.”