Speaking as a Japanese person, it’s a bit disheartening to see the words “samurai” and “idiot” in the same sentence. Filmmaker Hyoe Yamamoto’s documentary “Samurai and Idiots: The Olympus Affair” not only pairs the two, it shows the lack of logic and wisdom behind the so-called samurai spirit that many Japanese (and the rest of the world) see as the very essence of the national mindset.
“Samurai and Idiots” revisits a 2011 scandal that rocked camera manufacturer Olympus Corp., when then-newly appointed CEO Michael Woodford blew the whistle on the company’s shady accounting and dalliances with organized crime. Woodford was ousted from his post just two weeks afterward, terminating a 30-year career with the company. Before he left, however, the British businessman had torn the lid off what would become an enormous financial scandal involving one of the country’s most respected and successful names. In the aftermath, the entire board of Olympus resigned and the previous CEO, along with others, were arrested.
“It’s not really my story, it’s a story about modern day corporate Japan,” Woodford says in the film, which is meticulous in showing how a powerful manufacturer could be taken down from the inside.
“The title comes from Michael Woodford’s own words,” Yamamoto tells The Japan Times. “Woodford felt, and I do too, that the two concepts are not all that different. We Japanese hold the samurai as the ultimate ideal but it has become a convenient label more than anything else. It has been slapped onto whatever the Japanese — especially Japanese corporations — want to hide or avoid having to explain.”
The Olympus scandal may feel like history now, but the analysis of Japanese society in “Samurai and Idiots” is still quite relevant, according to Yamamoto.
“Though social networking and the internet have changed some aspects of how Japanese corporations and society think, many things have remained exactly the same,” he says. “Again and again, we’ve seen how people at the top sabotage their organizations and then cover the whole thing up. The Moritomo scandal, for instance, is a classic case in that we can’t really see who’s ultimately responsible. Everything is evaded with a single word: sontaku (loosely translated as ‘following unspoken orders’).
“I find the whole thing bizarre, but at the same time, it’s so Japanese. One of the motives for making ‘Samurai and Idiots’ is to show the Japanese that what is acceptable and even considered a virtue here can seem strange, offensive or illegal to the outside world.”
“Samurai and Idiots” marks 45-year-old Yamamoto’s debut as a feature filmmaker. He graduated from a Massachusetts high school before going on to study filmmaking at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He began working on “Samurai and Idiots” in 2011 and it premiered on British television in March 2015.
“During my years in the U.S. I learned to look at Japan through the eyes of an outsider,” Yamamoto says. “I always knew there was a huge gap between how the Japanese and the Western world viewed things, but working on this film brought it all home to me.”
The director points out that cracks are begining to appear in the facade of Japan’s carefully construed mask, though. Besides speaking extensively with Woodford, the films interviews renegade journalist Yoshimasa Yamaguchi, whose byline accompanied a series of investigative articles about Olympus on the front pages of news magazine Facta. Back in 2011 and 2012, readers were stunned by the revelations written in Yamaguchi’s reports, including the fact that top-level Olympus executives had been engaged in financial cover-ups for the past 20 years, with unaccounted fees totaling over $1.4 billion.
“More than anything else, I think the film manages to show how Japanese corporations are still mired in the samurai mentality, meaning they would sacrifice personal principles and creeds in order to protect the corporate name,” Yamamoto says. “It was the same with the samurai of old: They had to protect the castle and the head of the clan at all cost, even when they knew it was a losing battle and their lord was a fool.”
This aim of protecting the company may underlie the fact that nobody seems to have gotten rich off this financial scandal, no doubt a point of confusion for many non-Japanese fraudsters.
“First thing that everyone should have asked was ‘Where was all that money?’ The money trail led to dead ends, even though the records of the cover-ups went back over 20 years,” Yamamoto says. “To me, this is a very Japanese way of doing things. No one seemed interesting in getting rich themselves, they just wanted to preserve the honor of the company name. And no one had questioned that motive, or debated whether it was right or wrong.”
The Olympus scandal happened at a time when it was somewhat fashionable for Japanese companies to bring in foreign CEOs.
“Some Japanese corporations were very good at bringing in an outsider to ostensibly manage things at the top, and boost their image. They wanted to stress that they too were on the march to globalism,” Yamamoto says. “But Michael Woodford wasn’t the type to stay quiet and play along. He asked questions and dug around and though he left the company in the space of two weeks (as CEO), what he accomplished during this time was momentous.”
Yamamoto now fears that Japanese society is closing its doors to outside influences, despite the unprecedented numbers of tourists coming into the country from abroad.
“It’s becoming more difficult for non-Japanese to hold top-level positions in Japanese companies,” he says. “The sudden firing of Vahid Halilhodzic as head coach of the Japan soccer team just eight weeks before the World Cup is a case in point. The sumo scandals involving Mongolian wrestlers is another. I feel that Japan is once again at a point where it has become difficult to communicate with the outside world and explain things in a way that the rest of the world can understand.”
As for Olympus, the people at the top received suspended sentences and settlements were reached with all the executives involved. The company remains a brand-name whose shares are traded on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. In the end, the words of journalist Yamaguchi seem to sort the idiots from the real samurai: “I just wonder,” he says, “when did the Japanese become so cowardly?”
“Samurai and Idiots: The Olympus Affair” sees limited openings across the country after May 19 with select screenings in Tokyo including a talk session with director Hyoe Yamamoto. For more information, visit www.samurai2018.com.