“For a college kid in a provincial town in the early 50s, there were not many options for learning English. My teachers were Hollywood movies. I memorized a script and then sat in a movie theater all day, watching and listening to the same movie time and again.”
That was the method that set Minoru Akimoto on his road to success. It shows the initiative he had as a youngster, and his desire early in life to move ahead.
Born in Fukuoka, he was only 15 in 1945. He said, “For a few years after the end of the war, American culture had a tremendous impact on Japan. Everything brought into Japan was new to us. English seemed to me to be a necessary tool. My exercise in going to the movies paid off handsomely.”
After graduation from Yamaguchi University in 1953, Akimoto received a Fulbright Smith Mundt scholarship. He said, “It paid all my expenses for a year of study in a U.S. graduate school. Prior to leaving Japan, and upon arriving in the U.S., a thorough orientation for the American way of life was given. I was taught Western table manners, how not to spill water outside a bathtub, even how to date a girl on campus.” He studied in Michigan State University, and emerged with an MA in economics.
When he returned to Japan, Akimoto began working for Itochu Corp., then called C. Itoh and Co. “In 1960 I was sent to Manila,” he said. “Then I went on to the U.S. where I stayed eight years. My job was to procure various industrial machinery and ship it back to Japan. I traveled all over the States to shop around for the right equipment to industrialize devastated, postwar Japan. American people were kind and hospitable, and willing to sell all we wanted, including knowhow.”
On his next assignment to the U.S., Akimoto had a different role and met with a different reception. “My job then was to sell made-in-Japan machines and electronic appliances. Trade friction flared, first in textiles and then in radios and television sets. The Americans saw us as competitors, rather than the poor sundry goods peddlers of the sixties. They were not as hospitable. Sometimes they were hostile. The change in 10 years was dramatic.”
Akimoto was sent to London, to new circumstances. From that base he was in charge of operations in Europe and Africa, covering 38 offices and 20 subsidiaries in 36 countries. He said, “The experiences contrasted with those in the States. The business was more difficult and less productive, but was still rewarding. I spent two-thirds of my time outside England, traveling over 300,000 km a year. Of course I enjoyed it, but it was most exhausting.” To off-set one kind of exhaustion, he courted another: He ran the full London marathon of 40 km.
For the rest of his career with C. Itoh and Co., Akimoto stayed in Japan. He became senior managing director in charge of the legal and credit group. During this time he ran another full marathon, this one in Honolulu.
For his final C. Itoh and Co. year, he was in charge of accounting, and the legal, credit and information systems group for the company’s world-wide operations. He retired as executive vice president.
Akimoto says that his life at the top in business has been rich. After retirement he moved on to expand his experiences in another sphere. He became president and chief executive office of Time-Warner Entertainment Japan. “After five years with Time-Warner, I am well versed in movies, videos, CATV and other media contents and delivery systems,” he said. Briefly he took over the vice chairmanship of the Yaohan Japan Corp. As a member and trustee of the Association of Japanese Business Executives, he maintained steady relationships with business and political leaders. Now he functions as an independent financial and investment consultant.
At 70, Akimoto still jogs a steady 7 km every morning. He is proud of his wife who runs her own business, of his son who is a periodontist and of his daughter who is a soprano. He has comments to make on the changing fortunes of Japan. He said, “I see clearly how Japan got back on its feet after the war, and the way it stays in the doldrums now. Leaders of post-war Japan, like those of the Meiji Restoration, were young, in their thirties and forties. The people were hungry and hard working. But now, our leaders are in their 60s and 70s, and the people are not hungry. There is talk of the need for change, but it is still miles away.”