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First it was Mazda, then Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors. Now it’s Sony.

Some of the biggest names in once notoriously insular corporate Japan have tapped foreigners as leaders, underlining a new flexibility shaped by globalization and years of economic malaise.

Japanese companies have increasingly been turning to foreigners for help in revamping their operations, with Sony picking a Welsh-American former CBS executive to be its new CEO this week. Nissan had been led by a Frenchman since 1999.

The trend has so far been limited to companies needing help restructuring. The likes of Canon and Toyota, which have been reporting record profits, haven’t been recruiting non-Japanese chiefs. But the change is a highly visible symbol of the way Japan has grown amenable to foreign investment, management and influence.

“The global economy has advanced — 70 percent of Sony’s revenue is from overseas,” said Seiichiro Yonekura, a management professor at Hitotsubashi University. “Nissan had a tieup with Renault and its brands have a presence overseas. In a global economy, this is a natural trend.”

It’s a different age from when Texas oilman-financier T. Boone Pickens struggled to get on the board of Koito Manufacturing Co. in 1990 and became a symbol of the difficulty Americans had breaking into the Japanese corporate hierarchy.

Pickens bought a 26.4 percent stake in Toyota Motor Co. affiliate Koito but gave up his quest for a seat after a two-year battle.

The decade-long economic slump that followed Japan’s stock market and real estate market crash in the early 1990s changed the scene.

Foreign investment funds like Ripplewood Holdings LLC bought bankrupt Japanese banks, golf courses, electronics companies and auto parts makers. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. snapped up a struggling Japanese supermarket chain.

Although foreign capitalists are viewed skeptically by some here as vultures preying on honest but weak Japanese companies, many Japanese have also grown accustomed to the idea of foreign bosses.

Success stories have helped.

Mazda Motor Co. led the way in 1996 when it allowed Ford Motor Co. to take a 33.4 percent stake and install a Ford executive at the helm. The company is now on course to report record operating profits this fiscal year.

Nissan Motor Co.’s turnaround under the guidance of Carlos Ghosn and Renault SA is the most famous example.

Ghosn and his nickname — “Le Cost Cutter” — initially inspired fears of social and economic upheaval amid plant-closings, mass layoffs and the potential damage his reforms would inflict on Nissan’s ties with its suppliers.

His triumph, however, has made him an unlikely national hero. At one point, Ghosn was popping up on lists of people Japanese voters wanted to become prime minister, even though his nationality made him ineligible.

Hiroshi Okuda, chairman of Toyota Motor Co., said it was no surprise that an outsider would be leading Sony.

“Frankly speaking, if you think about the future of Japan, this is natural,” said Okuda, who also serves as head of Japan’s most powerful business lobby, Nippon Keidanren. “This will be become normal and there will be less and less resistance to it.”

Sony has a track record of establishing trends for corporate Japan: It began reporting earnings on a quarterly basis, instead of twice a year, long before its domestic rivals. It also brought in outside directors to its board to join the internally groomed executives who are the norm at many Japanese companies.

If past example of companies following Sony’s lead on quarterly earnings reports and outside directors is any indication, other Japanese companies might soon be seeking foreign bosses.

If nothing else, the possibility — or threat — might provide a good psychological push to raise profits.

“It might scare some Japanese managers and companies into thinking, ‘If we don’t do better, we’re going to have to have a foreigner as our CEO. So let’s do better,’ ” said John Vail, chief Japanese equity strategist at J.P. Morgan Securities Asia.

But just being foreign is no guarantee of success.

Vail and others, for instance, said they were worried about Stringer’s plans to shuttle between Tokyo, his base in New York and his family in Britain.

Globe-trotting may be fitting for a company with interests around the world, but it might also hamper Stringer’s ability to get his message across.

“If Stringer is to really take action, he should, like Carlos Ghosn, come to Japan,” Yonekura said. “If you don’t do it that way, people won’t believe you. It will be difficult (to lead) from videophone from the United States.”

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