This is the first in a 10-part series on influential figures in the Heisei Era, which began in 1989 and will end when Emperor Akihito abdicates in April. In Heisei, Japan was roiled by economic excess and stagnation, as well as a struggle for political and social reform. This series explores those who left their imprint along the way.
In many ways, Heisei has been an era of reform, peppered with tales of mavericks who challenged those at the helm of an entrenched business and political system they viewed as opaque and rife with vested interests.
Not many embodied this fight more colorfully than Takafumi Horie, a young, T-shirt-clad internet mogul who shot to stardom in the early 2000s by taking on the old guard, and old Japan, with Livedoor — the internet empire he built from scratch.
What sets Horie apart from the others, however, is the fact that he is still fighting, challenging the status quo despite a trading scandal that put him behind bars during his late 30s.
Outspoken and unapologetically flashy, the Ferrari-driving computer whiz was hailed as the darling of a younger generation fed up with the establishment and an economic malaise dubbed “the lost decade” that became the new normal for Japan during much of the era.
Now 46, the “bad boy” entrepreneur has overcome the humiliation of his imprisonment and the disintegration of Livedoor to make a resilient comeback, overseeing a gamut of projects ranging from space exploration to online media management and preventive health care.
Horie declined to be interviewed for this article.
The Fukuoka native founded his first internet firm, Livin’ On the Edge, in 1996 while a student at the elite University of Tokyo (he later dropped out). What started as a venture at a tiny seven tatami office quickly morphed into a giant, debuting on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 2000.
After renaming the company Livedoor in 2004, Horie achieved rock-star status as he embarked on an audacious attempt to buy out an indebted professional baseball team, Osaka’s Kintetsu Buffaloes.
The team ultimately rejected his offer, but the battle he waged against the insulated baseball industry earned him widespread praise and media exposure. Supporters nicknamed him “Horiemon,” seeing in him a resemblance to Doraemon, the pudgy robotic cat behind a popular manga of the same name.
Horie’s reputation as an outsider and nonconformist was all the more highlighted in his battle with Hiroshi Mikitani, president of e-commerce giant Rakuten.
Like Horie, Mikitani was also pursuing a foray into professional baseball. But unlike Horie, he cozied up to Keidanren, the nation’s most influential business lobby, and gained membership to Nippon Professional Baseball . This eventually allowed him to create a new team: the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
In the end, the episode illustrated an underdog’s struggle against the nation’s geriatric business barons — an anti-establishment crusade that resonated with the public.
“I think it’s basically a bunch of spiteful old veterans clinging to the archaic logic that young people have to work their way up slowly just like they did, before being able to enjoy the privilege of owning a baseball club,” Horie wrote in his best-selling 2004 book “Kasegu ga Kachi” (“The Rich are Victors”), recalling the stiff resistance he encountered when discussing his bid with Tsuneo Watanabe, former president of the Yomiuri Giants, and other longtime team owners.
His fight against the old guard didn’t end there.
Livedoor went on to become the biggest stakeholder in tiny AM radio station Nippon Broadcasting System in 2005, setting the stage for his shocking bid to take over the powerful Fuji Sankei media group. The insurgency cast a dramatic spotlight on the ins and outs of mergers and acquisitions.
Though Horie’s media forays failed, his nonconformist style won him hordes of followers, especially among disaffected youth, who gravitated toward his confidence, brash behavior and strong leadership.
A survey by the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry of 835 new college graduates in 2005 showed Horie was their top pick for the “celebrity you want to become company president.”
Horie’s signature phrase “sōteinai” (“within expectations”), which he repeatedly used when facing adversity, was also chosen as buzzword of the year.
Yet his high-flying ways made him many enemies.
Some took issue with what they saw as his controversial — if not illegal — expansion methods, which included employing such tactics as off-hours trading, stock splits and hostile takeovers. His assertion that “money can buy the hearts of people,” which he brashly declared in “Kasegu ga Kachi,” reinforced his image as an arriviste.
In 2015, in what the tech prodigy acknowledges was “possibly the most mysterious” twist in his career, Horie, then 32, ran for a seat in the House of Representatives, backed by the reformist administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a like-minded ally who had formed a group of celebrity “assassin” candidates to oust entrenched old guard politicians.
The Lower House election was billed as a battle between reformists and the old guard, and Horie found himself pitted against Shizuka Kamei, a conservative heavyweight in Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party, in Hiroshima.
“People would say, ‘Horie the money-grabber is now after power,'” he recalled in his 2013 book “Zero,” explaining that his unsuccessful foray into politics was inspired by Koizumi’s show of dismantling vested interests, including within his own party.
His stardom unraveled in January 2006, when he was arrested on suspicion of securities fraud and found guilty the following year.
Despite fighting for his innocence over the next five years, his 2½-year prison term was finalized in April 2011. He ended up cooling his heels in Nagano Prison, where he defiantly updated his digital newsletters with help from his staff. He was released on parole in March 2013.
More than a decade since the Livedoor saga gripped the nation, Horie now appears on TV as a guest commentator, his brash style and disdain for tradition unabated.
In 2015 he posted a series of acid-tongued tweets calling out the tradition-laden system that typically sees aspiring sushi chefs endure years of apprenticeship before going independent. His message was that in an age of “open innovation,” one can simply learn the necessary culinary skills at a vocational school in just a few months.
“Japanese people tend to find beauty in asceticism and perseverance, such as training and practice,” Horie wrote in his best-seller “Tadoryoku” (“Ability to Multitask”), in 2017.
“But honestly, I can’t stand watching young minds with a bright future ahead of them waste years of their precious youth learning how to make tamagoyaki (rolled omelet sushi).”
In fact, the willingness to defy long-established precedent is what Horie seemed eager to inspire in a crowd of college students he addressed at a Tokyo seminar in December.
Sporting a hoodie, Horie was discussing one of his latest projects — hosting a musical — and how he was determined to style it the way he wanted.
“One of the things I’ve always hated about theaters in Japan is the suffocating way you need to sit tight. The whole time you’re watching a play, you have to remain seated for two or three hours without saying a word, and you can’t even recline your chair,” Horie said.
So for his show — a modern-day adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” — Horie said he has a plan to lighten the mood. The audience, he said, will be encouraged to eat, drink and chat freely as they watch — behavior traditional theaters would consider insulting to the actors on stage.
“This is what I call ‘updating’ theatrical plays,” Horie said.
“The fact you can’t even complain about not being allowed to eat, chat or even stretch while watching a play — even though you know your back is hurting — says so much about today’s Japanese society, where peer pressure prevails upon you to refrain from saying anything deviant.”
Did you know . . .
- Takafumi Horie was a hitchhiker during his days at the University of Tokyo, traveling nationwide. He says the experience gave him the kind of confidence and negotiating skills that later helped shape him into a successful entrepreneur
- He hates wearing a tie, which he regards as a symbol of Japan’s obsession with formality. Noted journalist Soichiro Tahara once told him right before he went to jail: “In this nation, a necktie means everything. If you had worn a tie and sucked up to the old guard, you could’ve successfully bought out the baseball team, acquired Fuji TV and won the election. You got that, right?” Horie recalls in his book.
- One of his biggest pet peeves is taking phone calls. “Phone calls unilaterally intrude upon my time . . . No matter who the caller is and what their social status is, I’m determined to ignore their calls,” he says in his book.
- Horie is a divorcee, having married at 27. He has a son and provides monthly child support, but “I haven’t seen him once ever since we divorced. I even doubt he knows who his father is,” he wrote in 2013.