Reuters
Reuters

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) – In 1883 German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of a character he called “the last man”. The opposite of his ideal “Ubermensch”, last men are so enervated and addicted to comfort, they lose their ability to dream and their will to compete. To Japanese conservatives, Nietzsche might have been describing Japan during the lost decades that followed the bursting of its financial bubble in the early 1990s: a pacifist, embarrassed, ageing irrelevance overshadowed by rising China. Until Shinzo Abe came along.

In “The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan” Tobias Harris delivers an engaging review of the extraordinary career of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. He was the heir to a conservative political dynasty, he dragged the country out of deflation, partially remilitarised it, and reconfigured the state in the process. Harris, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence who briefly served as private secretary to Japanese politician Keiichiro Asao, delivers a positive, nuanced assessment. However, readers less grounded in Japan’s political history might benefit from some background reading before wading in. (Who, exactly, were the “right-wing socialists”?)

Abe, who announced his retirement for health reasons in August, reinforced Tokyo’s position as Washington’s premier ally in Asia, and managed the relationship with a semi-hostile Donald Trump surprisingly well. When the White House abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, Abe took the lead, ratifying a deal that lowered trade barriers between major economies in Asia and the Americas. He reinforced Japan’s position as a source of investment and aid to poorer neighbours as an alternative to China’s “Belt and Road” initiative.

Abe has handed the reins to Yoshihide Suga, a long-time ally who helped craft the combination of unorthodox monetary policy, fiscal stimulus and reform that came to be known as Abenomics. The new prime minister has

A centuries-old Japanese tradition of stamping documents with seals in place of signatures is finally waning, as more people have been working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic. Corporate giants like Toyota and Nomura are signing up for the electronic signature services of a little-known company called Bengo4.com Inc., which has sent its stock soaring 100% this year.

The share-price surge made Bengo4’s founder, Taichiro Motoe, a billionaire largely based on his stake in the Tokyo-listed company he founded 15 years ago. Forbes estimates Motoe’s net worth at just over $1 billion.

Investors are optimistic about Bengo4’s e-signature service, called CloudSign, in the Covid-19 era. As more people work remotely, Japanese companies are switching to e-signatures from physical stamps called hanko to authenticate documents—a practice Japan followed since at least the 1800s. “CloudSign is changing the traditional hanko culture,” says Motoe on September 17, in his first interview with international media.

“I had to put stamps on a huge pile of contracts one by one. I felt such inefficiency in the business culture.”

Taichiro Motoe

According to Bengo4, its CloudSign is the dominant e-signature service in Japan with 80% of the country’s market share. More than 100,000 companies in a range of industries use CloudSign, up from less than 50,000 a year ago.

“Bengo4.com’s share price has risen sharply on expectations for faster penetration of electronic contract services as government-led efforts to discontinue the use of personal seals gather pace in response to Covid-19,” JPMorgan analyst Haruka Mori wrote in

(Bloomberg Markets) — Cocooned in the mountains of Nagano, Japan, employees at Ina Food Industry Co. begin the day by tidying the garden around their office and factory buildings. The smell of freshly cut grass perfumes the summer air as loudspeakers pipe out the company song: “… surrounded by the green of pines, showered by the happiness of the morning sun, the gathering of our comrades. … ”

Loading...

Load Error

As usual, the company’s patriarch, Hiroshi Tsukakoshi, who turns 83 in October, greets his employees, reinforcing the sense of community and security he’s created over more than six decades of running the business while never cutting a single job. And he doesn’t plan on doing so now, even as the Covid-19 pandemic causes the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Tsukakoshi has told his workforce of 500 or so that all their jobs are safe. Even though sales are forecast to be down about 15% this year, he says, Ina Food’s employees will still get modest annual raises and their traditional summer bonuses. “If a company grows in volatile fits and starts,” he says, “people are increasingly gripped by fear and fret over when they will be fired. You have to maintain incremental growth to keep your people happy.”

That approach to doing business has made Ina Food, which produces a gelatinlike substance called agar from algae, something of a poster child for success in Japan’s low-growth economy. Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corp., has toured the company and touts a book Tsukakoshi wrote on management. In the reception area where Tsukakoshi greets visitors, a photo on display commemorates the time Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda stopped by in 2015.

Ina Food represents a sepia-toned, somewhat idealized side of the world’s third-biggest economy—one that offers a dose