TOKYO – Minoru Makihara, who led Mitsubishi – then the world’s largest company – through the doldrums of Japan’s post-bubble era in the 1990s and helped meet the demands of a globalizing economy, died in Tokyo on December 13th. He was 90 years old.
The cause was heart failure, his family said.
Educated in England and the United States, Mr. Makihara brought a new international spirit to what was once Japan’s most powerful corporation and helped it turn it from its set, traditional business practices. And despite his father’s death by the United States Navy, he became a lifelong advocate of US-Japan relations, leading organizations devoted to building relationships between former enemies.
Mr. Makihara was born in London on January 12, 1930, where his father, Satoru Makihara, was a branch manager for Mitsubishi, which was already a major company. His mother, Haruko, was a writer, librarian and kindergarten teacher. He was raised bilingual and developed the ability to switch between cultures that he would use throughout his life.
Increasing tension between Japan and the West drove his family back to their homeland before the war. In 1942, the father of Mr. Makihara, who was a member of a business delegation in the Japanese-occupied Philippines, was killed when the ship he was on was sunk by an American submarine, said Mr. Makihara’s son, Jun.
In 1949, Mr. Makihara went to the United States to study at St. Pauls, a private boarding school in New Hampshire. The scars of war were fresh. Some of the students’ parents were killed by Japanese soldiers. Nevertheless, they greeted him with a warmth that “left a deep impression” and aroused a lifelong love for the country, said his son. In 1950 he began his undergraduate studies at Harvard University; In 1954 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in government.
Two years later, following in his father’s footsteps, he returned to Japan and joined Mitsubishi where he would work for the rest of his life. He reaffirmed his solidarity with the company the next year when he married his childhood friend, Kikuko Iwasaki, the great-granddaughter of Mitsubishi Group founder Yataro Iwasaki.
In 1971, Mr. Makihara opened a Mitsubishi Washington office that expanded his social circle to include elite figures like Katharine Graham, then owner of the Washington Post.
By the end of the decade, he had returned to Japan to head the marine products division that had once been headed by his father.
The company took note of its work. He was promoted to head of Mitsubishi’s international operations in 1987 and was named President and CEO of the company in 1992.
With his overseas education and decades abroad, Mr. Makihara did not fit the profile of a Mitsubishi president. His selection was widely seen as a message to the world that the company was trading its stubborn traditionalism for a more international mindset.
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When Mr. Makihara took over Mitsubishi, it was at the top of the Fortune 500, the largest company among the sprawling Japanese conglomerates known as Keiretsu, doing everything from art to jet engines. However, the size of the company hid major weaknesses. Its culture was sclerotic and its profits meager.
It was a difficult time for the titans of Japanese industry. The country’s foamy stock market collapsed in 1990, ushering in the so-called “lost decade,” a period of economic paralysis.
Mr. Makihara quickly embarked on a program to realign the company’s businesses westward with an increased focus on returning value to shareholders. “One of our main tasks is to transform ourselves from a Japanese trading company into a global trading company,” he said in a 1996 interview.
But changing a giant wasn’t easy. His son said his colleagues referred to him as “the alien”. Efforts to encourage the company’s employees to speak English at work never began.
Nonetheless, Mr. Makihara was able to introduce major reforms to the company, promote corporate governance updates, and take the then unusual step of writing off portfolio losses on investments negatively impacted by Japan’s reversal of economic wealth. In 1998 he was named chairman of Mitsubishi, a position he held until 2004.
In addition to his work at Mitsubishi, he devoted much time to cultivating Japan-United States’ relations at a time when many Americans viewed Japan’s economic power as a threat to their own dominance of world trade.
From 1997 to 2002 he was Chairman of the US-Japan Business Council. In 2008 he became chairman of the US-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Exchange, where he demonstrated the passion for expanding international educational opportunities that he had created while studying abroad. He held this position until 2014.
In addition to his son, Mr. Makihara is survived by his wife, Kikuko Makihara. his daughter Kumiko; and three grandchildren.