December 26, 2013 7:00 pm JST

Influencing Abe: University of Tokyo's Class of '63 makes its mark

MASANORI MURUI, Nikkei senjior staff writer

TOKYO -- Every year, the University of Tokyo turns out an impressive group of graduates, many of whom go on to join Japan's business and political elite. The class of 1963 was no exception. It produced several corporate leaders who today wield subtle but significant influence on national policy thanks to their close ties with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.     

     One standout member of this club is Yoshiyuki Kasai, chairman of Central Japan Railway, one of the country's railway leaders. Few business executives met with the prime minister as frequently as Kasai did during Abe's first year in office.

     On the night of Dec. 10, when the process for selecting the next president of public broadcaster NHK was in the final stage, Abe went to a high-end Japanese restaurant in Tokyo's swank Minami-Azabu neighborhood for a dinner meeting with allies from the business community. Among them was Kasai, perhaps their most influential member.

     The outgoing president of NHK, Masayuki Matsumoto, is a former president of Central Japan Railway, commonly known as JR Tokai. After the dinner meeting, the media speculated that Abe used the opportunity to discuss the matter. A person who attended the dinner said the topic never came up, but the mere existence of the speculation reflects just how close Abe and Kasai are.

Power transfer 

When the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power a year ago, ending the Democratic Party of Japan's troubled three-and-a-half-year stint at the top, the who's who of the country's most politically influential business executives completely changed.    

     The Japan Business Federation, the leading business lobby, has seen its political clout weakened by Chairman Hiromasa Yonekura's strained relationship with Abe. Much of that influence has shifted to a group of go-getting CEOs known as the "Glorious Class of 1963." All are members of the business elite who were children during World War II and graduated from the prestigious University of Tokyo in 1963.

     One of the most prominent members of this clique is Kasai, who made a name for himself by playing a crucial role in reforming and privatizing Japanese National Railways. Another class of '63 hotshot is Shigetaka Komori, chairman and CEO of Fujifilm Holdings. Both grew up while Japan was rising from the ashes of war under the heavy influence of the U.S. and are dyed-in-the-wool political conservatives.

     These doyens of Japan Inc. have been staunch supporters of Abe, backing him even after his first tenure as prime minister ended in failure. Their loyalty derives from the closeness with which their views on diplomacy and the economy match Abe's.

     Shared beliefs aside, there are also practical reasons for having tight links with the Abe government. The success of JR Tokai's strategy for global expansion, for instance, hinges on policy support from the government. The railway operator's plans dovetail with Abe's push to use infrastructure exports to drive Japan's economic regeneration.

     Another notable member of the class of '63 is Akio Mimura, who as chairman of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry is at the center of the business community.

     Mimura was instrumental in engineering the groundbreaking merger that created Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal. In addition, as head of the government's Advisory Committee for Energy and Natural Resources, he exerts strong influence on Japan's energy policy.

Tainted legacy     

Not all has been "glorious" about the class of '63, however.

     Tsunehisa Katsumata, who was chairman of Tokyo Electric Power when the Fukushima nuclear disaster hit, was widely criticized for what was seen as the utility's inept response. The high risks and costs involved in decontaminating radiation-polluted areas and decommissioning the devastated nuclear plant's reactors could prove the Abe government's undoing.

     Now the word in Tokyo's political circles is that the Tepco executives installed after the company was put under state control last year will soon be replaced. The government will likely have no choice but to assume the leadership in selecting the replacements.

     The DPJ had a hard time trying to find a business leader willing to serve as Tepco's chairman. The party sounded out several big names in the business community, including former Toyota Motor Chairman Hiroshi Okuda, but they all declined. That episode underscored the DPJ's relatively weak ties with the business community.

     The Abe government will be under pressure to find a shrewd and competent executive who can lead Tepco through the long process of rebuilding. Its choice will speak volumes about the LDP's current ties with the business community.