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Business Trends

Million-dollar executives multiply in corporate Japan

Increase in performance-based incentives aims to lure global talent

Clockwise from top left, Sony's Kazuo Hirai, SoftBank's Rajeev Misra, Takeda's Christophe Weber, Sony's Kenichiro Yoshida, Toyota's Didier Leroy and Lixil's Kinya Seto.

TOKYO -- The number of Japanese executives paid at least 100 million yen ($903,000) annually topped 500 for the first time last fiscal year as global competition for talent spurred broader use of lucrative Western-style compensation structures.

A total of 538 senior officials at listed companies that closed their books in March made 100 million yen or more in fiscal 2017, up 15% on the year, according to data compiled by Tokyo Shoko Research from financial filings. A record 240 companies reported having such executives, 17 more than in fiscal 2016.

CEO pay tends to be lower in Japan than in other developed countries. Willis Towers Watson found that median CEO compensation at big companies in fiscal 2016 came to around $1.2 million in Japan, compared with $11.7 million in the U.S. and $5.3 million in the U.K.

Western companies frequently offer generous performance bonuses linked to earnings and other targets, as well as stock options. Such incentives have grown more common in Japan in recent years, boosting executive pay in a strong year for businesses and the stock market.

Technology and investment conglomerate SoftBank Group had four of the 10 highest-paid officials. Vice Chairman Ronald Fisher raked in about $18 million, placing second overall. SoftBank Vision Fund head Rajeev Misra and Marcelo Claure, who was then CEO and is now executive chairman of U.S. wireless subsidiary Sprint, each earned more than $10 million. Claure was tapped to lead Sprint in 2014 for his success at building a global supply chain from the ground up at Brightstar, a carrier he founded that was bought by SoftBank.

Ken Miyauchi, CEO of the Japanese mobile unit, ranked 10th at $7.8 million. SoftBank Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son earned a relatively paltry $1.2 million.

The $24 million paid to Kazuo Hirai for his final year as Sony CEO lifted him to the top of the list. Current CEO Kenichiro Yoshida, who served as chief financial officer last fiscal year, earned $8.1 million.

Five of the top-earning executives hail from outside Japan. Many businesses facing the difficult task of plotting strategy in a global market have turned to experienced outside leaders. Some companies have relaxed limits on overall executive compensation to attract or retain talent, including SoftBank, which raised its cap on total executive pay excluding share-based payments to $45 million from $7.2 million.

Didier Leroy, who was appointed Toyota Motor's first foreign executive vice president in 2015, saw his pay jump 50% to around $9 million -- the highest for the automaker since Japan began mandating disclosure of executive pay of at least 100 million yen with fiscal 2009. Toyota's total executive pay climbed 14% to $17.3 million, even with one less executive reaching the disclosure threshold.

Lixil Group CEO Kinya Seto earned $10.1 million, putting him in sixth place. Seto has worked to restructure overseas operations of the housing equipment maker since taking the helm in 2016. He began his career at trading house Sumitomo Corp. and went on to establish more than 10 companies, most recently tool seller Monotaro, whose rapid growth factored into his appointment at Lixil.

Takeda Pharmaceutical CEO Christophe Weber received $10.9 million and Ryota Akazawa, the recently departed president of Fuso Chemical, was paid $9.3 million. Though Nissan Motor Chairman Carlos Ghosn's pay fell 30% to $6.6 million, he earned roughly $17.1 million in total from that role and as head of alliance partners Renault and Mitsubishi Motors.

While not in the top 10, Mitsubishi Electric and Hitachi were well-represented on the overall list, with 22 and 18 executives earning at least 100 million yen.

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