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Innovator, educator, tax objector: The life of Panasonic's founder

Long after his death, Konosuke Matsushita is still influencing Japan

A statue of Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita stands outside his museum in Osaka.

TOKYO -- "Every person has a path to follow," begins a text displayed at the entrance of the Konosuke Matsushita Museum in Osaka, written by the Panasonic founder himself.

The museum is one of three parts of the new Panasonic Museum, which opened on March 7 -- exactly 100 years to the day when Matsushita established the business. To walk through the exhibits is to follow the path the founder took as he left an indelible mark on Japan. 

Matsushita was not only an entrepreneur but also an educator and thinker.

The PHP Institute, which he founded in 1946, is a case in point. With Tokyo and Osaka left in ruins by World War II and the country suffering from poverty and hunger, Matsushita asked himself if this was the nature of humanity. His answer was an emphatic no. He came up with the concept of "peace and happiness through prosperity" -- PHP for short -- and founded the institute to make that vision a reality through research, publishing and educational programs.

Matsushita published his own writings, including the popular "Thoughts on Man," in which he stated that every individual is a diamond in the rough, and "Japan at the Brink," a volume on policy. Through the PHP Institute, he advocated the idea of a tax-free state. 

In 1980, at age 85, he opened the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management with 7 billion yen ($66 million at the current rate) of his own money. The goal was to train leaders to lay the foundation for the better society Matsushita had dreamed of. At the entrance ceremony, Matsushita said he wanted the school to help realize a 100-year plan for the country. He said he wanted the institution to help Japan and the world, and to bring happiness to people.

Students reside on campus for four years. There are no tuition fees, and the school provides a stipend. 

Konosuke Matsushita, center, poses with the first class of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management. Future Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda stands third from right. (Photo courtesy of the Matsushita Institute)   © Kyodo

The school's alumni have a significant presence in Japanese politics. Of the 268 graduates, 114 have gone on to become active in politics, and 34 have become Diet members. The list includes Yoshihiko Noda, who served as prime minister from 2011 to 2012, and Itsunori Onodera, the current minister of defense. 

The graduates have been steeped in Matsushita's unique blend of political philosophy. When he opened the institute, he was being taxed at a rate of over 90%. He continued to champion a vision of a tax-free country and argued against government intervention in the economy.

This libertarianism, though, was combined with a decidedly conservative emphasis on Japanese culture, history and old-school morals.  

Politically, most graduates belong to the opposition, rather than the ruling conservatives -- the Liberal Democratic Party. But because they too have such a strong conservative bent, Sota Kato of the International University of Japan worries about a political imbalance.

"Although the opposition is supposed to be liberal-leaning and should confront the conservative ruling party," he said, "what we have instead is conservatives versus conservatives, meaning we are not preserving the essential diversity of politics."

Either way, the man some called the "God of Management" is still influencing Japan three decades after his death. 

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