TOKYO -- SoftBank Group Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son says of his father: "I respect him most as an entrepreneur and he has been my best teacher." In a recent interview with The Nikkei, Son's father, Mitsunori, explained how his son became a successful entrepreneur who built a corporate giant in a single generation with sales totaling nearly 10 trillion yen ($88.5 billion).
Free coffee giveaway
Q: Is it true that you continuously told Masayoshi he was a genius when he was a boy?
A: When I was in junior high school, I was really inspired by my teacher overseeing the baseball team. One day, when I pitched in a game, the teacher heaped praise on my performance, saying things like, "That's incredible!" and "You are good enough to be a pro baseball player." Until then, I had never received any praise from my parents, so I thought it was important to encourage and praise children, even as a junior-high-school child.
Before Masayoshi entered elementary school, I taught him that one plus one equals two. The following day, he remembered the equation correctly. At that moment, I suddenly thought of my teacher, and the words came automatically out of my mouth, "You might be a genius!" Although I continued to say the same thing to him for three days, I stopped as I knew I was acting just like a doting father. I then changed my mind and decided to continue calling my son a genius because parents are responsible for sending consistent messages to their children. As I kept saying the same thing over and over, I began to feel like Masayoshi would actually fulfill his potential as a genius later in life. After all, I had high expectations of my child, so I became even more determined to keep saying it.
Q: Did you find any signs indicating that your son might be a real genius?
A: When Masayoshi was in the third or fourth grade of elementary school, I bought a house and turned it into a coffee shop. But a wholesaler of coffee beans refused to sell them to us out of concern that our outlet was in a deserted area and could suffer poor sales. I casually asked Masayoshi to come up with an idea to deal with the situation "because you are a genius." After considering it for two or three minutes, he said, "Given that our location is wrong, why not offer free coffee, even if customers drink many cups?" We printed 5,000 free-coffee flyers and distributed them near train stations and supermarkets. So, I could see all the seats occupied simultaneously at the opening of the coffee shop.
After that, when we went to the river to collect stones for renovation of the coffee shop, I remember telling him, "You are unquestionably a genius." Around that time, I wholeheartedly believed it. But I recognized that superficial praise and excessive flattery from a parent can do more harm to children than good, and that it was important to have complete faith in your children.
Seeking Japanese nationality
Q: I've heard that having your encouragement for years when he was young, Masayoshi himself started to believe he might really be a genius. Is that true?
A: Masayoshi has been overconfident since a long time ago. At least until the age of 20, he thought he might be a genius. For this reason, ever since his childhood, he would have taken pride in thinking through every issue more intensively than anyone else. In other words, he would have been confident in his ability to accomplish something that others don't achieve. Even now, thinking might be a very important part of his job. My son has unwavering determination even in a pinch, considering that he can solve any problem by trying to figure it out.
Q: You were born in a village of Koreans living in Japan, and must have worked very hard to raise your four sons.
A: I don't think I've experienced many hardships. I enjoyed my life fully as I always worked toward a particular goal. Moreover, I've received a great gift. It's a pleasure to see my child [running a successful business].
Q: Why did you name your son Masayoshi?
A: In those days, Koreans were called thieves and swindlers by Japanese, even without evidence. Unfortunately, that was the reality of discrimination we faced. Therefore, unless we become righteous people, we could not be accepted in Japan. I named him Masayoshi, or "justice," with the hope that he would become a man of justice, and remember his duty to others. I initially wondered if he could live up to his name.
Q: When your son founded SoftBank Japan at age 24 in 1981, he insisted on using the Korean family name Son as his surname, instead of the Japanese name Yasumoto. It is said that your relatives opposed the idea of adopting the Korean name out of concern that he might face discrimination. Is that correct?
A: I was very pleased to hear that. I supported his viewpoint. Given that our ancestors have long preserved the Korean family name Son, if the name is changed out of greed, this would be disrespectful to them. And if we always work diligently without a word of a lie and without betrayal, we will eventually be recognized among Japanese people for these efforts.
In fact, when Masayoshi was in the third or fourth grade of elementary school, he eagerly demanded that we become naturalized Japanese citizens. He wanted to be a school teacher, and had to have Japanese nationality to realize his aspiration. But because my parents wanted to retain South Korean nationality, I told him that I could not advise them to accept the idea. All he said was, "Yeah." Because of that, [his use of his Korean surname] made me very happy.
A new system to support poor children
Q: According to Masayoshi, you said one should not work just for money, but to pursue some lofty aspiration, which deeply inspired him.
A: When I said so, I was making some money. In fact, if we apply wisdom, we can easily earn money. But at that time, I began to wonder whether money itself is really valuable. Thinking back now, I may have been living a degenerate life. I was unable to do what I really wanted to do in my life. Accordingly, I used to tell my children they should pursue whatever they like to the fullest, and that I was ready to provide any support.
Q: Masayoshi has said he intends to rise to the top of the world.
A: I know him well, and he seems very serious about it. Moreover, it was I who encouraged him to become the greatest in the world. At that time, I was talking with him earnestly.
Q: What would you like your children to accomplish now?
A: [Pauses for 10 seconds] I think everyone has the right to live as a human being from birth, regardless of whether we are born rich or poor. That's why I think we should build a new system to support poor children, to open the way to a bright future for them. I want my children, including Masayoshi, to promote such a project, though I have never asked them directly. As nobody has ever done this in history, I really hope that they will realize my dream.
Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Takashi Sugimoto