TOKYO -- Carlos Ghosn once enjoyed the status of a hero in Japan for turning round Nissan Motor. But when the carmaker's former chairman walked out of a Tokyo jail on March 6 disguised as a workman, the companies who saw their brands displayed on his overalls, cap and car were not pleased.
"We are concerned that there could be reputational risk," said Hiroshi Nakamura, president of Nakamura Kogyo, a specialist construction company whose work van was used to carry Japan's most famous defendant to a secret location after he was released on bail. Clients might think his company was an ally of Ghosn, he said. "We may need to think about some kind of legal action if there is any impact," Nakamura said.
Nakamura was not alone. Nihon Denso, a railway maintenance company, discovered Ghosn was wearing a company cap as he quit the Tokyo detention house.
"This could have a negative effect on our corporate image," said a spokesperson. "We haven’t decided on legal action but we will watch how things go. This was unexpected and we are puzzled."
Ghosn’s disguise drew global attention, failing to hide his departure from the Japanese and international media who had been camped out for hours in front of the Tokyo detention center to capture the moment of his release. Surrounded by at least seven security guards, Ghosn was easily identifiable as he walked out in his costume of workman's overalls with reflective belt, glasses with black frame and a surgical mask.
Some experts said trying to hide Ghosn's departure was understandable. "The fact that Ghosn was surrounded by numerous guards made him more visible than anything," said a consultant specialized in risks management, Yasuhiro Nishino. "The lawyer should have prevented that."
The disguise was the brainchild of lawyer Takashi Takano, acknowledged as one of Japan's most aggressive defense lawyers and an outspoken critic of the country's treatment of defendants. Ghosn, who has strongly denied allegations of financial misconduct while at the helm of Nissan, was held in detention for 108 days, sparking international criticism from human rights organizations of Japan's so-called "hostage justice". In Japan less than 9% of those who maintain their innocence are released before trial.
Takano apologized on March 8 for the decision to disguise Ghosn, saying on his own blog that it had been done to protect the secrecy of his client's whereabouts after his release. He acknowledged the ploy had been a "failure," saying that he had "tarnished Mr. Ghosn's reputation and [he is] sorry for it."
Takano graduated from Japan's Waseda University and studied at the SMU Dedham School of Law in Texas.
He is known in legal circles as a “fighting criminal lawyer,” according to a former prosecutor attorney. He will not let his clients sign confessions while they are being held in detention, for example. Others say he will go to extreme lengths to secure the release of his clients on bail. More than 20 years ago, Takano secured bail for a client accused of attacking his wife by pledging the accused would work at his office as an assistant during weekdays and stay in an apartment with one of his defense attorneys at night and on weekends.
In Ghosn's case, the court had twice rejected bail applications made by a previous defense team. However, Takano, a well known expert in bail procedure who was hired in February, was successful after proposing unusually severe restrictions, including surveillance cameras at the entrance to Ghosn's residence and blocking internet access on his client's mobile phone or his computer.
But the disguise may have been a step too far, suggested the former prosecutor. "Mr. Takano did well to reach agreement with the court [on bail], but he did not need to make Ghosn dress up in disguise," the defense attorney said.
Takano on March 8 acknowledged that Ghosn had not been the only one hurt by his ploy. He apologized to those who had helped him secure the disguise, saying he was sorry for bringing "trouble to [his] friends who cooperated with the plan."
But the blog post was not enough for some of those who had been unwittingly involved. Nakamura said the request for his work van had come through "one of our clients, who had a request from Mr. Takano." He had been asked to go to the detention center, without knowing the task. "It is bothersome. I still haven’t received any apology from Mr. Takano," he added with sighs.