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CEO revealed Korean roots to inspire youths facing bigotry in Japan

TOKYO -- SoftBank Group Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son has long been discriminated against by Japanese because he is ethnically Korean. His life has been about fighting against the odds.

SoftBank Group Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son (Photo by Hiromichi Matono)

     Even in his early childhood, he received verbal and physical attacks from Japanese classmates. In kindergarten, he was jeered at for being Korean. Once, another child cut his head open with a stone.

     Even today, he finds himself the target of malicious comments on the Internet. In a recent interview, Son talked openly about his deeply personal and poignant experiences and his decisions to come out as an ethnic Korean and fight for social justice.

     Excerpts of the interview follow:

Q: Why did you choose to use your Korean family name instead of your Japanese one?

A: I used to go by Masayoshi Yasumoto before I went to the U.S. at the age of 16. 

     After I returned from the U.S. and decided to start a business, I had a choice before me -- whether I should go with the Japanese family name Yasumoto, which all my family and relatives use, or the ancestral surname Son.

     On my passport and foreign resident registration card, my real surname is written as Son and the Japanese family name is Yasumoto.

     It is undoubtedly easier to go by Yasumoto when living in the Japanese society. Even today, a number of celebrities and professional athletes use Japanese family names in their chosen professions. It is not my intention to criticize such a practice. But I decided to go against the tide and become the first among my relatives to use Son as my family name.

     Even today, there are still various forms of invisible and inexplicable obstacles for ethnic Koreans in Japan. Good or bad aside, there are many who suffer from and agonize over that. I won't go into the reasons and the origin of this issue, but if you are born into one of those families of Korean descent, you are subject to groundless discrimination. There are many children who undergo such hardship.

     When I was in elementary and junior high schools, I was in agony over my identity so much that I was seriously contemplating taking my own life. I'd say discrimination against people is that tough.

     Then, you might ask, why I decided to go against all my relatives, including uncles and aunts, and started to use the Korean family name, Son, for myself.

     That's because I wanted to become a role model for ethnic Korean children and show them that a person of Korean descent like me, who publicly uses a Korean surname, can achieve success despite various challenges. If my doing so gives a sense of hope to even just one young person or 100 of them, I believe that is a million times more effective than raising a placard and shouting "No discrimination."

     Instead of saying "No discrimination," I'd rather proudly use my real name, do my job in the face of opposition, run a business and score successes. That in itself speaks much louder than using a million words to make a case. I think that gives hope to ethnic Korean youths. That's why I have decided to declare my own ethnicity.

     I met with fierce objection from my relatives, who had hidden their real family name to live their lives in a small community. One of my relatives said, "If you come out as a Son from among us, that will expose all of us."

Q: Your coming out as an ethnic Korean risked involving all other family members, right?

A: People would start saying things like "They are ethnic Koreans" or "Your nephew is a Son, not a Yasumoto. So, you, too, are part of kimchee clan." Rumors like that would cause trouble to my uncles and aunts. That's why they tried to dissuade me from doing so.

     But I told them "What I will do may disturb you all, uncles and aunties. If so, you don't need to say that I am a relative of yours. Just pretend that I am not related to you."

     "You are all grown-ups. I don't know if you have the strength to confront a little bit of discrimination. But I want to give even the slightest hope to ethnic Korean children and young people," I said to my relatives. "If my action is to cause you trouble, please pretend that I am not one of you. Even so, I will do what I think is right no matter what," I told them and ventured out on my own.

     Currently, many Japanese companies are losing confidence. They are losing out to competition and have collectively become introverted. In such circumstances, even if we are the only one, SoftBank has risen to the occasion and taken on much bigger rivals in the U.S. And if we survive, that will give a sense of hope [to other Japanese companies].

     I am not a statesman and do not do things in any official capacity, but I would like to set a precedent [for others to follow].

Son speaks before an audience. The slogan in the background says, "Challenge yourself and new horizons will emerge."

     If I can set an example, that will create a ripple effect and inspire even one company or 10 companies. I think that's a form of social contribution.

Q: I hope there will be more successful cases like yours in Japan. What do you think is necessary for that to happen?

A: Not just us, but Mr. Tadashi Yanai (chairman and president of Fast Retailing) and Mr. Shigenobu Nagamori (chairman and president of Nidec), and Rakuten, DeNA and other companies are working hard to challenge themselves. If young business leaders can make a couple of successful precedents, that could give a much-needed boost and help revive the Japanese economy.

     While it is important to oppose a move toward widening the wealth gap and put in place a social safety net, I think there should be no need to stand in the way of other people's success. It is unnecessary to gang up and lash out at those who are successful.

     Successful people can serve as a light of hope for others. Without an example of success, I am sure people would become demotivated. Take professional golfer Ryo Ishikawa for example. Rather than trying to put him down, we should all cheer and praise him. The same goes for Yu Darvish, the pitcher for the Texas Rangers. That will inspire some young people to work at baseball practice.

     Personally, I think it is important to create a society where we can praise success and successful people. That will help keep alive Japanese dreams and create Japanese heroes.

Interviewed by Nikkei Ecology staff writer Takahiro Onishi, Nikkei Business Online editor-in-chief Shintaro Ikeda contributed to this story.

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