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Opinion

How Carlos Ghosn could help enliven Japan's election

Extending aid to Lebanon in return for former Nissan CEO is a tempting possibility

| Japan
Carlos Ghosn, pictured in Beirut on June 14: he is a complicated combination of the concerns many foreign CEOs harbor about Japan's legal system.   © Reuters

William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades."

As Taro Kono tries to seal the deal for the Japanese premiership, he might consider pulling Carlos Ghosn into the fray.

The rogue CEO who got away sure is talking a lot these days from Beirut. In a drip, drip, drip of interviews, the former Nissan Motor chief is making his case that Japan's "hostage justice" system did him wrong, and loudly so.

The background is well known. The larger-than-life Brazilian-born, Lebanese-raised Frenchman arrived in Yokohama in 1999 to save a Japan Inc. icon from the junkyard. His tantalizing exploits inspired the True Life of Carlos Ghosn manga series.

Tokyo prosecutors spent the last three years piecing together what that life actually was. Ghosn's arrest in November 2018 on charges of underreporting salary and misusing company assets added a new chapter. So did his fantastical escape from Tokyo detention in December 2019. He vanished with the help of a cast of international characters worthy of a John le Carre novel.

You just know that, somewhere, screenwriters are frantically working up a script for the next Steven Spielberg film -- starring Tom Hanks, perhaps. Yet, it is Japan that cannot seem to escape the former Nissan honcho hiding out in Beirut.

Ghosn's fate is not without Spielbergian irony. In interviews in recent months with The Wall Street Journal, Asia Times and others, Ghosn's argument amounts to this: "I have not fled justice -- I have escaped injustice and political persecution." Fair enough. But what about the political and economic chaos to which you, Mr. Ghosn, escaped?

Lebanon is unraveling. A deepening political crisis has seen the currency lose more than 90% of its value since 2019, back when Ghosn was stewing in Tokyo. Poverty is skyrocketing. Electricity and fuel for cooking and transport are scarce. Really, Ghosn might have greater luck burning his mountains of cash for heat than exchanging it into Lebanese lira.

Since August 2020, roughly eight months after Ghosn arrived, Lebanon has seen three prime ministers try to form a functioning government. All failed. A year after a devastating Beirut port explosion, President Michel Aoun is pointing fingers at the central bank, not acting to stabilize the economy.

One hardly needs a Hollywood imagination to assume Ghosn, even from his multimillion-dollar Beirut mansion, looks in the mirror at times and muses: Did I really escape Japan for this?

Enter Kono, who at 58 has the momentum to win the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's Sept. 29 leadership ballot. And, presumably, for the general election that must be held before Nov. 30. Still, Kono needs to galvanize the imagination of a public disillusioned with the LDP's inadequate response to COVID-19 as the economy stumbles.

Ghosn might not be a big election issue, but his almost daily unloading about Japan's legal system and corporate practices hardly helps. Post-Olympics, outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has tried to sell Japan as an economic turnaround story -- a modern, outward-facing nation shifting into a higher gear.

Why not redouble efforts to lasso Ghosn back to Tokyo? Lebanon does not extradite its citizens, but these are desperate times in Beirut, with the COVID pandemic devastating commodity exports, tourism and service industries. And a crushing debt load.

Tokyo could offer Lebanon a financial lifeline, one contingent upon Ghosn's return. How hard would it be for Lebanese officials to conclude that the way Ghosn physically entered the country warrants review?

The debris of Beirut port explosion, pictured on May 24: Tokyo could offer Lebanon a financial lifeline.   © Sipa/AP

If the LDP is uncomfortable with the idea of ponying up a couple of billion dollars, Tokyo could call France, the Netherlands and Oman. Each of these countries has been pulled into Ghosn's alleged web of deceit in some way. Strength in numbers, anyone?

Clearly, I have mixed feelings about recommending Kono resort to such drastic measures. When you ask yourself if Donald Trump would do something unconventional and the answer is "yes," then it might be time to take a shower.

Ghosn is a human Rorschach test. In their new book Collision Course: Carlos Ghosn and the Culture Wars That Upended an Auto Empire, Hans Greimel and William Sposato put it well: "Perhaps only those who best understood Ghosn can really say whether he was a sentimental family man or a cold, calculating corporate executive, a visionary innovator or a self-absorbed autocrat... the unsuspecting victim of a boardroom coup or simply a C-suite swindler."

Over 368 pages, Greimel and Sposato make a good case that, odds are, Ghosn is a complicated combination of all these things. He is also a complicated combination of the concerns many foreign CEOs harbor about Japan's legal system.

Suga and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike agree on at least one thing: Japan should be lassoing in multinational companies as China suffocates Hong Kong. If you are a CEO reading Ghosn's complaints about a system stacked against non-Japanese, though, Singapore may look preferable. Japan's next leader must clear the air and convince chieftains that there are not two legal standards -- one for locals, one for gaijin, or foreign citizens.

To be sure, Japan has done itself no favors over the last decade. Ghosn was locked away while the leaders of Olympus and Toshiba engaging in massive fraud were not. And to date, no one at Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings has gone to jail for safety failures that helped produce the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.

It is hard to explain away the United Nations accusing Japan of violating Ghosn's human rights. If his is not a case of selective prosecution, then this trial needs to commence. The sooner, the better. Is Kono the leader who can pick up the tools of justice and put doubts about l'affaire Ghosn in the rearview mirror? It is high time someone tried.

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