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How Japan's PM could use Son's 'soft power'

The country's richest man could help revamp Abenomics

SoftBank Chairman and Chief Executive Masayoshi Son attends a news conference in Tokyo on Feb. 8.   © Reuters

In the land of baseball bunts and chronic caution, Masayoshi Son is that rare Japanese business magnate who swings for the fences again and again -- and often to great effect.

Take his spectacular investment in 2000 in a then-obscure Chinese dreamer named Jack Ma. The $20 million he gambled on Alibaba netted him $50 billion in 2014, when Ma took his internet juggernaut public. They do not call Son "Japan's answer to Warren Buffett" for nothing. Since then, the country's richest man has been busily investing in future Alibabas. But it is about more than just padding out his fortune.

As a boy growing up on the southwestern island of Kyushu, Son kept a notebook. He would jot down thoughts about gadgets, inventions and science-fiction ideas that he wanted to bring to life someday. In May, the 60-year-old rolled out the $100 billion Vision Fund to help some of those ideas leap off the notebook pages of his boyhood. With cash raised from Abu Dhabi, Apple, Qualcomm and Saudi Arabia, Son is going boldly forward with vast resources and rather un-Japanese zeal.

Obviously, deflation-wracked Japan needs more leaders like Son -- visionaries unafraid to fail. His 2013 purchase of Sprint Nextel for $22 billion -- or Vodafone seven years earlier -- struck Japan Inc. peers as lunacy. So why not borrow a page from U.S. President Donald Trump and tap Son to re-energize Japan's reform process?

Trump famously raided corporate America to load his cabinet with titans like Wilbur Ross, Rex Tillerson and Steve Mnuchin. We can debate what, if anything, American taxpayers are getting for those staffing choices. But the Japanese totally get that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's much-hyped revival drive is stuck in first gear. Abe's real interest is revising the postwar constitution, not deregulation. Also, his economic team - Finance Minister Taro Aso and Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi -- hardly seems up to the job.

Abe could ask Son to be reform czar to breathe new life into an Abenomics program that, nearly five years on, has neither defeated deflation nor given workers a notable wage rise. Son, of course, might say no. The man is plenty busy making his purchases of Sprint and ARM Holdings, his $4 billion stake in chipmaker Nvidia and other bets work. But Son might say yes, as much out of personal greed as national devotion. Anything that boosts Japanese wages, innovation and productivity will boost SoftBank's global reach. A rising share price increases his acquisition purchasing power.

Action plan for Son

If it came to it, Son's first act should be sorting through Abe's own notebook of reform ideas and turning them into policy. Since December 2012, Abe has talked big about loosening labor markets, inspiring entrepreneurship, deregulating industry, tweaking taxes and empowering women, but has achieved little. Moves to tighten corporate governance are welcome, but no match for the shenanigans at deadly air bag maker Takata or accounting scandal-plagued Toshiba. Nor has his "womenomics" push stopped Japan's slide in global gender-empowerment rankings.

Who better to visit the Keidanren, the big business federation, and make the case for greater boardroom risk-taking than the nation's most consistent corporate home run hitter? Who better to prod companies to become more meritocratic, more open to hiring non-Japanese executives and board members, more open to testing new markets, more open to making bets outside their comfort zone than a man who has a 300-year plan for SoftBank? Who better than a guy plowing into renewable energy, artificial intelligence, satellites, connected devices and a ride-sharing boom that Japan largely has yet to embrace?

"We saw a big bang in PCs, we saw a big bang in the internet," Son said in February. "I believe the next big bang is going to be even bigger. To be ready for that, we need to set the foundation and that foundation is SoftBank Vision Fund."

That $100 billion of firepower alone could help Abe's "third arrow" gain traction. While the first two Abenomics arrows -- monetary easing and fiscal loosening -- have been deployed, the more important structural reform phase is still largely in the quiver. Luckily for Japan, some titans in the private sector --- Son especially -- are racing ahead of a government taking its time and creating their own pockets of economic dynamism.

Some of Son's investments are focused on growth outside Japan's borders, including India's e-commerce platform Snapdeal, Malaysia-based GrabTaxi, South Korean online retailer Coupang, American online lender Social Finance and perhaps Uber Technologies. He is creating high-paying jobs at home, too. Son is a trailblazer, for example, in renewable energy, an industry that holds more promise than any other.

Son knows what Abe's Liberal Democratic Party will not admit: post-Fukushima 2011, nuclear reactors have no future in the world's most seismically-active major nation. What is more, he realizes that finding alternatives is the greatest business opportunity in the world, and it is Japan's for the taking.

When Tesla's Elon Musk looked for help getting his lithium-ion Gigafactory in Nevada off the ground, he turned to Panasonic's battery prowess. So much of what powered Japan's economy to today's heights -- cars, electronics, ships -- has been commoditized as South Korea and China catch up. The big disruption of the future is inventing ways for China, India and others to avoid choking on rapid growth. Not only is Son investing tens of billions of dollars in solar research, but he is championing a regional Asia electricity "super grid."

There is almost nothing Japan can learn from Trump's calamity of a presidency. But tapping premier billionaire Son, Trump White House-style, could be just the thing to make Abenomics great again.

William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the world can learn from Japan's lost decades." He is a former columnist for Bloomberg. 

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