EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Yomiuri chairman defends actions in internal feud

November 29, 2011

He has been referred to as the don of Japanese media and a political fixer, but Tsuneo Watanabe, 85, who is chairman and editor in chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings, has been the one in the headlines recently.

Watanabe has been embroiled in an internal feud in the Yomiuri Giants baseball team that ended with the firing of Hidetoshi Kiyotake as team representative and general manager.

Watanabe was interviewed by The Asahi Shimbun over the so-called "uprising" by Kiyotake. In the session that lasted for more than two hours, Watanabe also talked about the relationship between Yomiuri's editorial policy and politics.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Question: There have been reports that you told Kiyotake, "I am the last dictator." Can you elaborate?

Watanabe: I am democratic. I always make it a point of consulting with others before making a decision. While there are some media that have called me a dictator, I think that's interesting and it also sells.

Q: Kiyotake claims that he met with you on Oct. 20 and obtained approval for the proposed coaching staff for next season.

A: According to records at the secretarial department, we had a conversation for 49 minutes between 5:33 p.m. and 6:22 p.m. However, only 15 minutes involved an explanation about the coaching staff. I was given a list with 30 individuals, but I did not know who most of them were, including Head Coach Kaoru Okazaki, whom Kiyotake was trying to protect.

Q: But you did look over the list, didn't you?

A: I was told, "We will announce this list. This is the finalized personnel choices." So, I said, "Hold on a minute." While I did say, "All right," I did not, in fact, view that list carefully.

Moreover, the season was still not over since the playoffs were coming up. Despite that, Kiyotake made the announcement that the list was the finalized personnel choices.

When I told reporters on Nov. 4 that I had not heard about the coaching selections, I meant that I was not told that an announcement would be made.

Q: Was the plan to include Suguru Egawa as a coach made on the recommendation of Manager Tatsunori Hara?

A: Bringing in someone three years older (than Hara) showed that he was open-minded, and I also felt that was a sign of his growth. When I asked, "Is Egawa coming?" Hara said, "Don't worry. I believe he will accept." That is why I left the negotiations up to him. Hara said, "Egawa will be head coach and Okazaki an overall coach for position players," but I proposed making Egawa deputy manager and having Okazaki be head coach.

Q: Did you not have a grudge toward Egawa at one time?

A: When Egawa signed a contract with the Giants in 1978 amid controversy, I was made to clean up the mess. About 10 years ago when there was a plan to have him join the club as deputy manager, I became angry because Egawa only talked about various conditions for his contract.

However, his commentary on TV broadcasts of baseball games was easy to understand and he has good analytical skills. I evaluated his abilities while putting aside my emotions.

Since Hara also cannot serve as manager permanently, there was also the possibility of making Egawa manager one day depending on his performance.

But saying that Egawa was a future candidate for manager when we were still in the stage of signing another contract with Hara would have been disrespectful to Hara.

Q: Isn't it true that you once said of Egawa, "It is better to be infamous than unknown?"

A: That phrase was originally made by (the late deputy prime minister) Michio Watanabe. Michio was known for making verbal gaffes. But, once when I warned him that such comments would hurt his image, he said, "Politicians cannot afford to be unknown. It is better to be infamous than unknown." I used that comment when I was asked (about Egawa).

Running a professional baseball team requires lots of money. The salaries of players have to be raised and it is not a charitable operation.

Unlike in the past, the Giants have seen a decrease in attendance as well as TV ratings. I have a very strong sense of crisis.

If we have one or two stars, the stadium will be packed and TV ratings will also increase. We have to advertise in order to draw crowds. That will involve efforts made by the company.

Q: What is your view of Kiyotake's claim that you violated compliance provisions by overturning the personnel choices?

A: He only used the term compliance in order to manipulate the mass media.

The articles of incorporation for the Giants state that the prior approval of the chairman of The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings is required for important items, such as personnel decisions above a certain level and expensive contracts. The plan involving Egawa was just such an item.

I have not done a single thing wrong.

In contrast, Kiyotake damaged the company by interfering with the plan to make Egawa deputy manager by leaking corporate secrets. That act was a violation of the loyalty obligation for board directors as defined in the Companies Law and is an illegal act under Civil Law.

Kiyotake said, "If we bring in Egawa, we will have to let someone else go." But since there is no set limit on the number of coaches, it would not have meant someone was left out. There have been numerous examples in the past of adding new names after the coaching staff has been announced. In fact, Kiyotake did that very thing in the past.

Q: Wasn't it excessive to have Shigeo Nagashima, manager emeritus for life, issue a comment after Kiyotake was dismissed?

A: Nagashima is a board member of the Giants. We have to inform all board members before holding a board meeting. When I called him to ask that he attend the meeting, Nagashima angrily said, "What is he trying to do?" It was Nagashima who asked to be allowed to issue a comment.

Q: Do you like baseball?

A: While I do not know about technical matters, I love to watch games on TV and listen to the commentary.

But, the games would probably be doubly interesting if I was someone totally unrelated to the Giants. Even if the team wins the pennant, it ends up losing about 60 games.

When I attend games at Tokyo Dome, about 90 percent of the time the Giants lose. I become fed up when I see the team lose before my very eyes.

Once anyone becomes involved in team management, half of baseball is nothing but agony. My stomach hurts and it is bad for one's health.

Q: Who do you think the Giants belong to?

A: Legally, it belongs to The Yomiuri Shimbun.

But, in the same way that The Yomiuri Shimbun is supported by its 10 million readers, the team can also be said to belong to the fans. In the same way that companies are called on to satisfy consumers, we also have to raise the satisfaction level of the fans.

Regarding the Giants, I plan to leave things up to Kojiro Shiraishi (The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings president) who was named owner.

Nothing good happens when I say something about baseball.

Since I have said so much about the Kiyotake incident, this is the end. I won't say anything more.

Silence is golden, hah, hah, hah.

Q: Is it true that you decided editorial policy and personnel decisions related to The Yomiuri Shimbun?

A: It would be impossible for one person to do everything.

Under The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings there are five subsidiaries, including the Giants, and more than 150 affiliated companies. There are about 5,000 employees at The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings. I cannot make all the decisions for such a large organization.

We have established a research headquarters at which executives and department heads gather to learn from lectures by scholars, company presidents and bureaucrats.

We hold weekly meetings on editorial policy in which about 10 individuals in high company posts attend to exchange opinions.

While I frequently dine with politicians and company presidents, half of my week is spent listening to the opinions of department heads while having meals with them.

Q: But don't those around you try to surmise what you have in mind?

A: A newspaper company will not be able to survive if there were only yes men around me. When I thought they were wrong, I clearly gave my advice to my superiors.

While (the late former company owner) Matsutaro Shoriki was a dictator, (former honorary chairman) Mitsuo Mutai often came to my room when I was head of the editorial board and listened to my opinion.

Q: Would it be possible to have editorial policy differ from your opinion?

A: That does not happen very often.

Q: You served as an intermediary in 2007 between then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and Ichiro Ozawa, who was then head of the Democratic Party of Japan, about a grand coalition.

A: I was contacted by someone close to Ozawa and asked to pass on a message to Fukuda, so I called Fukuda and told him, "Ozawa is suggesting the formation of a grand coalition." Fukuda replied, "That sounds good."

While I was not the only one involved, it is still too early to reveal everything that happened.

Newspaper reporters should follow the big picture and scoops need only be written occasionally. If everything was made a scoop, people would think if they spoke with Watanabe it would appear in the newspaper the next day.

A grand coalition will no longer be possible. There is no one capable of controlling one-party domination of 400 lawmakers.

It would be better to have medium coalitions after breakups of both the DPJ and the Liberal Democratic Party. The ideal would be a coalition with between 280 and 300 members. A collective leadership structure might be all right.

In order to accomplish that, the electoral system would have to be changed to one with multiple-seat districts, but I don't think I will live to see that day. I am very pessimistic on that point.

Q: Have you met with Ozawa recently?

A: There is no one as infamous as him. There is no need to meet directly with him since I can indirectly exchange opinions.

Q: Aren't you just too close to the political world?

A: It would not be bad to have a Cabinet that could implement what is included in Yomiuri's editorial policy. I feel it is just and rational to provide such a Cabinet with knowledge to bring that policy to reality.

If it is a Cabinet that tries to implement policy according to the editorial stance of The Asahi Shimbun, we would have to work to topple it.

The DPJ has had two very bad prime ministers, but Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda might not be too bad. I feel he is close to about 80 percent of our editorial stance. He is honest and is eager to act.

I do not feel that everything has to be changed. Looking at current politics, I also feel what is the point of acting.

Politicians have become inferior and small in stature.

Once when I met with (former Prime Minister Yukio) Hatoyama and told him the comments would be off the record, I found out the next day that he had disclosed the contents of our conversation on his personal blog. That was a case of a politician breaking an agreement with a newspaper reporter about keeping comments off the record. I feel that politicians have really sunk to low levels.

Q: Are there any younger politicians whom you have high expectations for?

A: Among younger politicians, Shinjiro Koizumi is good. He has criticized his own LDP and said legislation on which agreement can be reached with the DPJ, such as participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement and a simultaneous reform of the taxation and social security systems, should be passed by voting for them.

He is not as eccentric or haughty as his father (former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi).

I think he has a bright future.

Among slightly older politicians, Yoshimasa Hayashi and Shigeru Ishiba are also good.

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Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman and editor in chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings (Satoru Ogawa)

Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman and editor in chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings (Satoru Ogawa)

  • Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman and editor in chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings (Satoru Ogawa)
  • Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman and editor in chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings (Satoru Ogawa)
  • Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman and editor in chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings (Satoru Ogawa)

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