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Sun, Jun 11, 2006 - Page 12 News List

Japan's original corporate raider attempts the unthinkable


When Yoshiaki Murakami, Japan's first homegrown corporate raider, faced certain arrest for insider trading earlier this week, he did something very un-Japanese: He held a nationally televised news conference.

Wearing a somber gray suit and blue tie, his voice rising almost to a nervous squeal, Murakami, 46, at first apologized for breaking the law, bowing deeply in remorse. But he spent most of his time disputing the prosecutors' allegations, albeit in a low-key, often indirect way acceptable in a society that frowns on open displays of defiance.

"Why can't Japan be kind to the challenger?" he asked at one point. "Am I hated because I made huge amounts of money?"

He was arrested a few hours later, to a nearly unanimous chorus of criticism from Japan's business leaders, politicians and major news media.

The seeming eagerness of Japan's establishment to condemn him, along with the reluctant, almost forced nature of his televised confession, has given the whole affair the quality of a show trial.

But what is truly remarkable, say economists and other experts, is the speed with which Japan has turned upon Murakami, who until just a few months ago was routinely hailed as a symbol of the individualism and entrepreneurship that Japan needs as it embraces a more free-wheeling version of capitalism.

"Overnight, the hero turned into a villain," said Keiichi Omura, a professor of finance at Waseda University in Tokyo. "He went further than Japan could accept, and the prosecutors made an example of him. It's not even clear yet that he's guilty."

While much remains to be sorted out, Murakami and the prosecutors agree on some basic facts in the case, which came to light during an investigation into Livedoor, a company founded by Takafumi Horie, a onetime Internet billionaire and, like Murakami, a darling of the pro-market camp. Horie, charged with accounting fraud, went on trial last month.

Murakami met with executives from Livedoor in early November 2004, the two sides agree, at which point Murakami was told that Livedoor was interested in buying shares in a radio station operator called Nippon Broadcasting.

"Let's buy these shares together," a Livedoor executive said.

Both sides also agree that over the next two months, Murakami's biggest fund, MAC Asset Management, bought US$90 million worth of Nippon Broadcasting's shares. Then Livedoor announced that it was embarking on a hostile takeover of Nippon, driving up its share price. Murakami then sold his stake, earning his fund a quick US$30 million profit.

Where he and prosecutors differ is in Murakami's insistence that he bought shares in Nippon Broadcasting solely because he thought it was a sound investment. He said he never had any idea that Livedoor would try to buy the whole company.

Prosecutors, however, allege that during the November conversation, executives at Livedoor gave Murakami much more specific information that gave him an unfair advantage over other investors.

Legal specialists say a guilty verdict is far from certain. While Japanese insider trading law is based on securities codes in the US, it has rarely been enforced, and prosecutors will have the difficult task of proving that Murakami knew as much about Livedoor's intentions as they say he did.

Nevertheless, while Murakami's ultimate fate in court will not be decided for some time, he has already been convicted in the court of public opinion.

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