Last updated: January 16, 2006 6:55 pm

Parvenu who exasperated the old guard

Last August, Takafumi Horie was called into an urgent meeting with Junichiro Koizumi, a politician who, like the scruffy internet entrepreneur, has built a career on his maverick credentials.

The prime minister wanted the Livedoor chairman to stand for parliament as a candidate for the Liberal Democratic party with the aim of defeating a prominent opponent of Mr Koizumi’s postal privatisation.

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True to form, Mr Horie took up the challenge, but on his own terms. He would stand as an independent, not as an official LDP candidate. That decision deprived him of the party apparatus – not to mention the cash – that could have helped his campaign.

Instead, he ran off thousands of T-shirts bearing the logo “Reform” and headed off for Hiroshima’s 6th district, a largely rural backwater more used to pork barrel politics than share splits as a form of wealth creation.

There he was joined by supporters who compared him to the young leaders of the Meiji Restoration, who at the end of the 19th century had seized on the idea that Japan needed to change. 

In business, as well as politics, Mr Horie has shown irreverence and disdain for the establishment forces that many blame for preventing the economy from achieving its potential. His chubby face, spiky hair and unfamiliarity with the necktie have marked him out from the septuagenarians who, until recently at least, have dominated Japanese business.

Mr Horie, who quit Tokyo university to pursue his internet dream in the mid-1990s, burst on the scene in 2004, when he shocked the sporting establishment by offering to found Japan’s first new baseball team in the neglected city of Sendai.

His bid was rejected, with the franchise going to Hiroshi Mikitani, a rival internet entrepreneur more accepted by Japan’s business elite.

Like the putative takeover of Fuji TV, the failed attempt to start a baseball franchise came with a consolation prize: it earned Mr Horie enormous publicity. Over the past year, page views on Livedoor have more than quintupled, allowing the company to increase advertising rates sharply.

In Hiroshima too, Mr Horie was beaten by the incumbent, former LDP heavyweight Shizuka Kamei. Mr Kamei characterised Mr Horie as a city sharpshooter.

In politics, baseball and TV, Mr Horie has fallen foul of the establishment.

Now the powers that be are questioning the very legality of his business practices. Japan’s young pretender will have to think quickly indeed if he is somehow to turn the latest situation to his advantage.

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