FILE PHOTO: Former Nissan Motor Chairman Carlos Ghosn sits inside the car as he leaves his lawyer's office after being released on bail from Tokyo Detention House, in Tokyo, Japan, March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Issei Kato/File Photo
It is still not entirely clear which corporate cultural line Carlos Ghosn crossed © Reuters

Almost five months after his arrest at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, there is a still a lot we don’t know for certain about the downfall of Carlos Ghosn. We don’t know — and nor, it emerged on Tuesday, do his lawyers — when the former Nissan chairman’s trial will start, who will be his co-defendants, what evidence the prosecutors have amassed, and whether new allegations relating to payments in the Middle East could bring the authorities swooping back with a new indictment.

But these unknowns, while doubtless excruciating for Mr Ghosn, are marginal compared with the enigma of why all this happened in the first place. This matters profoundly. Nissan and its alliance partners at Renault are putting a brave face on it, but they are in serious crisis — a torment whose resolution will not hinge on Mr Ghosn’s criminal guilt or innocence, but on comprehending the precise corporate-cultural line he crossed.

Everyone has a pet theory. Some see old-fashioned Japan Inc xenophobia, protection of a manufacturing pillar and execution of a foreign troublemaker. Mr Ghosn, who must be itching to elaborate on this as soon as his lawyers will let him, has said he was felled by “plot and treason”. The prosecutors make out that they have simply brought a white collar criminal to book through whistleblowing and due process. These and many other narratives are riddled with gaps.

From this confusion, though, two main camps have now emerged, both with a seductively plausible version of events. The first, which was laid out by Nissan last week in the report of its special committee for improving governance, casts Mr Ghosn as an out-and-out baddie: a greedy, unsympathetic, scheming tyrant whose concentration of power and abuse of perks ultimately doomed him. The document, which claimed its purpose was not to assign criminal or legal responsibility on anyone, mounted an excoriating attack on Mr Ghosn’s leadership, breezily stating allegations of malfeasance as fact.

Though it makes some solid enough recommendations, Nissan’s report is not actually about governance. If it were, it would examine the stewardship role of the company’s largest shareholder — Renault, which holds 43 per cent — rather than ignoring that completely. But it is, rather transparently, about resentment: a 32-page testimony to the sheer volume of bile that accumulates in the corporate gallbladder when leaders reach their 19th year in charge. The line Mr Ghosn crossed, in this version, was one of decency and an understanding of how far, at Nissan, he had grown more feared than loved.

The second camp casts Mr Ghosn as the victim of a grand conspiracy — a series of machinations triggered by his moves to push Nissan and Renault into a merger that might have disadvantaged the Japanese side.

In the various versions of this narrative, Nissan’s most senior executives took their grievances to the highest echelons of the Japanese government where they received the sort of sympathetic hearing that one might expect from a protectionist, interventionist state — especially from the trade ministry (METI). The nod was given from on high and the prosecutors, in their role as policy tool, swung into action. You can clearly smell the politics behind Mr Ghosn’s downfall, say proponents of this theory, because of the many egregious examples of Japanese executive malfeasance — at Toshiba most recently — which saw no criminal indictments. Other features of the spectacle — the tipped-off Japanese media waiting on the runway apron for Mr Ghosn’s arrest, the long detention and the prosecutors’ precision strike on one man and his aide, complete the picture of a state-endorsed takedown.

This argument, like the Ghosn-as-baddie thesis, has a good backing. There is no doubt that a merger was being contemplated, nor that senior Nissan executives were in close touch with senior government officials on the matter, nor that METI has intervened on Nissan’s behalf. The line that Mr Ghosn crossed, in the conspiracy narrative, was one of corporate sovereignty: he misjudged where Japan’s sense of ownership would kick-in, and how hard the kick would be.

The unravelling of the great Ghosn downfall enigma will probably be found between these theories, both of which have their flaws but fit a satisfying cluster of facts. The bigger question, as the Nissan saga settles into its role of putting Shinzo Abe’s Japan under the microscope, is whether we are watching the exception or the rule.

leo.lewis@ft.com

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