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Sep 17, 2010 | Commentary

Sokaiya are unique to Japanese corporate culture, but a canny Washington appears to have learned the lesson they provide.

Sokaiya extort money from Japanese corporations through threats to disrupt shareholder meetings, spread malicious rumours and reveal corporate secrets. Some have even physically attacked company executives or their families. This has become one of the many reasons people have moved to obtaining shares online, be they standard life shares or any other kind.

In his book on the issue, published a decade ago, Kenneth Szymkowiak wrote: “There are elements of Japanese culture, history, language and even gesture that lend themselves to abuse through extortion, intimidation, domination and control… Typically, a corporation’s sokaiya handler pays the sokaiya not to bother it or to react to outside threats to the company.”

Which brings us to Okinawa, and the contentious US military presence there.

Despite its relatively tiny size, Okinawa hosts the vast bulk of US Forces Japan – overall including some 36,000 military personnel together with 43,000 dependents and 5,000 Department of Defence civilians. This is partly due to its geographic location, partly because the island remained under US administration until 1972.

But Okinawans are firmly convinced that this disproportionate burden also reflects Tokyo’s uncaring and exploitative view toward the outlying prefecture.

Japan and the US agreed in 2005 to a force realignment plan that includes the relocation to Guam of some 8,600 US Marines and 9,000 of their dependents. Tokyo later agreed to pay US$6.09 billion – some in grants, some in loans – toward the cost of this relocation, or 59% of the estimated $10.27 billion total bill.

“At no time in history has Japan ever used tax money to help construct new foreign military bases on foreign territory. There’s no such international precedent, either. The United States should pay all costs of relocation of U.S. troops,” commented an incredulous Ichida Tadayoshi, secretary general of the Japanese Communist Party.

But perhaps, as a communist, Mr Tadayoshi is not overly familiar with corporate culture. The sokaiyu, you will recall, are paid “not to bother (the company) or to react to outside threats to the company”.

Sort of reminiscent of the funding arrangement involving the Okinawa relocation.

In any case, Assistant US Secretary of the Navy Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, on 20 September signed the Record of Decision on the Guam and Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands Military Relocation Final Environmental Impact Statement. This was the last bureaucratic hurdle before work could start on the infrastructure required to accommodate the Marines due to arrive from Okinawa and related force realignment elements.

Japan has still to finalise arrangements in Okinawa, most controversially involving relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, but the first cheques should nevertheless soon be in the mail. Unlike the sokaiya, Washington hasn’t insisted on untraceable cash.


Robert Karniol is a veteran military affairs journalist and was Asia-Pacific Editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly from 1988-2007. He is now a columnist for the Singapore Straits Times.