Kazuo Inamori, Japanese tycoon turned Buddhist monk, dies at 90

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Kazuo Inamori, a self-taught tycoon in post-war Japan who described work as an almost spiritual mission as he built powerful ceramics and telecommunications companies, then traded his business suits for business dresses. a Buddhist monk, died on August 24 in Kyoto, Japan. . He was 90 years old.

Kyocera, a ceramics and electronics company he founded in Kyoto, announced the death in a statement.

Mr Inamori has often been placed alongside Sony’s Akio Morita and automaker Soichiro Honda as vanguards of Japan’s industrial rebound from World War II to become one of the world’s leading economies.

Kyocera, founded by Mr. Inamori in 1959 with the equivalent of $10,000 and a line of credit, has become a dominant player in the global semiconductor market, manufacturing precision ceramics that are key components in computers and other devices because they are heat resistant and do not conduct electricity.

In 1984 he established the long-distance telephone operator DDI (now known as KDDI) which quickly entered a market once held by a former state monopoly, NTT.

In the 1990s, Japanese industrialists helped the country out of recession

In the inflexible medium of Japanese business, Mr. Inamori was a singular personality and forged a reputation as a Zen master of capitalism.

He was distinguished by a management style that blended the Japanese work ethic with the concepts of higher callings and personal fulfillment, often drawn from Mr. Inamori’s own writings. It has been derided by some as sectarian “inamorism”. Mr. Inamori has never wavered in his corporate karma philosophy: deliver excellence and empathy and the universe will smile back.

“We respect the divine and the spirit of working fairly and honestly,” he said.

He got into philanthropy as the founder of the Kyoto Prize, first awarded in 1985, recognizing advances in science, arts, technology and philosophy. Past winners include linguist Noam Chomsky, primate expert Jane Goodall and philosopher Bruno Latour.

“Most industrialists don’t dream, and most dreamers don’t make things, so I’m very lucky,” Mr. Inamori said in “The Next Century,” David Halberstam’s 1991 book.

Mr. Inamori retired in 1997 to devote himself to the reflection and study of the Buddhist priesthood, shaving his head and following a vegetarian diet. He returned to the board in 2010 at the age of 77 after he was asked by the Japanese government to take over as head of struggling national carrier Japan Airlines (JAL) as it went into protective custody. bankruptcy law. A restructured JAL emerged from bankruptcy in March 2011, aided by state bailouts.

In his signature style, Mr Inamori noted the painful process of layoffs and pay cuts as the airline clawed its way back, but he defined ultimate success as aided by greater power.

“Although it’s not the law of cause and effect as such,” he wrote in an essay posted on Kyocera’s website, “I can’t help but feel that we’ve received a helping hand from a universal source of compassion. I doubt that such a miraculous healing and transformation could have been achieved without “divine intervention.”

Kazuo Inamori was born on January 30, 1932 in Kagoshima, on the island of Kyushu, in southern Japan. Mr. Inamori’s father’s printing press offered a comfortable life. But Mr Inamori said his house was burnt down during World War II, forcing the family to live a difficult existence until the end of the war.

In sixth grade, he was stricken with tuberculosis and, while bedridden, read a book on Buddhism which began his interest in the faith.

He graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from Kagoshima University in 1955 and became a researcher at a ceramics company in Kyoto. Mr Inamori once lived in the factory during a workers’ strike – denounced by unions as “a hound of capitalism” – to complete a project he considered essential to the company’s survival. He said he felt angry when his bosses wanted to give him extra pay for his loyalty.

“They never understood,” he told Halberstam. “They thought I was doing it for them, but what I wanted was for the room itself to be better. I had told everyone who stayed and worked with me that we were doing something creative and beautiful.

He broke with the company after learning that he would not advance because he had not attended a more prestigious university. Kyocera (a combination of Kyoto and ceramic) used the techniques Mr. Inamori developed for ceramic insulators for televisions, trying to catch the wave of rising sales in the United States and elsewhere.

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Kyocera’s first US customer was Fairchild Semiconductor, which placed orders for silicon transistor components, according to an oral history Mr. Inamori gave to the Science History Institute in 2010. IBM then placed a large order. Kyocera then diversified into products such as photovoltaic cells, electronics and bioceramics, used to repair or replace damaged bones.

In 1962, Mr. Inamori made his first visit to the United States. His personal budget was so tight that, decades later, he still remembered the exact prices for a steak dinner at Tad’s in Times Square: $1.19 and $1.49 with salad. He visited American ceramic manufacturers, but soon realized that Kyocera made better quality products.

“All he talked about when we were together was his belief in what a company should be, what its obligations were,” recalls Richard Nagai, who worked for a Japanese trading company based in New York and served guide to Mr. Inamori. an interview for Halberstam’s book. “I’m not with an engineer,” I finally decided. I’m with some kind of missionary.

During Kyocera’s early years, Mr. Inamori actually lived at the factory. He earned the nickname “Mr. AM” for being on the floor until after midnight and again at dawn. He joined his employees in morning exercises and began compiling writings that would become an anthology of his views on business and their obligations.

“In capitalism,” he told the Boston Globe in 2012, “greed is seen as a good thing. However, if we rely on it too much, I think society will collapse.

Among his most studied ideas is what he called “amoeba management”, a system of decentralized teams that have the power to make decisions and can add or remove members as the situation changes. business environment.

His survivors include his wife of nearly 64 years, Asako Sunaga, and three daughters, the Associated Press reported. Complete information about the survivors was not immediately available.

Before being called back to help save Japan Airlines, Mr Inamori had retreated from the public eye – living a simple life of meditation and drudgery at a Buddhist monastery in Kyoto.

In 2012, before returning to the monastic world, he tried to describe how his belief in helping humanity gave him something (Inner strength? Insight? He couldn’t say.) Who raised his game .

“I don’t know what I can call it, heaven or God,” he said. “I think there was something else supporting me. I don’t think my abilities are the only reason for my success.


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