English translation of the “Learn From the President!” segment on the “Almost Daily Itoi News” website featuring Satoru Iwata
Read about just how insane(insanely amazing) the late Satoru Iwata is. Its just part 1/15 and yet you’ll realise why he was hand picked as the president of Nintendo, first to succeed the Yamauchi family.
There are some banking teminology that doesn’t survive the kanji-literal translation, i’ve taken the liberty of using basic words.
読むシステム： How to read
Shigesato Itoi’s dialogue is indented like this 糸井重里の言葉はこのふうに
And Satoru Iwata’s dialogue isn’t indented 岩田聡の言葉はこのふうに
Learn From the President! Part 1: Someone who sees the way forward in an extreme situation 社長に学ぶ！ 『1』極限状態で見えてくるもの。
Look forward to working with you today.
Well, for starters I’ve known Iwata-san for a while now, but having him as a guest on “learning from the president” is a first.
Its a new format, but even today talking to Itoi-san is just like always. We’ve had many conversations like this already, haven’t we.
Many, many conversations.
Well, we’re renewing our usual conversations for this series. Renewing it is a first, at least!
As a matter of fact, this “lets learn from the president” series originally started to get planned because of talking to Iwata-san: I’ve always recieved quite the education from you on many things.
Ooh, well thats probably when I find something interesting at the time, I’ve got to tell people about it.
If Itoi-san finds something interesting, you tell people, and you get a great reaction like “oooh!” or “wow!”. Doing so seems to just be one of Itoi-san’s great joys in life!
It’s the same feeling for me too. I’m always trying and understanding new things. If it might come in useful to Itoi-san, I’ve got to tell him. He’ll always have an astonished look on his face.
I’m happy every time it happens. I always think “Wow! Is that so?!”
We had one of those educational conversations when “Almost Daily Itoi News” was just being established, and I think was one of the most profound ones that we’ve had by far.
Yeah, just around that time.
The life I live now would never have made sense to the younger “me” from back then.
Ah, true. Well, as far as I’ve known Iwata-san, you’ve always been the president of a company. I first met you when you were the president of HAL laboratory, a video game developer. Usually you expect somebody who has a long life of experience to take on the mantle, but you were just in your 30’s right?
I became president when I was 32. Now that i’m 45 years old, I’ve spent more than half my working life as a president. However, when I moved to Nintendo, I wasn’t immediately the company president.
Aah, so there was a short time you weren’t president.
At that time there was a 2 year gap.
Note: about this gap During the Gamecube era, Satoru Iwata was the chief of Nintendo's corporate planning division. (He was being groomed for the presidency)
Even if you had a 2 year gap of presidency, being president at all for this long is exceptionally rare. Iwata-san didn’t set out from the start to be a president, and yet here you are. I imagine theres common knowledge or training for all the company presidents in this world, but you had to start from scratch?
Thats right. If it was up to me, I just wanted to make the world’s best games, while maximising my software development skills. Nothing else in this world could be more interesting.
So with HAL laboratory as you became the president at the age of 32, with no mentor to help you, you were left to fend for yourself?
That was the case at the time.
When I talking about those times to friends, they all look like they heard something unbelievable. They’d say “Woah, thats something really amazing…” and this was all from the age of 32.
Yep. When I was 31, the company had a management crisis.
I read about it in the newspapers too. It was in some way like a shocking incident: 「HAL laboratory; game software company; with the construction finished for yamanashi office, new leadership has been acquired, but the company still heads towards bankruptcy」
note: based on information at <https://w.atwiki.jp/aniwotawiki/pages/27616.html> Apparently a "Dark Period" including real estate involvement during the bubble. Rushing out new games to lower development costs can create a vicious cycle, where lowering development costs affects sales non-linearly, ultimately losing more and more money as you continue to cut costs.
When that story came out, Iwata-san, I suppose you assumed the role of an engineering lead.
My title was the “Company Director of Development”. Well… I was just the one responsible for it.
So may I ask then why “Director”?
To be honest, that title never really came across my mind. Anyway, you could say it’s an exaggeration.
Well, did you still show up to company meetings?
That still happened, yes. But during then I was just representing the developers.
Being able to respond with lines such as, “Well how does this look from your point of view?” or “If we have to do that, we’re going to be in trouble!” is nice, don’t you think?
Basically, becoming president wasn’t the most auspicious occasion.
There was nothing happy about that at all. The company was going bankrupt due to all sorts of reasons: for starters, our debts exceeded 1 billion yen.
Our mission was to clear a debt 1.5 billion yen over 6 years.
So I guess what you’re getting at would be that: “Repaying the entire debt may very well impossible. At least, we should take steps in the right direction”
It’s as you say. Under those circumstances, we couldn’t avoid causing trouble for others… It wasn’t an era where we could proudly hold our heads up high.
In this world, companies that can peacefully negotiate terms are few. Practically speaking, theres no way any company gets to repay a tenth of a debt every twenty years.
Anyway, we were down 1.5 billion yen. Thats was my “start”, as a president. Over 6 years, we had to repay 250 million yen a year.
And on top of that, you’d have to sort out everyones wages too.
In order to just keep the company afloat, we put up the company building and land as collateral in order to acquire new loans, which we had to repay alongside existing debt.
Also of course, credit is due to all my allies in the company and cooperation from outside entities, without them this wouldn’t be possible. Even so we were given a seriously disadvantaged start.
Even if the debt was just 50 million yen, you’d still say “Oh no…”. As an individual, we’re definetly at a loss when such a large number is in front of us.
Yeah. in Japanese society, it’s arranged so that “When banks lend out money, managers still take individual responsibility over repaying”
While it doesn’t seem banks demand this from presidents of massive corporations, for small to medium sized businesses, effectively: “Once the company goes under someone will take responsibility for its debts”. This kind of deal is customary in Japan. If the banks didn’t do that, people would just do bad things and then run away.
A “limited liability company” is just something we made up. so even if we say liability is “limited”, somebody out there wants to cast off their company as a sacrifice just to line their own pockets. But our society doesn’t want that. So in order to keep such people liable we have these mechanisms.
If my company puts up the building as collateral for a loan, should the company fail to continue operations, I’m the individual responsible for compensating that debt.
For now, I want to further clarify for our “Almost Daily Itoi News” readers
→ Iwata-san’s current explanation is fundamentally from the bank’s point of view.
Becoming the new successor of management for a business over 1 billion yen in debt this is an exceptionally rare case so you’ve got to explain all the rules involved.
If this was a fictional storybook, our hero is currently facing a dire situation! “The president of a company in crisis! What hardships await?”… It would be interesting then to set up the bank as a villain.
“Banks are always causing trouble like this!!”… In stories, heroes need villains. But instead, Iwata-san wishes to justify the way a bank chooses to operate. He’s always trying to understand the other side’s point of view.
Even now, it’s per Iwata-san’s character, to teach us about what he’s discovered.
Well, even in an extreme situation, I could still look at the way forward. I asked myself questions like: “Given our entire situation, in what manner should I approach the bank?”. Should I greet them as “The new company president”?
Ahh, you’d just look like this 32 year old youngster who’s playing at president. “Is this brat really going to repay this loan?…” That kind of feeling is inevitable.
Well… that 32 year old brat decided to go and say “As the new president, I’m going to work hard, and repay this debt!”
Of course when I did, they respectfully responded with “Well… do your best.” “But you’re going to be in serious trouble! If you don’t properly pay it all back that is!” …said the bank staff member, somewhat aggressively.
Well whatever type of person you get, you weren’t in a position to talk back with anything.
Yep. Theres a rather interesting fact that the oppressive bank staff member had to change their title soon afterwards.
Note: could literally be a name change signifying running away from one's current life OR could mean change of title (most likely due to demotion or transfer into a lesser branch)
So from that, you could infer that it was a grave situation for them too!
(hahaha) Well would you look at that! Explaining the other party’s point of view again! Instead of declaring that “The bad guys always lose” and instead thinking that “Life was tough for the other person, so their personality went a little off course”…
Ahh, truly, this is the character known as Iwata-san.
When people stitch together a story, I think we typically embellish our tales with polarising aspects. Things are black or white, good or evil, male or female.
When you watch a drama, you can quickly go “Ahh, this one is clearly evil”. That’s so you can easily empathise with the characters.
But, Iwata-san’s train of thought is “Everyone involved is just a regular ol’ human, making their way in this world”. The way he acknowledges people as just… people, is a quality of his that hasn’t faded with time.
end of part 1