Will Someone at Olympus Go to Jail?: The Ticker

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By William Pesek

Another day, another tantalizing wrinkle in the Olympus Corp. scandal.

The latest is speculation that the 92-year-old camera maker, an icon of corporate Japan, may get delisted. This shouldn't be an "if." Olympus should indeed be yanked from the Tokyo Stock Exchange, and its entire corporate board fired, amid disclosures the company spent hundreds of millions of dollars hiding massive losses from the 1990s.

Yet we are still left with more questions than answers, including: What exactly were those losses? Who covered them up, how was it done, and who knew about it? What role did organized crime members play? Where were the regulators? Which other companies are harboring similar misdeeds?

Here's a question few in Japan have dared ask: Will any Olympus executives go to jail?

In times past, the answer would be "no," given Japan's historical leniency toward white-collar crime. Here's the usual pattern: Olympus bigwigs bow, apologize and cry before the cameras -- the corporate kabuki that plays out again and again in Japan. If you pretend to take responsibility for your boardroom sins, all is forgotten.

Such forgiveness is a tougher sell in the post-Livedoor Co. era. In 2007, Internet entrepreneur Takafumi Horie was jailed for allegedly misstating earnings. Many felt Horie's real sin was speaking out against Japan Inc.'s clubby and insular ways. The Livedoor founder's blunt talk and preference for jeans and T-shirts, not the salaryman uniform of dark suits, drab tries and company lapel pins, rubbed members of the establishment the wrong way. Horie relished in calling them "geezers."

Another case in 2007 also smacked of selective prosecution. Shareholder activist Yoshiaki Murakami went to prison for alleged insider trading. It’s an amazing coincidence that the two most outspoken critics of Japanese corporate governance, one in his 30s, one in his 40s, were sent to the slammer.

That makes it hard for Japan Inc. to circle the wagons and return to business as usual. Also, the size, depth and longevity of the Olympus scam makes it impossible to sweep under the tatami mat amid intense global attention.

Olympus officials like ex-chairman Tsuyoshi Kikukawa could face as many as 10 years in prison if convicted for fraud or other charges. Let's hope someone gets locked up for a scandal that's tarnishing Japan's global reputation. Otherwise, it's confidence in Asia's No. 2 economy that will be held captive.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

-0- Nov/10/2011 17:11 GMT