Memories of a Visionary Businessman

February 2011

Last summer I learned of a book coauthored by a new acquaintance – Raj Sisodia. The book – Firms of Endearment (2007) – included a quote by Ryuzaburo Kaku, a Japanese visionary businessman I met in 1991 when he was at the helm of Canon, Inc. Kaku was a pioneer in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement, and one of the very few CSR advocates who were in high level management positions in large publicly held corporations.

Kaku survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 and, at age 19, demonstrated his leadership by defying orders from his superiors and urging his colleagues to stay underground for three days to shelter them from the radioactive fallout, thus saving many lives.

Kaku always had a mind of his own, according to his biographers. He joined Canon in 1955, when it was an up-and-coming camera manufacturer. He soon gained a reputation for being a thorn in the flesh of top management, bombarding them with suggestions and rarely being satisfied with the answers. He was appointed President in 1977.

Four years before he died and two years after his retirement from Canon, he authored an article in Harvard Business Review entitled “The Path of Kyosei.” Still honorary chairman of Canon, Kaku suggested companies embrace kyosei business credo he defined as a “spirit of cooperation” in which individuals and organizations work together for the common good. His article challenged the leaders of large global corporations with this thought:

Because… multibillion-dollar corporations control vast resources around the globe, employ millions of people, and create and own incredible wealth, they hold the future of the planet in their hands. Although governments and individuals need to do their part, they do not possess the same degree of wealth and power… If corporations run their businesses with the sole aim of gaining more market share or earning more profits, they may well lead the world into economic, environmental and social ruin….It is our obligation as business leaders to Join together to build a foundation for world peace and prosperity.

Kaku, Ryuzaburo, “The Path of Kyosei,” Harvard Business Review, Volume 75 (July-August 1997), pp 55-63

I met this visionary business leader at a retreat sponsored by the World Business Academy (WBA) in England while I was serving as WBA’s Managing Director. Since Kaku did not speak English, all conversations with him were conducted through his assistant, an affable man who I got to know a bit and visited on a subsequent trip to Tokyo in 1992. While I was quite aware of having a corporate leader of his stature amongst our retreatants, I have since realized I did not then fully appreciate the man as a courageous visionary who took bold stands on matters of corporate responsibility long before it was popular to do so.

While his warning about the effects of sole corporate aim on the bottom line was a constant mantra for this pioneering business leader, his words are still as pertinent today as they were in 1997. Kaku’s vision still points the way for responsible business leaders – a beacon that lives on after his passing.

“Domo arigato, Kaku-son” [translation: Thank you, Mr. Kaku]. I honor your memory and your contribution.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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