Tatsuya Mizuno
Jan 30, 2018

Book review: A polemicist addresses Dentsu's hold on the Olympics

Having spent almost 20 years at Hakuhodo, Ryu Honma clearly has an axe to grind with Dentsu. But his latest book deserves some attention, if only because it questions what many see as the natural order of things.

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

While Dentsu has been the subject of a number of critical books, a new title by Ryu Honma, a controversial former employee of Hakuhodo, is the first to delve into scandals that have beset the Japanese advertising giant in recent years. The work, 電通巨大利権 〜 東京五輪で搾取される国民, is only available in Japanese and translates roughly as How Dentsu is Ripping Off the Nation through the Olympics.

The book endeavours to tie together the attributes of the domestic advertising industry that enabled Dentsu to become so powerful, how the mass media views the company, the company’s huge Olympics interests and the games logo scandal, and slush fund allegations. While some of what Honma writes might seem almost background noise in Japanese advertising circles, it would likely shock the general public.

Honma devotes one chapter to the suicide of young Dentsu employee Matsuri Takahashi that triggered a national debate about overwork and efforts to reform labor practices. The Tokyo Summary Court ordered Dentsu to pay a token fine over this case just as the book came out, so it is something of a shame that he was not able to share his views on that.

Still, one particularly interesting point he makes is that that Ms. Takahashi was unusual in the Dentsu culture in that she did not get her job through personal connections. According to Honma, more than half of new graduates Dentsu recruits every year have had relatives linked to the company. At least 80% of female candidates are hired on that basis, he alleges.

He writes that he believes that Akie Matsuzaki, now the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, got into Dentsu less on the strength of having a private vocational school qualification and more on that of her father being president of big confectioner Morinaga.

Those who join Dentsu through connections tend not to be as skilled as regular graduate hires, and are generally assigned to businesses in which they have a lot of free time and little pressure, the book argues. They would certainly avoid the sort of punishing schedule facing talented individuals like Ms. Takahashi, Honma suggests. He believes that recent graduates like her would receive little compassion or care and suffer power harassment at the hands of supervisors.

Following a Tokyo Labour Bureau raid in October 2016, Dentsu rolled out measures to cut overtime hours and instituted a lights-out policy at its premises from 10:00 pm through 5 am. Honma writes that the direct driver in these moves was that Prime Minister Abe summoned Tadashi Ishii, then the president and CEO of Dentsu, to his official residence to give him his direct attention. Mr. Abe apparently offered the following advice: “Incidents to date could hamper Dentsu’s work on the Tokyo Olympics, so do your best to sort things out as soon as possible”.

Honma speculates that Dentsu has been involved intimately in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics logo scandal and the Japan Olympic Committee’s alleged bribery in bidding for the games. He writes that, “Members of the Japan Olympic Committee and the Tokyo Organising Committee hail largely from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and national ministries and agencies. They know nothing about advertising and international events, so teams from Dentsu handle such tasks for them.”

The mass media has said little of Dentsu’s hand in these issues, and bribery allegations quickly disappeared from the news, which may not be all that surprising given that a French financial prosecutors’ probe into suspicious payments allegedly made for the 2020 Olympics bid still seems to have got nowhere. Media outlets around the globe have not fully pursued allegedly rife bribery in bids for the Olympics or the World Cup for that matter.

In Honma’s view, “It is a cold hard fact that the Japanese media is under Dentsu’s thumb in the advertising arena.” He adds that Dentsu has faithfully suppressed unfavourable press reports about the sponsors it serves by using ad placements as a negotiating lever. Although Dentsu has not used its clout overtly since becoming publicly listed in 2001, Honma writes that the media has always tended to ingratiate itself with the firm.

A good example is the budgeting for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. No major newspapers have said anything about the way the organising committee is manipulating the massive budget at its disposal, the book alleges. Honma says that while he thinks that all games volunteers ought to be paid for their services, “members of the organising committee are happy to draw handsome salaries while volunteers provide their talents and goodwill for free.”

Honma goes as far as to label the Olympics a monstrous event designed to benefit Dentsu, and presses for the firm’s breakup.

So, what are we to make of his book? Honma and the book's publisher, Cyzo, have shown some pluck in putting Dentsu under a critical lens. At the same time, the prose tends to be over the top, undermining some important points. I would have preferred the calmer and accordingly more persuasive tone of serious journalism. His writing lacks objectivity, another journalistic essential. And while Honma interviewed numerous people in putting his book together, its many subjective statements can sometimes stretch credibility.

Dentsu will almost certainly ignore a book like this officially. But be that as it may, it’s important that at least some people read it and develop a healthy scepticism about a company that seems untouchable and, in the author’s eyes at least, deserving of a serious restructure.

Tatsuya Mizuno is an editor with Campaign Japan.

(Translated from Japanese by Mark Darbyshire)

Campaign Japan

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