Kyocera founder was a philosopher king in Japan’s business world

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
In a 2003 interview at the Kyocera head office in Kyoto, Kazuo Inamori demonstrates a swordplay technique that he learned as a student. The company’s motto, “Keiten Aijin” (Respect the Divine and Love People) appears in calligraphy behind him.

The essence of the approach to management espoused by Kyocera founder Kazuo Inamori, who died at 90 on Aug. 24, was a fusion of “emotion” and “reason.”

The “Kyocera Philosophy” represents emotion, while reason takes the form of “Amoeba Management,” in which an organization is divided into small units, called amoebas, that pursue profitability individually.

“Managers themselves sweat with effort first and then share their philosophy with employees. Finally, they all engage in the Amoeba Management and put the philosophy into numerical results,” said Inamori, describing the relationship between the emotional and rational management methods.

In a February 2018 interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, Inamori shared an unexpected story about Amoeba Management. He said, “The name ‘amoeba’ was made up by an executive of our company who came from a bank, but I didn’t think it was a very good word.”

He did not tell me why, but he may have felt uncomfortable that the theory he had built up in great detail was compared to a lowly protozoa.

Inamori spread his corporate philosophy in his own words through get-togethers at which he sat with his employees in a circle and drank together.

Discussions at drinking sessions often got heated. During a discussion on rebuilding the then bankrupt Japan Airlines Co. — a challenge he took on at the age of 78 — an excited Inamori threw a damp oshibori towel at one of the gathered executives.

Many former executives of Kyocera Corp. and KDDI Corp. have said that they would replace glass ashtrays with aluminum ones before important meetings, lest he decide to hurl one at them.

Inamori was from Kagoshima Prefecture, a place he always loved. In fact, the Kyocera motto, “Keiten Aijin” (Respect the Divine and Love People), was originally the motto of local hero Saigo Takamori (1827-77), a leading figure of the Meiji Restoration.

Inamori was a man of the people who loved the beef bowls served by fast-food chain Yoshinoya Co. The Ginza outlet he frequented served it to him in a bowl bearing his name.

He displayed a sense of humor, such as by responding to a reporter visiting his home late at night by saying, “I won’t talk business, but will talk about Saigo for hours.”