My father was a banker. While I was still in school, he would often share with me, with a touch of pride and nostalgia, his stories as a young banker. When his bank branch offices closed the shutters for the day, all the bankers and staff would gather to count the cash to check the day’s balance. If that balance was off by as little as 1 yen, the entire branch would stay, and recount the money to reconcile the difference. I thought the last thing that I wanted to be when I grew up was a banker.
After growing up in the US, I returned Japan. As a part-time job, I taught conversational English to a couple of university students. After the English session, we would drink beer and chat (in Japanese), and their father would occasionally join. He was a banker. With a red happy face, he would ask me, “Do you know what kind of people gets promoted to the top at a Japanese bank?”
I thought, well, probably making lots of new loans and being profitable. His answer took me by surprise. “Those guys that managed not to make any mistakes,” he said. I stared back at him with a blank expression. I did not know what to make of his answer. I was still fresh out of school from the US. I did not know a lot of things, but one thing I definitely knew. I did not want to be a banker.
Several years later, fate had in store for me to become an investment banker. Working in the Japanese bond market, I did not have to count the last 1 yen at a branch, but I dealt in “sen” (100th of 1 yen). I never worked at a Japanese bank, but over the years, many of my business counterparts were Japanese bankers.
Many of them are good people, and of high global quality. Yet, as an organization of these good people, Japanese banks have not been globally competitive. Why is this so? Perhaps the words of Eiichi Shibusawa, who established the first bank in Japan offers us a hint.
“Being overly protective of existing businesses, fearful of mistakes or failure, and hesitant by weakened spirits, only drags down the fate of the nation.”