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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, February 10, 2003

China's takeover fury turns tables on ailing Japan

By Peter S. Goodman and Akiko Kashiwagi
Washington Post

TOKYO — It was an unlikely suitor, but he was in no position to be picky. Though his company made some of the world's most sophisticated printing machines, and it was said that he was a brilliant engineer, he also was a miserable businessman. His company was bankrupt. It was this deal or liquidation.

So Yasutaka Kojima, president of the Akiyama Machinery Manufacturing Corp., a fallen champion in once-mighty Japan, began negotiations to hand over his business to a state-owned company from the People's Republic of China. He would seek salvation — cash, and expertise in the art of capitalism — from Shanghai Electric Co., a conglomerate still controlled by the Communist government.

That such a transaction could even be considered, let alone consummated, as it was last year, attests to a dramatic reordering of economic power in Asia. Flush with cash and intent on expanding into markets around the globe with powerful brands and cutting-edge technology, Chinese companies are beginning to buy distressed businesses in Japan, where a decadelong slump has left many in desperate straits.

This reversal of fortune is filled with historical irony. In the first half of the 20th century, as Japan conducted its imperialistic march across Asia, it ravaged China, occupying territory and seizing materials and machinery. Now China is crossing the sea in the other direction, bringing home spoils from Japan. Only a decade ago, as Japan swallowed one foreign trophy after another — Hollywood studios, Rockefeller Center — pundits proclaimed the era of the Rising Sun, stoking sometimes jingoistic fears of Japanese world domination. Although China, too, was making investments in the United States and other countries, its image remained that of a land of bicycles and rice farmers, with values closer to Karl Marx than Warren Buffett.

But now, at least for the moment, China's brand of business is trumping Japan's. China is booming as it continues its transition from communism. In the past two years, at least seven Chinese companies have purchased majority stakes in such diverse Japanese ventures as metal processing and textile operations, according to Recof Corp., a leading Japanese mergers-and-acquisitions research firm. In most of the deals, the Chinese company shifted manufacturing to China, where, despite the "Worker's Paradise" label, wages are as little as a 10th of their Japanese equivalents and pressure to retain workers is far lower.

"China is more capitalist than Japan in terms of labor issues," said Akira Kan, president of the home-appliance division of the Japanese giant Sanyo Electric Co., which sold its microwave-oven division to Guangdong Midea Holding Co. in October 2001.

More such deals are in the works. Beijing-based Joco Investment Management Co., a private investment firm, is sniffing out takeover candidates for Chinese businesses in Japan, said its president, Nick Gu. In October, nearly three dozen firms attended a Shanghai government conference on investing in Japan. Late last year, one of China's largest brokerage houses, Tiantong Securities, set up a consulting business, Tiantong Star Investment, to advise government-owned companies on how to buy Japanese firms. It is now brokering the purchase of a Japanese furniture maker by a Shanghai area company, said its general manager, Zhou Bin.