ROLE MODEL OR HARSH LESSON?

Fans liked how Horie lived on the edge

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Monday’s arrest of Takafumi Horie, the 33-year-old founder of Internet services firm Livedoor Co., left the public wondering how he rose to fame so fast and what his impact on society, especially the young generation, will be.

Nicknamed “Horiemon” after the chubby cartoon robot cat hero Doraemon, Horie has been in the news ever since he came forward to try to rescue the debt-laden Kintetsu Buffaloes baseball team in June 2004.

Horie was no longer Livedoor president as of Tuesday evening. He was replaced by Kozo Hiramatsu, 60, the president of Yayoi Co., a Livedoor subsidiary that makes accounting software.

“He had become a role model for young people, inspiring many to be ambitious,” said Akihito Hotehama, a 21-year-old University of Tokyo student who started his own publishing business last month.

“Whatever (he) may have done wrong, I think his emergence affected society in a good way because of the fact that he encouraged many young people to chase their dreams, and convinced them that they could also succeed in business,” he said.

Hotehama, who worked as an intern at Livedoor for five days in October, said the Internet mogul impressed the younger generation by bravely confronting the establishment during his quest to buy the Buffaloes. After serving as an assistant to Horie, Hotehama went on to cowrite a book on education.

Horie’s Internet blog has received thousands of messages, most of them supportive, since prosecutors raided Livedoor’s group offices and Horie’s condominium for evidence of alleged securities law violations.

Between Jan. 16 — the day of the raid — and Sunday, when Horie’s last message was posted, his blog had received 18,509 messages.

“We will follow you, because you are the only one who can change Japan,” one message read. “You have given us hope and dreams while there are many people who only criticize others but never take action. Please don’t give up!” read another.

Experts agree that Horie’s clever media stunts were instrumental in his rise to fame.

Meiji Gakuin University law professor Kazuhisa Kawakami said Horie is particularly good at dreaming up headline-grabbing tactics.

By trying to buy a baseball team and take over radio broadcaster Nippon Broadcasting System Inc. from TV broadcaster Fuji Television Network Inc. last February, Horie succeeded not only in making his firm a household name but also in portraying himself as a hero of the times.

The entrepreneur continued to grab headlines, even running in the 2005 Lower House election against ousted Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Shizuka Kamei, with tacit LDP support.

The media, especially TV, dispensed with in-depth reporting and seized on Horie’s popularity, making him a frequent guest on programs to raise ratings, Kawakami said.

But why was Horie accepted by so many young people?

His rise fulfilled the aspirations of young people who desperately wanted to emulate him, according to Masahiro Yamada, a sociology professor at Tokyo Gakugei University who wrote “Kibo-Kakusa Shakai” (“Expectation Gap Society”).

As society becomes polarized between successes and failures, the widening disparity is threatening to become permanent, which means those in the lower tier may find it harder and harder to climb, no matter how hard they try.

“As young people become aware that they won’t be able to get rich even if they make step-by-step efforts, they have started harboring the unrealistic dream of hitting the jackpot,” Yamada said, adding that Horie gave hope to these dreamers.

“In reality, it is only a handful of capable people, including Horie himself, who can win at such gambles.”

Meiji Gakuin’s Kawakami said the hero’s fall may cause a backlash among the younger crowd and help them see the virtues of patience and effort in a more positive light.

“Maybe it is a good lesson for young people that rising to prominence in such a way will not last long,” Kawakami said.

Japan’s other young entrepreneurs, however, have a different opinion.

Yuki Hamada, a 22-year-old Tokyo University of Science student who set up a company in August 2003, said he has no particular feelings toward Horie. But he shares Horie’s point of view about running a business.

Hamada is executive vice president of Cybridge Corp., an Internet business consultancy that was created through a merger with another student-run Net business.

“People now criticize Horie for his get-rich-quick tactics, but what is wrong with that?” asked Hamada, who stresses the importance of finding ways to boost sales without breaking a sweat in a fast-changing business world.

“Without such a mind-set, you’ll never come up with a new business idea” at a time when speed and efficiency are required, he said. “If (Horie’s arrest) discourages entrepreneurialism, I think society will become dull.”