Yoshito Hori speaks about leadership lessons with enthusiasm in a suit and tie

I was filled with a sense of accomplishment after a full and lively debate with Masayoshi Son on the night of August 5. This head-to-head debate ran for three hours and twenty-five minutes without any breaks, yet still seemed to have ended all too soon. The session evoked a massive response.

The Challenge

Son and I agreed to the debate on Twitter. In his tweet on July 1, he said, “I wonder what people are thinking when they turn to nuclear power plants seeking short-term profits.”

The tweet caused me to offer the following counterargument: “There are things you can say and things you should never say. Many engineers are pursuing their research solely for the future of Japan. It’s rude to label people devoting themselves to the stabilization of power supply as people who are just seeking short-term profits.”

He responded to this tweet, throwing me the following questions. “Are you a nuclear power advocate? Would you like to have a debate with me on this?” I wrote back that I am an advocate of a stable power supply—and that, yes, I would love to have a debate with him.

And so the plan for our debate was made.

Preparing for the Debate

I’m not an energy expert, and I didn’t know that much about nuclear power plants. I didn’t even really understand the effects of radiation on human health. But I had to learn about these things if I was going to hold my own and make a fair argument against Son in the debate.

So after the debate was planned, I visited Fukushima. Twice.

I wanted to get the lay of the land—and air—first-hand and meet as many locals as possible. I met radiation advisors in Fukushima; Kaname Tajima, the head of the emergency operations center for the nuclear disaster; the chief of Iidate Village; the mayor of Minami Soma City; refugees from Iidate Village; and local municipal and prefectural assembly members. I met local leaders at the KIBOW Fukushima Meeting, which GLOBIS had organized for a dialogue. I visited temporary housing where evacuees from Iidate Village were living. I visited nuclear power facilities and mega solar power plants.

I did these things because I had to understand what was distressing and worrying people in Fukushima.

The debate was open to all, including the media. If I made any false statements, I would be subject to severe criticism from all sides. In particular, uncompromising antinuclear activists would be there to attack me with amazing force. No one could prepare for all that for me. I myself had to go out in the field, speak with experts, and understand the reality from the ground up.

I also spent some time analyzing videos of Son’s past presentations. He’s quite articulate and has great narrative skills to make an appeal on an emotional level. He would be a tough opponent.

Setting Goals for the Debate

As part of my preparation, I chose to clarify my personal goals for the debate. It came down to three objectives:

  1. Increase the number of people who accept nuclear power plants
  2. Provide an opportunity to think about energy policies
  3. Convert Son himself from the denuclearization movement and tell him not to lead public opinion and politics in the wrong direction

I decided to state these objectives at the beginning of my presentation in the debate.

Achieving the third objective would, of course, be the best outcome. But I knew this would be a stretch, so I decided to focus on changing the awareness of the audience. This debate would be a great success for me if I could keep the audience interested and leave the debate with a handshake with Son.

The Format

The discussion format was another point I was concerned about. The videos of Son’s previous dialogues showed him sitting on a sofa—were these discussions or mere conversations? In his moderated talks, the moderators sometimes led discussions in an unfair direction or caused key points to be lost by injecting their personal opinions and asserting their presence. (Frankly, that’s poor moderator technique.) There were also times when Son went in circles repeating the same points.

For those reasons, I insisted on the following:

  1. Appointing no moderator
  2. Distributing time fairly
  3. Having discussions in front of a live audience following the presentations

But there were other things that worried me.

Setting no time limit could cause our discussion to go round and round in circles. Would we be able to discuss everything sufficiently? Would we lose the audience by talking too long to get to the point?

A debate fails when it becomes dull. I needed to be heard. Recognizing this, I chose to assume the role of moderator and lead the discussion, in addition to taking part in the debate. To do that fairly, I prepared both points of assertion and questions before going into the discussion.

I had lunch with my father the day before the debate. When I asked him for advice, he said, “Your mother wants you to do this debate in a dignified way. Accept your opponent’s opinions as if they are correct.” He believed that debating calmly without becoming emotional was the best strategy.

The Debate

Finally, the day of the debate arrived. I met Son in front of the anteroom just before the session got underway at 8pm and shook hands with him. I’d met him a dozen times before, but this was our first face-to-face meeting in about three years. We’d first met just after I established GLOBIS and had served on the same panel discussion in 1994. He is truly one of the most gifted entrepreneurs in Japan, maybe the world.

The debate began. We shook hands again on stage, and I expressed my thanks for his agreement to have this open debate. I then kicked off my twenty-minute presentation, declaring, “I’ll keep telling you what I believe is right, however severely I may be criticized.” Son then delivered his ten-minute counterargument, followed by his twenty-minute presentation. I countered for another ten minutes.

We exchanged hard blows right from the start, trying to rob each other’s time to speak. It was a very tough debate. After a while, I began to feel that Son was more reasonable than I had expected, even as we exchanged heated words. He’d come to the session with an attitude of accepting nuclear power plants, instead of an unyielding stance against them. He took a more flexible approach to radiation than I’d expected, as well, reversing his position that radiation leakage at the level of 1 mSv was dangerous. Now he was saying leaks of up to 20 mSv were permissible. He accepted what he didn’t know, saying, “Let’s study that to learn more.” He admitted numerical values could be wrong.

There were differences between us, including how to look at the risk levels of nuclear power, damage caused by rumors, the “base load” concept of power generation, and some of the figures adopted. But I began to notice many points on which we agreed.

For my part, I said everything I wanted to say. In response to the view that “Japan will be OK with power saving efforts,” I reminded him that we were already paying enormous compensation for saving power. I urged him (and the audience) to look at how difficult the situation is for manufacturers.

When he supported increasing combined-cycle power plants, I pointed out that LNG imports can’t be readily increased. Japan was already importing one-third of global LNG consumption. It was already a bottleneck. Producers would take advantage of the demand and raise LNG costs if Japan were to denuclearize. How would we pay for the power plant construction? CO2 emissions would only rise with LNG if we stopped nuclear power plants.

Moderating the Debate

In the absence of an objective moderator, I made sure we covered every point of every issue. The goal was to keep the audience engaged, and we’d lose their engagement if we focused excessively on one issue or got repetitive. The key to keeping the debate moving was finding points of agreement and points of difference while remaining calm calm and dignified.

Eventually, Son started to repeat some of his arguments (confirmed in my memos). I realized our debate had covered all points of the issue. So we moved into final arguments. Son summed up his part of the discussion from his point of view, and I followed with a summary of my own. We then stood up, shook hands, and thanked the audience for joining us.

The debate was over.

Winners and Losers

In a passage behind the stage, I shook Son’s hand again and thanked him. He left, surrounded by bodyguards. I stayed to thank the GLOBIS staff and say goodbye to everyone. Their reactions were very positive.

I later discovered that Son had tweeted about our debate, thanking me for my part. I responded as follows:

“I want to thank you, too. I believe our debate promoted public understanding. Thank you for proposing it. Let’s expand the circle of this debate to scholars and politicians next.”

The debate had no winner or loser. The discussion was a great success if it increased the number of people who accept nuclear power plants and created an opportunity for the Japanese public to think about energy policies in a coolheaded way. I also found I had in common with Son than I had expected, and he even admitted there was some need for nuclear energy. Yet there were still people on Twitter who dwelled on who won and who lost.

To correct this misguided view, I made the following comment on Twitter.

“If we must determine winners and losers from the debate, antinuclear hard-liners are the ‘losers.’ They lost because people who accept nuclear power plants, including Mr. Son, grew in number from this discussion. Japanese citizens are the ‘winners.’ They won because many people will start speaking up thanks to greater public interest over energy policies and a groundswell of sentiment in favor of making Japan a better place.”

More debates like this could definitely change Japan for the better, bringing diverse viewpoints to the attention of more people and enabling them to discuss matters openly while acknowledging points of agreement and differences. Antinuclear hard-liners uncompromisingly attack anyone who makes valid arguments. As a result, public opinion has swung completely to denuclearization. That makes real discussion impossible.

If this debate represented a first step towards changing the tone and public sentiment, then I can say that Japanese citizens won.

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