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

After the World Economic Forum on Latin America in Rio de Janeiro, I was scheduled to deliver a speech at a conference in Los Angeles, which is one of the most prestigious in the United States. I had three days to spend between the two events. Taking travel time into consideration I actually had two days. I decided to use this time to visit a truly South American place. Taking the last flight from Rio de Janeiro, I arrived at Manaus, a prosperous city located on the banks of the Amazon in the heart of South America, about four hours later. It was already past midnight. I decided to spend the night at a riverside hotel and start exploring the area the following day.

Before checking out in the morning, I visited a zoo attached to the hotel and saw jaguars, ocelots (a type of wildcat), capybaras, parrots, and monkeys. These animals live in the Amazon basin in South America. Maybe the weather was right for them, because they looked relaxed and calm. I took a taxi to head to the Amazon, the largest watershed in the world. I decided to pack clothes I wouldn’t use, my PC, and all other belongings in a suitcase and ask the hotel to look after it. Carrying a backpack, I went on an overnight tour of the Amazon, lightly dressed.

I traveled to a pier in the cab, and sat myself down in a small lighter able to carry several passengers. The clear sky was light blue and the jungle was deep green. There was not a single ripple on the calm river water. Taking a closer look, I found that the swollen Amazon had submerged trees on its sides. Compared with the dry season, the Amazon is said to rise close to 15 meters in water level during the rainy reason. The Amazon reflected the green color of the tropical rainforests beautifully like a mirror.

The lighter arrived at a simple, compact lodge built on a riverbank. That was where I would spend the night. After completing check-in procedures, I walked into my room. There was no electricity.

I immediately walked to a wild monkey habitat with a native guide. I enjoyed a canopy walk over the jungle, having fun with the monkeys. Hawks and water lizards came to greet me. The monkeys with the babies were very cute.

I returned to the lodge to take a nap. A heavy squall hit while I was in bed. I heard the loud beats produced by the huge raindrops so characteristic of tropical rainforests. When the rain stopped past 4 p.m. I went piranha fishing. But only the native guide was successful. Then, like magic, the sky over the Amazon cleared, as if the recent downpour was just in our imagination.

At sunset, I stood alone on the banks of the river. Birds of all kinds began singing in a chorus. The sky gradually lost its color, and the green jungle began looking darker. The river surface stayed still. Flocks of birds crossed the wide open sky.

At twilight, we set out on the Amazon on a lighter. A faint light was lingering in the sky. We were off to find crocodilians known as caimans. After traveling a while, the sky darkened and stars appeared above our heads. The red eyes of caimans glistened in the darkness as we directed our flashlights at them.

The native guide captured a caiman alive with his bare hands and invited us to touch it. For someone like our guide, a native to the Amazon basin, capturing caimans was very natural. “We used to make a living by trapping monkeys and caimans,” the native guide explained to us. “But now we are protecting these animals, instead of eating them. It’s a strange turn of fate.”

The guide picked up a small caiman and showed it to me. I asked him if caimans were dangerous. “Dangerous? No. Humans are much more dangerous.” That was his answer. The guide was certainly right. Humans endanger the Earth more than any other creature, by destroying its ecosystems. Fortunately, 90% of the jungle in the Brazilian state of Amazonas is protected as a World Heritage site and other designated conservation areas.

“This jungle is playing the role of an air cleaner and cooler for the planet,” the guide informed tour members. He had a point. Asked if there “has been any disturbing changes in recent years,” the guide said, “Obviously, the temperature is rising. We had an unbelievable drought last year. There are still areas with no water.”

Global warming is our biggest enemy. Carbon dioxide is the main cause of this phenomenon. We must shift to nuclear power, and eventually recyclable energy, without increasing our use of fossil fuels. We have an ongoing responsibility to do this for all forms of life that live on this planet.

In the embrace of the vast wilderness of the Amazon, one can’t help but to think about many things. The water level of the Amazon rises and falls as much as 15 meters every year. These changes normally cause terrible floods. But things remain calm because people in the Amazon basin are prepared for the change, thinking it natural. We can say the same thing about earthquakes and the tsunami in Japan. We must prepare ourselves for them, accepting that they take place naturally. We must accept what is natural, instead of trying to control it.

With nothing to do in my room, I fell asleep soon after dinner that night.

I began my second day in the Amazon basin with no hot water the next morning. I could use neither my shampoo nor my conditioner. There was a toilet roll in the bathroom, but I couldn’t flush the paper, either. The lodge had a swimming pool made by damming up natural spring water. All things were ecological, or, more precisely, perfectly natural. I had tapioca pancakes and mate for breakfast.

After breakfast, we took a stroll around the jungle with the native guide. The jungle was a treasure trove of life. It boasts 4,000 kinds of trees, 380 kinds of mammals, and 1,600 species of birds. As we walked a muddy animal trail, the guide shared with us the wisdom of his people, such as how to find herbs and tobacco trees, and how to escape jaguar attacks.

I found his talk about natural selection interesting. The process known as tota in Japanese is called “selection” in English. “When parasitic plants and termites kill a big tree, a new tree grows in the same place,” explained the guide. “That’s nature’s choice.” This is the metabolism diversity produces. The jungle leaves “selection” to nature, instead of protecting the big tree.

Caimans lay close to 30 eggs. Only about two will survive. We weaken the caimans, in addition to damaging the ecosystem, when we protect their eggs out a sense of pity, and enable all 30 to reach maturity. What we must protect is the ecosystem, not individual caimans. I believe this offers a clue to the future of Japan.

We must tolerate the diversity of companies and individuals. Or rather we must proactively encourage their diversity. Eccentrics and persons who stick out like proverbial nails are very welcome. We should promote a metabolism through natural “selection” based on a fixed set of rules. To do so, we must deregulate our systems, leave matters close to their natural conditions, instead of protecting specific things. We must enhance the attractiveness of the ecosystem called Japan, and encourage participation in this system in a manner that is absolutely free. We should execute these actions powerfully, just like a jungle.

The Amazon is on average 10 kilometers wide and 50 to 150 meters deep. The river changes its name to the Amazon at the confluence where the Negro River that runs from Colombia joins the Solimoes River that flows from Peru. The Atlantic lies 1,800 kilometers downstream from this confluence. The 6,500-kilometer Amazon continues far upstream from the point where the two rivers meet. Water from the two tributaries differ in color. At the confluence, the two colors run next to each other, without mixing. Water from the Negro River is black, while the Solimoes River is ocher. I learned that the two tributaries also differ in temperature and the speed of their current. I confirmed this myself by touching both types with my own hands.

Manaus is a city with a population of 2 million, and is located at the confluence of the two rivers. In other words, it lies at the start of the Amazon. Honda Motor Co., Ltd. and many other Japanese companies have set up operations in Manaus to enjoy the preferential tax treatment and other advantages the city offers. Together, they operate more than 400 plants in Manaus. Modern buildings line both sides of the Amazon. I even saw an opera house. There were many boats on the Amazon, probably because of its function as major transportation route. Apparently, there are 65,000 boats in total. I spotted several dockyards along the river. A company was building a bridge over the river. The bridge was under construction at a place where the Amazon is at its narrowest, about 3.5 kilometers across. At this narrows, the river is 75 meters deep in its middle section.

There are Japanese settlements in Manaus, where agriculture has flourished. Because it was a Sunday, I saw young people heading to beaches along the river on passenger boats. Only a 30-minute trip by boat from this modern city lies a pristine jungle. This gave me another clue. We should display our international competitiveness in areas such as tourism and agriculture by modernizing our cities exhaustively, while leaving our countryside as undeveloped and natural as possible.

After visiting sites in Manaus and observing the confluence of the two rivers from a boat, we returned to our lodge in the jungle. Before long, a tropical squall had arrived and cooled down the whole area.

After taking a nap, we visited a local settlement. We left the lodge in a boat that traveled the Negro River upstream. The round trip offered some amazing scenery. Instinctively, I entered my thoughts on my mobile phone, and shared them on Twitter.

“The clouds in the Amazon basin are beautiful. The tumbling clouds are pure white cumulous. The white clouds brightly lit by the sun are riveting with the contrast they create with the turquoise sky.”

“I’m admiring the works of art the clouds are producing on a boat traveling down the Amazon. The clouds differ in color and brightness according to their thickness, shape, and position in relation to the sun. The water surface is level and dark. The Amazon reflects the sky blue ripples left by boats like a mirror.”

“The sun went down just now. I think this will be the last sunset I see in the Amazon basin. This setting sun will be the rising sun in Japan, on the other side of the Earth. The sun continually rises and sets. But it doesn’t stay the same. That’s why we must make the most of every day.”

Leaving the lodge immediately after the boat trip, I returned to my hotel in Manaus. I took a catnap, woke up a midnight, and left for Manaus’ Eduardo Gomes International Airport at 2:30 a.m. I had arranged to fly south from Manaus to Rio de Janeiro, and then to travel from Rio de Janeiro to Los Angeles, by way of Panama. The whole journey was going to take me almost one full day.

My phone rang while I was waiting in line for the Rio de Janeiro flight at the boarding gate at the Eduardo Gomes International Airport. It was my third son. He was calling to ask me a question. “How many times do you think I juggled my football today?” Offering a figure slightly below his previous record, I replied, “Maybe 500 times.” “No, you’re wrong,” he announced excitedly. “I juggled the ball 1,028 times.” It was delightful news from the other side of the planet.

May 3, 2011
Yoshito Hori
Written on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Panama

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