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

I was on my way back back to my hometown of Mito, riding the Super Hitachi Express from Ueno Station. Mito was the first stop, but the rural landscape seemed to go on and on, passing suburbs, rice fields, and the Kuji River. Then an announcement finally blared that we would be arriving soon.

Out the window, I saw the green of Sakurayama on my right, a white signboard for Kairakuen Park to the left. Then the tranquil blue water of Lake Senba spread slowly across the train windows. There was an elevated green behind lake, and I caught myself looking for the roof of my old house, where I’d lived until leaving town for Kyoto University.

I’m certainly biased, but I think Mito is one of the most beautiful small cities in Japan. It abounds with history and cultural value, from Kodokan (one of Japan’s three most famous schools, established by the ruling clan in the Edo period) to Kairakuen (one of Japan’s three most admired landscape gardens).

I moved to Mito from Tokai Village, also in Ibaraki Prefecture, when I was a sixth grader, and I stayed there until I graduated high school. Seven years may not seem long, but those were some of the most impressionable years of my life, and the city is filled with valuable memories for me. While I was away at Kyoto University, my father was transferred to Tokyo, so my family left our Mito home behind. Since then, I’ve had very few chances to go back to Mito.

Returning Home & Finding Identity

After leaving Mito and graduating university, I joined a trading company in Tokyo, studied in Boston, and started my own business in Tokyo. During those years, I devoted 100% of my energy to my work, personal pursuits, and studies. This left few opportunities to return to Mito.

But my love for the city grew stronger precisely for that reason. I visited the historical sites and museums like a tourist, studying Mito each time I went back. On this latest occasion as well, in the chilly rain, I chose to visit Zuiryusan, the family cemetery for the Mito branch of the Tokugawa family, and Seizanso. Seizanso was a retreat where the retired Tokugawa Mitsukuni compiled his book Dainihonshi (Great History of Japan). The Mito school of thought can be traced back to Dainihonshi. It was this same school of thought that created the slogan “revere the emperor, expel the barbarian” and eventually led to the assassination of Ii Naosuke and the Meiji Restoration. The site embodied Japanese virtues of simplicity and economy.

After starting my business, I’d traveled around the globe to set up a joint venture with North American and European funds, visit investors overseas, and take part in conferences such as the Davos Forum. Each time I met with world leaders, I realized the importance of personal identity. As my scope of work becomes more global, my conviction grows that having a philosophy and identity is more essential than an international mindset, or even English ability.

Somehow, I feel more Japanese in my heart whenever I leave Japan. I find myself asking, “Who am I? Why was I born?” And whenever I feel unsure, I head to Mito. My philosophy and identity, the foundation of my thinking, derives from there.

Raised in the Mito School of Thought

The thinking that evolved in Mito became a backbone for the ideas and actions in my life. I talk a lot about this in my book, Visionary Leaders who Create and Innovate Societies.

I attended Sannomaru Elementary School, named for its location in the third outermost grounds of Mito Castle. It’s the site where the Mito Clan founded its own school, Kodokan, headed by renowned writer Fujita Toko at the behest of Lord Tokugawa Nariaki. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last shogun, studied at this school.

I went to the Mito 2nd Junior High School in the ninomaru (second outermost grounds) of Mito Castle. It was here that Lord Tokugawa Mitsukuni compiled Dainihonshi. In other words, ninomaru is the birthplace of the Mito school of thought that supported the return of the emperor’s power and expulsion of foreigners. These ideas gathered momentum in the final days of the Tokugawa shogunate.

The next step in my education was at Mito 1st Senior High School, located where the honmaru (castle keep) of Mito Castle once stood. After the Tengu Party uprising failed its attack on the castle keep, party members left for Kyoto from a place called Daigo, located in northwestern Ibaraki Prefecture. They met their fate locked in a herring warehouse in the city of Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture.

I spent my childhood breathing in the air of this place.

Mito’s Pioneers & Influence

Activists from Mito were pioneers. They developed an ideology that became the backbone for the Meiji Restoration through the assassination of Ii Naosuke. But Mito activists were unable to achieve the restoration on their own. Mito was too close to Edo (present-day Tokyo) and the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, who hailed from the same area. It wasn’t until later that their thoughts and intentions spread from Mito to influence greater Japan.

Yoshida Shoin studied in Mito, far from his home. He deplored the state of Japan and, after returning home to Choshu in the south, decided to set up his own private school: Shokasonjuku. There, he trained “activists loyal to the emperor” who went on to realize the Meiji Restoration. Through their education, Shoin contributed to the modernization of Japan.

I strive to live with the spirit and ambition of people like Shoin. The way I achieve this is through soul-searching trips to rediscover my hometown.

Reviving Mito

Mito cannot achieve growth by building on its cultural heritage and past alone. The main street in downtown Mito has become deserted as people move to the suburbs and become more mobile through car ownership. The streets of Mito have lost their life. Major department stores and supermarkets such as Jusco, Daiei, Seibu, and Isejin have closed. The properties they occupied have become vacant lots or empty buildings. There are few pedestrians.

Such conditions have emerged right in the heart of Mito. I think this vicious cycle owes in part to the relocation of City Hall and the prefectural office. These conditions are, to a certain extent, a natural result of misgovernment.

On this most recent trip, I was visiting Mito to support Mr. Atsushi Kawasaki, a friend and Mito municipal assembly member at the tender age of 32. I came to Mito to push him to run for mayor in the April 2011 election. Mito needs change, and I felt a young mayor could be a big part of making that happen.

Kawasaki and I met a few years ago. A car had been arranged to take me to and from Mito Station when I visited two or three times to deliver campaign speeches in support of Mr. Nobuyuki Fukushima, an incumbent House of Representatives member elected from the Mito constituency. I got to know Kawasaki well as he drove me to and from the station. He’d graduated from my same high school a few years after me, and we’d both studied at universities in Kyoto. We had a lot in common, and I wanted to support him. Then one day, without giving it too much thought, I said, “Why don’t you run for mayor? Believe in your potential. Exercise your entrepreneurship.”

A while later, the House of Representatives elections had long passed, and I’d almost completely forgotten my suggestion. Then the phone rang two months ago, and it was Kawasaki. He told me the 2011 mayoral election was around the corner.

I told him I was on my way.

Downtown Mito Potential & Strategies

Kawasaki was a bit of an underdog at just 32 years old, though the mayor of Chiba is the same age, and Chiba is far larger than Mito. I was sure the people of Mito would know the right man for the job, and I readily went to town to give a speech about Mito’s potential and strategies.

A car came to Mito Station to pick me up after I visited Seizanso. This time, the driver was a volunteer staff member for Kawasaki. We arrived at the venue, the Mito Civic Center, where close to 200 citizens had come out in the rainy weather. It was a much bigger turnout than I had expected―very motivating.

“Strategies” was the main focus of my speech: “What is a strategy? It means throwing some things away and choosing other things. Accepting everything is not a strategy. What should we do when Kawasaki becomes the mayor of Mito? You can choose only one policy. What can we do to see dramatic reform, instead of minor improvement?”

I thought a lot about the “best policy” for Mito after receiving the subject of the speech. The winning idea came out of my discussions with Kawasaki: he should rebuild Mito’s sad downtown district. Vitality returns to no organization when its center has no energy. Energy does not flow in a city if the heart is dead, even if its suburbs are thriving. My proposal was to build a streetcar on the main street, clear all other vehicles, and attract large daily crowds reminiscent of the Komon Festival. We might even be able to generate interest by renaming it Komon Street.

We also needed to invite big retailers, from Don Quijote to UNIQLO, to set up stores along this main street and encourage entrepreneurs to open small stores. That would offer an incentive to people who shop in urban districts. We’d need parking lots, too, as well as art centers and schools that would link to each other organically. City Hall should be moved back downtown.

Basically, everything should revolve around incentive.

Money is naturally needed for realizing such activities. My proposal was to secure a source of revenue by throwing things away, so to speak. We needed to generate funds by reducing the number of policies providing financial grants, in the spirit of Sontoku Ninomiya.

The idea was for all people in Mito to exercise a little patience and lead their city to future prosperity, and it’s a realistic dream.

Leveraging Long Lost Suikyo

Another point I made in my speech was this: distinguished individuals leave Mito for good, and that’s a problem. The majority of outstanding individuals raised in Mito head to the big city or go overseas and never return home. This comes as no surprise. There is no place for intellectual employment in Mito other than schools, the prefectural office, or regional banks.

The phenomenon isn’t unique to Mito, or even Japan. Chinese citizens who leave China (called kakkyo) contribute to their country’s reconstruction. Mito just needed to benefit from its untapped network of native sons and daughters who had moved away. I came up with the idea of calling such people suikyo (Mito emigrants).

As with any project, I knew I needed to start where I can. I’d like to first set up and lead the Suikyo Club and recommend its members contribute part of their residential tax payment to the city of Mito. This could increase Mito’s tax revenue by 400 – 500 million yen. As taxpayers, the suikyo would lose nothing―the amount of their total tax payment would remain the same.

A Blueprint for Change in Mito

Thus, in my speech, I drew a blueprint for Mito’s revival, giving the 200 participants a new dream to carry home with them. I anticipate more chances to return to Mito leading up to the election next April.

Eisaku Kikkawa, my senior high school classmate, was at this meeting. He’d been quite mischievous in his senior high school days (as was I), but had since become a teacher at our alma mater, then moved to the prefectural board of education, and is now working in the planning office for the governor of Ibaraki. I could hardly believe it.

As part of his role as a government employee, he had also planned and produced a movie called Sakuradamongai-no Hen (The Assassination of Ii Naosuke). The film tells the story of 18 patriots who fought against the tyrannical rule of Ii Naosuke, the chief minister of the shogun. The ronin from Mito were left on their own when Saigo Takamori failed to carry out his promise of sending 3,000 activists to Tokyo. The activists from Mito died a noble death as forerunners of the Meiji Restoration.

I can’t help smiling when I think that a public servant produced this movie. It was an exercise in entrepreneurship, the sprint of believing in one’s potential. Kikkawa was credited as a producer and made an appearance in the movie as an actor, too. I love this kind of ambition.

Get monthly Insights

Sign up for our newsletter! Privacy Policy