Low-Key Professor Name-Dropped by Ghosn Startled by Spotlight

(Bloomberg) -- The reference to “Tanaka-san” came about 30 minutes into Carlos Ghosn’s press conference, as the business world’s most high-profile fugitive made his case that the financial misconduct charges against him were baseless.

“A name you know very well: Tanaka-san, professor of corporate law, Tokyo University,” Ghosn said, citing the academic at length as someone who had reviewed his case documents and assured Ghosn’s legal team that the charges the former chairman and chief executive officer of Nissan Motor Co. and Renault SA was facing were without merit.

Wataru Tanaka, who teaches on business and corporate law at Japan’s top university, wasn’t expecting to be singled out in Ghosn’s news conference in Beirut on Wednesday. “I was surprised he mentioned me,” Tanaka said in a phone interview with Bloomberg.

Low-Key Professor Name-Dropped by Ghosn Startled by Spotlight

It’s not even clear whether the academic is that well known, although Ghosn cited him as part of an impassioned two-and-a-half hour defense of his actions, his record and his character. The former captain of industry was arrested in 2018 and imprisoned for months, before slipping out of Japan in a shock flight from justice late last year due to what he saw as his inability to get a fair trial in a “rigged” system.

Despite his prominence in Ghosn’s remarks, Tanaka didn’t even meet with the deposed CEO himself. Instead he spoke with Ghosn’s lawyer Junichiro Hironaka at the university on Dec. 11, consulting on the charges related to Ghosn’s post-retirement income.

“I guess what he heard from his lawyers left an impression,” Tanaka said of Ghosn.

Since he was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, the bespectacled academic has been the talk of the campus at the University of Tokyo. The school is one of the most prestigious academic institutions in Japan, known for educating Japan’s elite, including technocrats, prime ministers and chief executives.

The students who know Tanaka have been talking about his sudden fame, said Akihiro Uehata, a 29-year-old law student at the university who has taken Tanaka’s classes. Tanaka is a popular professor whose lectures are easy to understand, he said.

“He treats his students with respect, and doesn’t just push his beliefs, he always takes the time to listen to their questions about the law and respond,” Uehata said.

Compensation Charges

Tanaka said he planned to write an expert opinion for the trial at the request of Ghosn’s defense team, though it probably now won’t be needed with the trial highly unlikely to go ahead in Ghosn’s absence. The compensation issues he was consulted on make up two of the four charges brought against Ghosn, in addition to two more serious allegations of aggravated breach of trust.

“I have my doubts,” he said about the charges related to pay, saying that such remuneration would have to be proposed by the board and approved by shareholders, according to Japanese company law. “It’s difficult to say it was a done deal that he would have received the compensation, so it probably can’t be charged as falsifying records. I think quite a few legal scholars would have that opinion.”

Tanaka cautioned against judging Japan’s justice system solely on the Ghosn case, and that the two issues should be thought of separately. Some of Ghosn’s criticisms on the long detention times and the so-called “hostage justice” practice of detaining suspects until they confess should be addressed, Tanaka said.

Nonetheless, Tanaka didn’t hold back his thoughts on Ghosn’s recent actions. “He shouldn’t have run away, I wanted him to stand trial in Japan. There’s no question that he broke the law by leaving the country.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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