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Minoru Makihara, Who Ran Mitsubishi After It Stumbled, Dies at 90


TOKYO — Minoru Makihara, who led Mitsubishi — then the world’s largest company — through the doldrums of Japan’s post-bubble era in the 1990s and helped it meet the demands of a globalizing economy, died on Dec. 13 in Tokyo. He was 90.

The cause was heart failure, his family said.

Educated in England and the United States, Mr. Makihara introduced a new international spirit to what was once Japan’s most powerful company and helped move it away from its staid, traditional business practices. And despite his father’s death at the hands of the United States Navy, he became a lifelong champion of U.S.-Japan relations, leading organizations dedicated to building ties between the former enemies.

Mr. Makihara was born on Jan. 12, 1930, in London, where his father, Satoru Makihara, worked as a branch manager for Mitsubishi, which was already a substantial company. His mother, Haruko, was a writer, librarian and kindergarten teacher. He was raised bilingual, developing an ability to shift between cultures that he would tap throughout his life.

Rising tensions between Japan and the West drove his family back to their native country ahead of the war. In 1942, Mr. Makihara’s father, who was a member of a business delegation to the Japanese-occupied Philippines, was killed when the ship he was on was sunk by an American submarine, Mr. Makihara’s son, Jun, said.

In 1949, Mr. Makihara went to the United States to study at St. Paul’s, a private boarding school in New Hampshire. The scars of the war were fresh. Some students’ parents had been killed by Japanese soldiers. But they still welcomed him with a warmth that “left a deep impression” and inspired a lifelong fondness for the country, his son said. In 1950, he began his undergraduate studies at Harvard University; he graduated in 1954 with a bachelor’s degree in government.

Two years later he followed in his father’s footsteps, returning to Japan and joining Mitsubishi, where he would work for the rest of his life. He affirmed his ties to the company the next year, when he married his childhood friend Kikuko Iwasaki, the great-granddaughter of the Mitsubishi Group’s founder, Yataro Iwasaki.

In 1971, Mr. Makihara opened a Mitsubishi office in Washington, where his social circle grew to include elite figures like Katharine Graham, then the owner of the Washington Post.

By the end of the decade, he had returned to Japan to head the marine products department that had once been led by his father.

The company took notice of his work. He was promoted to head of Mitsubishi’s international operations in 1987, and in 1992 he was named the company’s president and chief executive.

With his foreign education and his decades abroad, Mr. Makihara did not fit the profile of a Mitsubishi president. His selection was widely viewed as a message to the world that the company was trading its stubborn traditionalism for a more international mind-set.

When Mr. Makihara took over Mitsubishi, it was at the top of the Fortune 500, the largest company among the sprawling Japanese conglomerates known as keiretsu, which dealt in everything from fine art to jet engines. But the company’s size hid major weaknesses. Its culture was sclerotic and its profits meager.

It was a fraught time for the titans of Japanese industry. The country’s frothy stock market had collapsed in 1990, ushering in what would become known as the “lost decade,” a period of economic torpor.

Mr. Makihara quickly undertook a program to reorient the company’s businesses along more Western lines, placing an increased emphasis on returning value to shareholders. “One of our main tasks is to transform ourselves from a Japanese trading company into a global trading company,” he said in a 1996 interview.

But changing a behemoth was not easy. Unnerved by his efforts to shake up business, his son said, his colleagues referred to him as “the alien.” An effort to encourage the company’s employees to speak English at work never took off.

Nonetheless, Mr. Makihara was able to introduce major reforms at the company, pushing to update its corporate governance and taking the step, then unusual, of writing down portfolio losses from investments that had soured with Japan’s reversal of economic fortune. In 1998 he was appointed Mitsubishi’s chairman, a position he held until 2004.

In addition to his work at Mitsubishi, he dedicated considerable time to nurturing ties between Japan and the United States at a time when many Americans viewed Japanese economic might as a threat to their own dominance of global trade.

From 1997 to 2002, he was chairman of the U.S.-Japan Business Council. In 2008 he became a chairman of the U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange, where he demonstrated a passion for expanding international educational opportunities formed during his own time studying abroad. He held that position until 2014.

Besides his son, Mr. Makihara is survived by his wife, Kikuko Makihara; his daughter, Kumiko; and three grandchildren.

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