Inside The Mountain -- Climbing A Culture To Meet New M's Owner In Kyoto

KYOTO, Japan - Promptly at 10 a.m., right on schedule.

The new majority owner of The Seattle Mariners walks in. The room has 16 chairs. He stands in front of one of them, a low table between us.

I bow, he bows. Then we shake hands. From my pocket, following Japanese custom, I take out a business card and present it. He pulls out one of his own.

His card is bilingual, with print on both sides. He hands it to me with the English side up.

Nintendo, it says, large in the upper left corner. In the bottom right, the Kyoto address of the corporate headquarters where we are meeting. In the middle is simply his title, President, and his name, Hiroshi Yamauchi.

Yamauchi. Pronounced ya-ma-oo-chi (not ya-MAUCH-i, as some in Seattle have been led to believe).

In Japanese, yama is "mountain;" uchi means "inside of."

Inside the mountain. To get inside the mountain, to talk with Yamauchi, is as much an adventure in Japanese culture as it is an interview with the man. Even a man who agreed to pay $75 million to help keep major-league baseball in Seattle - and not have a say in the operations of the club.

The introduction

According to Forbes magazine, Hiroshi Yamauchi, 64, is one of the world's 291 billionaires, worth $1.3 billion. Married. Father of two daughters and a son. Never been to a baseball game.

He is known to be a private person, rarely interviewed by U.S. journalists, and not since the Mariner sale was approved June 11.

Besides, in Japan, arranging for a meeting isn't as easy as calling for an appointment. That much I knew. It's crucial to be "introduced" by a third party. Since I already planned to be in Kyoto, my first call from Seattle went to an old friend there, David Paul Sennett.

"It's funny you should ask," said David, who grew up in Everett and lives near Kyoto with his Japanese wife, Hiroko. "Yamauchi's son-in-law is trying to buy a house from Hiroko's brother-in-law."

Well, it was a start. David also said he'd had dinner the night before with a wealthy businessman who lives in Kyoto, and perhaps he'd help.

I tried to cover my bases via today's conventional route, the fax machine.To Yamauchi, a request for the interview, along with a letter of introduction from the publisher. To Tokyo, a letter to Nintendo's public-relations company. To Nintendo of America's Redmond headquarters and public-relations firm, a copy of the introduction.

Nintendo officials in Redmond sent a fax of their own to Kyoto, encouraging Yamauchi to agree to the interview. A friend who used to work for Nintendo thought that last step greatly improved my chances. All the way to 50-50.

Four electronic messages, seven phone calls, eight meetings, 11 faxes and 48 hours later, a three-sentence fax arrived. Mr. Yasuhiro Minagawa, of Nintendo's General Affairs Department, said Mr. Yamauchi would be available to meet me at 10 a.m., Tuesday, July 7.

David wasn't surprised when I called him with the news. It turned out his friend, Yasuaki Arashita, the wealthy businessman, lived down the street from Yamauchi. He'd made a few calls on my behalf.

Which introduction made the difference, I couldn't know. But the meeting was on.

Brushing up on protocol

Faxes with Minagawa were exchanged on the subject of translation. I offered to bring Hiroko Sennett, who is well-versed in translating not only language but culture between East and West.

Minagawa replied that he would be willing to translate, "if you do not mind," that it would be a bother for Hiroko to travel all the way to their offices to translate terms in an industry "that not many people are familiar with."

The message was clear. When I arrived in Kyoto, however, I sidestepped protocol and asked Hiroko to come along anyway.

The sign at the fenced gate where our taxi stopped didn't mention Nintendo. Hiroko had to ask the security guards to confirm this was the right place. A few steps further, we could see the second building inside the compound, a three-story white building with a Nintendo sign at the top.

The receptionist asked us to take a seat. Small security cameras watched from each corner of the ceiling.

After a few minutes, a tall, thin man approached. Minagawa was younger than I had expected (32, I would learn later). I explained that I understood he would be translating, but had asked Hiroko to come along to ensure that I got to the right place on time. He didn't look overjoyed, but he accepted it.

He led us through a door, down a hall and into the meeting room. Despite the abundance of seating, it was a rather plain setting. The chairs formed a rectangle around three low, square cherrywood tables. One wall dwarfed a small painting of flowers. Three antique vases were evenly spaced on a low mantle along another wall.

We sat at the middle table, Hiroko and I on one side, Minagawa on the other. Before I could ask a question, he handed me a Nintendo annual report, then launched into what sounded like an oft-repeated statement: At Nintendo they invest in people, not facilities. Many people, he said, want to see the working area but it is not allowed; even a glance at paperwork for a game could jeopardize trade secrets.

We all rise as Yamauchi walks in and stands in front of the chair next to Minagawa. About 5-foot-7, medium build, blue-gray suit, white shirt that fits very loosely around the neck, gray pattern tie. His silver wire-frame glasses are slightly tinted, making it just a little difficult to see his eyes.

At this point, again following Japanese tradition, I present gifts. For Yamauchi, a bag containing a Mariner hat, shirt and pin; a small cedar box with a Northwest Indian design; and a video on the history of American baseball. For Minagawa, an M's hat and pin, and a small wooden box with smoked salmon inside. They accept the bags but don't look inside.

Reverse congratulations

Yamauchi nods benevolently, even before the translation begins, as I thank him for granting the interview. I congratulate him on the approval of the Mariners sale. Then I ask if he thinks congratulations are in order.

"It's not because of my contribution which results in the Mariners remaining in Seattle," Yamauchi says, as rendered by Minagawa, "because it's the people of Seattle making the effort to keep the team there. Therefore, it's not what I did for Seattle, it's what Seattle people did for themselves.

"So you congratulate me, but it's I who should congratulate you."

Silence. "Well, OK," I say. "Thank you."

As the interview unfolds, Yamauchi looks at first a little uncomfortable, restless, his left leg jiggling as he waits for the questions to be translated. He volunteers a brief history of Nintendo. How the family company started about 130 years ago, making various types of playing cards. How when business soured, he started to diversify. How it was "just a coincidence," after many failures, that Nintendo entered the home-video-game market.

Yamauchi then describes how Washington state Sen. Slade Gorton approached Minoru Arakawa, Yamauchi's son-in-law and president of Nintendo of America, for financial backing to keep the M's in Seattle. Arakawa relayed the request. As Yamauchi tells it, it sounds like a son-in-law asking the father-in-law for a little favor.

"Mr. Arakawa was wishing to work in Seattle for a very long time," Yamauchi says. "He approached me. He said, `If only you had the money, I wish you could help.' "

He agrees it is a strange kind of help.

"I was told it was OK to pay $75 million but I could not have a say in the operations," he says. His sarcasm, I would hear later from Hiroko, is lost in the translation.

However, Yamauchi adds, "I have not been interested in operating an American baseball club, so that's in accordance with the agreement." He sits back in his chair and relaxes a bit.

Watching reactions

Despite some prodding, Yamauchi would not offer any advice for the Mariners. Not even philosophical advice from a businessman who had seen his company through some hard times.

"I'm not allowed to say so much things about the operations of the Mariners at this point," he says.

He says, in fact, he doesn't consider it a business deal.

"If it were for business, I would not have accepted the offer, I believe. It's quite another reason that I went ahead with the Mariners.

"Of course, it's nothing like I'm going to throw money in the drain or nothing like that, because I am going to get some of the ownership . . . And I may be able to help people to be happy.

"In that charity, beyond my expectations, something happened."

Warming to the conversation, Yamauchi explains some differences between Japan and the U.S. in corporate contributions.

"Nowadays, here in Japan, people also are making noise about regional contributions to the community. As a Japanese, I feel regional contributions are not too understood.

"In most cases, these kind of people are just making noise. Ordinary citizens are not paying attention to them. Here it's not clearly appreciated."

"I'm afraid to tell," he says, summarizing, "Japan is just such a country when it comes to corporate citizenship."

He seemed impressed, by contrast, with the groundswell of support for the Mariners.

"I was very surprised that many of the people were making a variety of efforts to keep the Mariners in Seattle," Yamauchi says, still in the translator's rendition. "And for a Japanese like me, it was nothing but a surprise that the people were revealing a clear attitude of joy.

"When American people say they are happy, they are happy. It was very astonishing.

"I could desire no more only that I could see such joy. Then I would see that the money I spent is alive, in Japanese terms."

Yamauchi allows that he watched U.S. reaction carefully.

"If the majority of Americans are against my purchase of the Mariners, if I would dare to go ahead despite this criticism, Nintendo of America would be damaged. Actually, that's one of the thoughts I had in the past."

Over time, "we could see the opposition or criticism were more or less weakened and the desire of the citizens of Washington state increased."

Competition `more complicated'

Yamauchi laughs, a bit uncomfortably, when I ask if it's true he doesn't like the game.

"It's not a matter if I like it or not," he says. "I would not say I would like it, and I would not say I dislike it. It's something like that, I would say."

Sports and games apparently never played a significant role in Yamauchi's life. A little rugby growing up, that's all. Now, unlike many Japanese businessmen, he doesn't even play golf. What does he do in his leisure time?

"Well, I don't do often, but from time to time I play Go," he says. "It's a traditional Japanese game with black and white stones." The board game, which involves controlling territory and capturing stones, goes back more than 2,000 years. Until 1600, Go was a compulsory course at the Japanese military academy.

However, Yamauchi won't go along with the idea of sports as microcosm of life.

"I understand there are some people who are talking about sports and business. I am not denying their opinion, but in my own opinion, there is more to it than the meeting of eyes in sports games. Competition in business is more complicated."

Those complications, he says, change from country to country.

"I believe that business in every country varies from each other. . . . Here in Japan I am applying one sort of corporate philosophy and in America we have another corporate philosophy, and it can never be the same, I believe."

In mind only

A specific corporate philosophy, for Japan or the U.S., he won't reveal. But he'll give an example, returning to something touched upon earlier.

"Talking about human relations, when one Japanese is glad, he's reluctant to show that feeling, and when he's sad, he hesitates to show that, really, on the surface. It's deeply rooted in Japanese culture. There is a saying, `Those who do not reveal his joy or sorrow would really be a big man, or good man.'

"It's changed a little, but I don't think it can change completely.

"On the other hand, I think American people are much better at revealing their feelings, so other people can notice if they are happy. Japanese people are happy in mind only."

Elaborating, Yamauchi says he believes most Japanese people are grateful to the U.S. for helping them after defeating Japan in World War II.

"Americans think Japanese aren't thankful for what the U.S. has done. But Japanese people are very thankful in their minds. I believe these differences in revealing emotional feelings are responsible for a lot of problems between Japanese and American people.

"Please understand," Yamauchi says, "that many Japanese people are sharing with me the same opinion toward Americans."

Translation headaches

When asked about a personal philosophy, Yamauchi chuckles, and is cautious.

"It's a pretty tough question, in this kind of situation, to provide such a model or canned speech. It would be living for or working for happiness for everybody. Wherever you are asking, these kinds of things are the same, in America, Japan, Europe."

"Are you a religious person?"

Yamauchi smiles. Minagawa's hand goes up to rub his forehead.

"Japan is sometimes called a country with no specific religion," Yamauchi says. "Although we have many temples and shrines, and we also have many people going to church, actually most people don't know what they are believing.

"In Japan there are many variety of gods, 800 or 1,000 gods, while I think in the U.S. you pray to one God. For American people, whatever I say might be very difficult to understand.

"For example, in American movies, you hear many mentions of God: `Oh God,' `Dear God.' But in Japanese movies, you rarely hear these kinds of prayers."

In the end, Yamauchi says, "What people believe is the religion in the country."

Looking ahead

Yamauchi has visited Seattle, not more than a half-dozen times, never really taking a long look around, he says.

I ask if he is familiar with the name Ken Griffey Jr. He shakes his head. I explain that Griffey is the star player for the Mariners and that there has been some talk about him doing a baseball video game with Nintendo. Does Yamauchi know anything about that, or are there are such projects that he wouldn't necessarily be involved with?

"Things like that often are handled by Nintendo of America alone. With major subjects, I usually am informed," Yamauchi says, smiling slightly. The sarcasm comes through clearly this time.

What about retirement and a successor?

"There is a Japanese saying: `One inch ahead, there is darkness.' So I don't know." Hiroko said later the translator asked only about retirement, and not about the successor.

I ask Yamauchi if he would put on the Mariners hat or shirt so I could take a few final photographs. He smiles and says, "Well, but we don't have them handy right now."

"But they're right in that bag I gave to you," I say.

The smile dims slightly. "I'll have to ask that it's OK that I not put on the hat," he says, and segues neatly into his closing statement, "but this is my personal wish:

"I hope in the off-season that the Mariners, with its best members, could visit Japan and have a competitive match with a Japanese baseball team. This would facilitate and make the name of the Mariners more famous.

"Before, most people in Japan didn't even know the name of the Mariners. Now, I believe they are the most famous American baseball team in Japan."

After nearly two hours, the interview is over. More bows, then Yamauchi walks out quickly, leaving behind his bag of gifts. Minagawa gives chase, trying to hand it to him.

The translator returns and escorts us out of the building. All the way, past the front gate.

One small admonition

Later, Hiroko and I meet at a restaurant with David and friends. Arashita is among them. With Hiroko translating, I thank him for helping to arrange the interview, and give him a gift, another boxed smoked salmon. We tell briefly how it went: how Yamauchi talked about the Mariners deal, corporate citizenship and cultural differences, but not much about himself, other than he once played rugby and now a little Go.

Only then does Arashita reveal exactly how he tried to help: He called his Go teacher, who is also Yamauchi's Go teacher.

By the end of the dinner, Arashita is more than happy to put on one of the extra Mariners hats I'd brought along. So is everyone else, and our table now looks a little like a corner at Sneakers after an M's game.

Before we leave, Arashita - smiling, pointing - offers one small admonition:

"You should have asked him more questions about Go."