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High-wire act falters

Japan probe stalls upstart

Asked recently whether he aspired to be a Japanese Rupert Murdoch, Takafumi Horie, the 33 year-old chairman of Internet services operator Livedoor, replied, “(Murdoch) is the chairman of a media conglomerate. We are planning to become a media, IT and financial conglomerate.”

But so far, he’s generated more heat and spectacle than he’s done empire-building.

This past week he achieved his biggest PR coup of all, when news of an investigation into accounting practices at Livedoor and possible manipulations of financial information led to the near-6% slide of the Tokyo Stock Exchange on Jan. 18.

Following raids on his home and office, trading limits were invoked as shares in Livedoor plunged nearly 15%, dragging down the stocks of other tech investors such as Softbank in their wake.

Amid the maelstrom, some clear heads still functioned. Fuji TV, which Horie had circuitously attempted to acquire in early 2005, quickly unburdened itself of the interest in Livedoor it had been greenmailed into acquiring. And jealous newspaper editors rejoiced in the demise of the kid who refused to play by the rules.

Horie’s rise and fall has more in common with a dotcom boomer than a media mogul. His company had revenues of $100 million and a market capitalization of $6 billion at its height. A larger-than-life character, he dropped out of college but compared himself to Bill Gates and attempted to shake up the rules of corporate Japan. He also drove Ferraris and dated models.

At the populist level, he fought (but lost) a local election on behalf of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. At the corporate level, he inspired home-shopping empire Rakuten to make unsolicited takeover overtures to Tokyo Broadcasting Systems last fall. .

While it would be unwise to rule out his fighting off the taint of the scandal, even Horie’s gutsy self-belief must have taken a knock from the very old-fashioned reaction of his friend and adviser, Hideaki Noguchi, 38, who killed himself in a lonely hotel room.

Proudly “un-Japanese,” Horie has proved himself a smart questioner of convention and an unparalleled showman. But a media mogul, no.

At least, not yet.

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