by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Japan is an ancient culture but one that is never afraid of something new.  That is why this week, Japan said goodbye to an icon of Osaka, a man that thousands of people took photos with every day, who powered down for the final time last Sunday.  This change will bring a new image to Dotonbori street, which traces its history back to 1612, when a local entrepreneur, Yasui Dōton, began expanding the tiny Umezu River, which ran east to west, hoping to increase commerce in the region by connecting the two branches of the Yokobori River, which ran north to south, with a canal.

The Glico Running Man, a mascot for the Osaka-based sweet company has been a feature on Dotonbori street since 1935. The recently retired sign was the fifth generation, installed 16 years ago. It features the classic running man figure plus famous local landmarks: Osaka castle, Osaka aquarium, Kyocera Dome and Tsutenkaku tower. In its place, confectionery maker Ezaki Glico Co. installed a new giant electronic billboard featuring the company's signature image of a runner with his hands in the air on Oct. 23, 2014. The sixth Glico runner billboard since 1935, it measures 20 meters high and 10.38 meters wide and employs around 140,000 energy-efficient light emitting diodes.  Using this technology, images of popular locations in Japan and the world can be projected behind the runner.

The image is a powerful symbol of Japan’s leadership and future, especially in light of its recent Nobel Prize win for efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.  But Glico itself is also a symbol of the type of economics that have held Japan back for the last few years.  Glico’s equity relationships to companies far removed from its chocolate and chewing gum business have long protected its management, and thwarted shareholders’ demands for a corporate overhaul.  According to regulatory filings, Glico’s cross-shareholdings include mutual stakes in companies as diverse as Duskin, a cleaning services company; Toppan Printing, which puts out books; and the TV network Tokyo Broadcasting System. Glico even has a cross-shareholding relationship with House Foods, a rival in the snacks business, as well as its main lenders.

Those relationships came in handy for Glico’s beleaguered management in 2008, when Steel Partners, an American hedge fund led by the billionaire Warren G. Lichtenstein, tried to force Glico to overhaul management, and accept an outside board member.  Glico’s allies rallied to the rescue, approving a poison-pill measure that effectively shut down Steel Partners’ efforts. By the end of the year, the hedge fund had dumped its roughly $175 million stake in Glico; foreign observers cried foul.  For all the efforts to put an end to such practices in Japan, recent filings show they remain prevalent — especially between companies, like Glico, with a history of being targeted by activist investors. And it is unclear how effectively the government can pressure companies to disentangle their shareholdings. 

Still, the falling Yen is bringing hopes that consumers will engage in a Kuidaore of Japanese products.  Kuidaore (食い倒れ) is a Japanese word meaning roughly “to ruin oneself by extravagance in food.” It is sometimes romanised as cuidaore, and is part of a larger proverb: "Dress (in kimonos) till you drop in Kyoto, eat till you drop in Osaka" (京の着倒れ、大阪の食い倒れ). The word is associated with Dōtonbori, and is often used in tourist guides and advertisements. It can be seen in the names of several locations in Dōtonbori, such as the mascot Kuidaore Taro.