Chihiro Kanagawa’s story is a classic example of an unremarkable career transforming into a remarkable journey of success. At the age of 36, Kanagawa left a dead-end job with a trading company for the exciting chance to work in the International Division of Shin-Etsu Corporation, a manufacturer of chemical products. He soon proved that overseas trade and deal-making were his forte, as he earned a reputation for being a shrewd negotiator with a sharp eye for opportunity. Kanagawa became head of Shin-Etsu in 1990, just as Japan was to enter its Lost Decade. At the age of 65, when most are looking forward to a comfortable retirement, Kanagawa embarked on a 25-year stint as CEO, leading Shin-Etsu to unprecedented profits at a time when most Japanese companies were lost in economic and financial doldrums. His extraordinary success won him many admirers, including GE’s former storied CEO, Jack Welch, who praised Kanagawa for his entrepreneurial savvy and courage.
Kanagawa was born in Korea in 1926 and moved to Japan in 1944, settling in the city of Okayama. He gained admittance to one of Japan’s most prestigious schools only to have his studies cut short by World War II when a U.S. air raid struck Okayama in 1945. Undeterred, Kanagawa eventually returned to school and completed his studies. These events would leave a strong mark on his life: not only did they lead him to consider the power of luck in business and life, but they sparked a strong interest in international trade and history.
In filial duty, but not necessarily personal interest, Kanagawa followed in his father’s footsteps and studied law at the University of Tokyo in 1947. But Kanagawa soon realized he wanted to work internationally and decided to learn English. Few Japanese at that time spoke English, so he picked up key phrases from American GIs and then perfected his language skills with a British instructor. His curiosity about the world beyond Japan proved fruitful. After crucial guidance from his boss, Susumu Ichikawa, at Kyokuto Bussan, Kanagawa started work in Shin-Etsu Chemicals’ International Division in 1962. This opportunity afforded Kanagawa much independence in developing the division since Shin-Etsu was conducting little overseas business in the 1960s. Kanagawa’s knowledge about global business practices yielded strong results while at Shin-Etsu, and the company expanded its operations into Europe, Latin America, and the United States.
Click here to read CHF’s interview with Chihiro Kanagawa.