Imagine you're tired of the big city and decide to spend a few days on the quieter, Japan Sea side of the island. You board the comfortable long-distance bus at Osaka's Hankyu Umeda Bus Terminal and in half-an-hour you're whisked away on the westbound Expressway. During the first short rest stop en route you hardly notice the name of Conglomerate 'X' on the side of the bus. During the second, it already seems strangely familiar. And if you'd started your trip in Tokyo, Okayama, Hiroshima or Fukuoka, it might well have been just the same.
Soon the journey is over and you pull up in front of the central railway station of the main regional town situated a few kilometers from the coast. At one end of the station forecourt you spot the town's most prestigious department store. The name is instantly recognizable as Conglomerate 'X' department store. Everyone knows it — it was built by Conglomerate 'X' Construction. Well-to-do people hurry in and out, leaving the impression that they shop there all the time; that magic wrapping paper has to be on every gift they send and they expect no less for themselves. The less well-to-do go there for the occasional bag to disguise their purchases from a regular supermarket. Flaunting this status symbol will reassure nosy neighbors that, on the whole, they're not doing so badly.
Understandably, you're feeling a bit weary after your journey and are eager to get to your hotel for a quick shower. There are two options: either you catch a local bus from Conglomerate 'X', or else you can take a cab from (by now you've guessed it!) Conglomerate 'X'. With a heavy suitcase to haul around, the choice is an easy one: you opt for the cab.
In no time at all you feel right at home because you've booked yourself into a comfortable room at Hotel Conglomerate 'X'. At around four o'clock you head off to the town's main conference center for an informal business meeting in its ground floor restaurant. What a relief — it too is run by Hotel Conglomerate 'X'. Then it's back to the hotel for dinner and a good night's sleep. But not before watching a local TV channel operated by Conglomerate 'Y', which it later transpires has close family ties to Conglomerate 'X'.
Next morning you wake up to room-service breakfast and a complimentary copy of the local newspaper, which you probably don't realize also happens to be published by Conglomerate 'X' affiliate Conglomerate 'Y'. In today's edition there's news of another art exhibition at the Conglomerate 'X' department store, while the sports page features participants in last weekend's annual Conglomerate 'X' marathon. To the readers of the local newspaper, Conglomerate 'X' comes across day by day as a phenomenon as natural as the tides of the sea or the setting of the sun.
After a quick visit to the Hotel Conglomerate 'X' wedding chapel next door, you decide to take a look around town. The Conglomerate 'X' taxi driver proudly shows off the prefectural office building, another proud creation of Conglomerate 'X' Construction. He goes on to tell you that his own house was built by the smaller Conglomerate 'X' Housing Design & Construction Company, was fully equipped by Conglomerate 'X' Building Materials and Electricals, and finally sold to him by Conglomerate 'X' Real Estate. He then lets on that a rival taxi company is also operated by Conglomerate 'X'.
Time to visit a famous Buddhist temple in a neighboring town. By now you're really impressed because it turns out even the temple bears the name of Conglomerate 'X'. These guys have thought of everything, even your spiritual well-being. To get to the temple you'll need to take the private railway owned by — you've guessed it again — Conglomerate 'X'. During your visit to the Conglomerate 'X' temple you make conversation with an off-duty driving instructor who tells you he works for the Conglomerate 'X' Driving School and always gets his car serviced at Conglomerate 'X' Auto Repairs & Maintenance.
Upon your return to the main regional center, you pick up some Kentucky Fried Chicken sold to you care of Conglomerate 'Y', the local franchise holder. By mid-afternoon you're out and about strolling in the suburbs where something uncharacteristically colorful catches your eye. You find yourself lured into a dealership for luxury cars from the U.S., Germany and Sweden. Although this business is operating under a worryingly unfamiliar name, the salesman is swift to reassure you that in fact Conglomerate 'X' is the sole local franchise holder for all imports of Mercedes Benz, Opel, SAAB, Cadillac, Chevrolet and Corvette.
Later, on the way back to your hotel, you drop in at a travel agency to plan the following day's return journey. Lo and behold, the travel agency proudly displays the name Conglomerate 'X' Travel and in no time at all they've sold you a plane ticket back to Osaka. Early next morning you find yourself aboard a Conglomerate 'X' airport limousine bus on your way to the local airport, whose new terminal building also turns out to be the work of Conglomerate 'X' Construction. On arrival you make for the check-in counter, but suddenly remember you haven't bought anything for family and friends back home. Not to worry, there's just enough time to pick up that little something from the airport souvenir shop, an outlet of the dear old Conglomerate 'X' department store.
After take-off you finally have time to reflect. Was this all for real? I mean, could one single enterprise be allowed to so completely dominate the lives of a local community in a manner that seemed beyond all question? Conglomerate 'X' has a finger in just about every pie it's worth having a finger in. Its economic clout allows it to wield considerable, if not decisive political influence. Indeed, some millionaire politicians and unelected public servants have a personal stake in its good fortunes. In any advanced democracy the natural watchdog of a truly independent press, with its tradition of investigative journalism and unedited reader comment, would soon set alarm bells ringing over any such obvious conflicts of interest. In Japan, this watchdog is still very much a puppy on a very short leash. Rather than being a trained sniffer dog, it is a hound to be let loose only after prosecutors have caught someone red-handed.
With just minutes to go before landing back in Osaka, you take one last glance at a headline in the Conglomerate 'X'-affiliated newspaper. Voices from another planet are calling for the break-up of Microsoft.
Author's note: In most main regional centers across Japan you are more likely than not to come across a Conglomerate 'X'. Commercial life in the larger cities is dominated by two or more such powerful groupings. These invariably own and control the private railways and accommodate their department stores and other businesses on the prime land they own in and around the main stations. To appreciate the impact this has had on smaller retailers and the overall landscape of Tokyo, go to Bill Stonehill's article Mountains and Deserts.