TOKYO -- For Japanese company presidents, the end isn't supposed to happen the way it did for Yoshihiko Kawamura.
The board meeting of the company Kawamura headed, Itoman & Co., had just begun Friday morning when a motion was introduced to remove the 66-year-old president from office.
Those favoring the motion were asked to stand up. Solemnly, all but a handful of the 29 directors rose. Then the few who had remained seated also stood. Only Kawamura stayed in his chair, protesting, in vain, that the procedure was not valid.
The news of Kawamura's firing, which was announced Friday afternoon, created a sensation. Japanese executives, after all, are renowned for resigning in the face of any setback or embarrassment, even if the blame belongs to a subordinate.
The forced dismissal of a company head is almost unheard-of. The last time anyone could remember a similar case was in 1982, when the board of the Mitsukoshi department store chain removed the company's president as the result of a scandal.
Kawamura's firing, however, was not the result of a scandal. It is emblematic instead of the collapse of Japan's economic "bubble" -- the spectacular run-up in land and stock prices during the 1980s that has been rapidly deflating over the past year.
The story of Kawamura's last days at Itoman is like that of Donald Trump and Michael Milken in the United States. They all rode a financial wave to great riches in the '80s only to crash in a pile of debt in the '90s.
Under Kawamura's stewardship, Itoman became one of the most prominent examples of the Japanese firms that borrowed too much and invested imprudently during the past decade. Originally an Osaka-based textile trading firm, Itoman plunged into property development and incurred $10 billion in debt. The company thrived from 1985 to 1989, when interest rates were low, the money supply exploded and investments of all kinds soared in value.
But then, over the past year, higher interest costs and softening land prices produced a double whammy for Itoman as the Bank of Japan tried to slow the booming Japanese economy and dampen reckless speculation.
Yet, Kawamura's downfall is more than just another tale of excessive risk-taking come to grief. It also illustrates the extraordinarily close ties that most major Japanese companies enjoy with a big bank.
In Itoman's case, the bank was Sumitomo, the world's third-largest. Sumitomo reportedly pushed Itoman into making some of its most dicey investments.
Virtually all Japanese companies of any size "have what we call a main bank, the purpose of which, if there is a problem, is to orchestrate a rescue operation," said Robert Ballon, a professor of international business at Sophia University in Tokyo. "This is standard operating procedure."
Typically, a bank will own a small equity stake in its client -- in Itoman's case, Sumitomo holds about 3 percent -- and in return for providing a safety net, the bank can exert considerable influence over the client's business. A similar system exists in some other countries, notably Germany, although not in the United States.
Even by Japanese standards, however, the tie between Itoman and Sumitomo has been a cozy one. Much of it was based on Kawamura's close relationship with his mentor, the chairman of Sumitomo.
Kawamura himself was an executive at Sumitomo until the mid-1970s. Unlike most bank executives, he was not a college graduate, but rose through the ranks when he became a devoted prote'ge' of Ichiro Isoda, a fast-rising Sumitomo official who later became the bank's chairman. In 1975, Isoda dispatched Kawamura to take over and revive Itoman, a Sumitomo client that was having difficulties.
Under Kawamura, Itoman's fortunes revived, and he steered the company into such new areas as the development of apartment buildings and resorts. Profits rose handsomely, to more than $100 million annually by the late 1980s.
But some of Kawamura's acquisitions also were widely viewed as being directed by Sumitomo -- and Kawamura's mentor, Isoda -- to help maintain the bank's healthy profit performance. For example, Itoman bought a Tokyo condominium company that Sumitomo had helped finance.
Critics say the takeover of the troubled firm was designed to help Sumitomo avoid loan losses. In the eyes of many in the Japanese financial community, Itoman had become a virtual subsidiary of Sumitomo, assuming risks that the bank wanted to shuck off.
In early October, Itoman was suddenly plunged into crisis when Sumitomo's Isoda resigned. Isoda said he was quitting in order to take the blame for the alleged criminal acts of a branch manager, but an underlying reason for his departure, according to the Japanese press, was his knowledge that Itoman was being severely squeezed by high interest rates and the declining property market. Both Sumitomo and Itoman denied the reports, but soon after Sumitomo provided Itoman with substantial loans.
The bank's new president, Sotoo Tatsumi, did not share the relationship with Kawamura that Isoda had, and Kawamura's relationship with the bank deteriorated. The bank reportedly began to press for Kawamura's ouster, contending that his continued presence in office was damaging the company. But Kawamura stoutly resisted.
In an interview Sunday in the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's largest national newspapers, Kawamura made it clear that he had come to bitterly resent the pressure from Sumitomo. Itoman's problems, he said, "were created by Sumitomo," and the reason he had not quietly stepped down was because he no longer wished to bend to the bank's demands.
Kawamura expressed faith in the man who has been named to replace him, Shoichi Yoshimura, a vice president who has been with Itoman a long time. The fact that Yishimura led the coup d'etat -- it was Yishimura who proposed the motion to dismiss him -- didn't seem to bother Kawamura. In this case, he suggested, being fired was more honorable than quitting, because he "would not resign to compensate for Sumitomo's failings."
Special correspondent Yasuharu Ishizawa contributed to this report.