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Kazuo Inamori, Japanese mogul who became Buddhist monk, dies at 90

Kazuo Inamori in Tokyo in 2010. (Koji Sasahara/AP)

Kazuo Inamori, a self-made mogul in Japan’s postwar boom who portrayed work as an almost spiritual mission as he built powerhouse ceramics and telecommunications companies and then traded his business suits for the robes of a Buddhist monk, died Aug. 24 in Kyoto, Japan. He was 90.

Kyocera, a specialized ceramics and electronics firm he founded in Kyoto, announced the death in a statement.

Mr. Inamori was often placed alongside Sony’s Akio Morita and vehicle-maker Soichiro Honda as the vanguards of Japan’s industrial rebound after World War II to become one of the world’s top economies.

Kyocera, founded by Mr. Inamori in 1959 with the equivalent of $10,000 and a line of credit, grew into a dominant player in the global semiconductor market, making precision ceramics that are key components in computers and other devices since they resist heat and do not conduct electricity.

In 1984, he created the long-distance phone carrier DDI (now known as KDDI) that quickly broke into a market once held by a former state-owned monopoly, NTT.

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In Japan’s inflexible corporate milieu, Mr. Inamori was a singular personality and developed a reputation as something of a Zen master of capitalism.

He set himself apart with a management style that mixed Japan’s work ethic with concepts of higher callings and self-fulfillment, often taken from Mr. Inamori’s own writings. It was lampooned by some as cultish “Inamorism.” Mr. Inamori never wavered in his philosophy of corporate karma: Give excellence and empathy and the universe will smile back on you.

“We respect the divine and the spirit to work fairly and honestly,” he said.

He moved into philanthropy as the founder of the Kyoto Prize, first given in 1985, recognizing advancements in sciences, arts, technology and philosophy. Past awardees include the linguist Noam Chomsky, the primate expert Jane Goodall and the philosopher Bruno Latour.

“Most industrialists don’t dream, and most dreamers don’t manufacture things, so I am very lucky,” Mr. Inamori was quoted as saying in “The Next Century,” David Halberstam’s 1991 book.

Mr. Inamori retired in 1997 to dedicate himself to reflection and study in the Buddhist priesthood, shaving his head and keeping to a vegetarian diet. He returned to the boardroom in 2010 at age 77 after Japan’s government asked him to take the helm of the ailing national carrier Japan Airlines (JAL) as it filed for bankruptcy protection. A restructured JAL emerged from bankruptcy in March 2011, aided by state bailouts.

In his signature style, Mr. Inamori noted the painful process of layoffs and pay cuts as the airline clawed its way back, but he framed the ultimate success as aided by a greater power.

“While this is not the Law of Cause & Effect as such,” he wrote in an essay posted on the Kyocera website, “I cannot help but think we received a helping hand from a source of universal compassion. I doubt whether such a miraculous recovery and transformation could have been achieved without ‘Divine intervention.’ ”

Kazuo Inamori was born Jan. 30, 1932, in Kagoshima on Japan’s southern Kyushu Island. The printing business of Mr. Inamori’s father offered a comfortable living. But Mr. Inamori said his home was firebombed during World War II, forcing the family into a hardscrabble existence until the war’s end.

In the sixth grade, he was struck with tuberculosis and, while bedridden, read a book on Buddhism that began his lifelong interest in the faith.

He earned a degree in chemical engineering at Kagoshima University in 1955 and became a researcher at a ceramics company in Kyoto. Mr. Inamori once lived in the factory during a workers’ strike — being denounced by unions as “a running dog for capitalism” — to finish a project that he felt was critical for the company’s survival. He said he felt angered when his bosses wanted to give him extra pay for his loyalty.

“They never understood,” he told Halberstam. “They thought I was doing it for them, but what I wanted was the piece itself to be better. I had told all those who stayed and worked with me that we were doing something creative and beautiful.”

He broke from the company after he was told he would not advance because he had not attended a more prestigious university. Kyocera (a combination of Kyoto and ceramics) used Mr. Inamori’s techniques developed for ceramic insulators for televisions, trying to catch the wave of surging sales in the United States and elsewhere.

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Kyocera’s first U.S. customer was Fairchild Semiconductor, which placed orders for silicon transistor components, according to an oral history Mr. Inamori gave to the Science History Institute in 2010. IBM then placed a large order. Kyocera later diversified into products such as photovoltaic cells, electronics and bioceramics, used for repairing or replacing damaged bone.

In 1962, Mr. Inamori made his first visit to the United States. His personal budget was so tight that, decades later, he still remembered the exact prices of a steak dinner at Tad’s in Times Square: $1.19 and $1.49 with salad. He toured some U.S. ceramics makers but soon realized that Kyocera was crafting higher-quality products.

“All he would talk about when we were together was his belief in what a company should be, what its obligations were,” Richard Nagai, who worked for a New York-based Japanese trading company and served as Mr. Inamori’s guide, recalled in an interview for Halberstam’s book. “I’m not with an engineer, I finally decided. I’m with some kind of missionary.”

During Kyocera’s early years, Mr. Inamori effectively lived at the factory. He gained the nickname “Mr. A.M.” for being on the floor until after midnight and back again at dawn. He joined his employees in morning exercises and began compiling writings that would become an anthology of his views on business and its obligations.

“In capitalism,” he told the Boston Globe in 2012, “greediness is something regarded as a good thing. However, if we rely too much on that, I think society will collapse.”

Among his most-studied ideas is what he called “amoeba management,” a system of decentralized teams that have powers to make decisions and can add or shed members depending on the changing business environment.

His survivors include his wife of nearly 64 years, Asako Sunaga, and three daughters, the Associated Press reported. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

Before being called back to help rescue Japan Airlines, Mr. Inamori had pulled away from the public eye — living a simple life of meditation and chores in a Buddhist monastery in Kyoto.

In 2012, before returning to the monastic world, he tried to describe how his belief in helping humanity gave him something (Inner strength? insights? He couldn’t say.) that elevated his game.

“I don’t know how I can call it, heaven or God,” he said. “I think there was something else supporting me. I don’t think my ability is the only reason for my success.”