Interview with Shogo Suzuki: The CEO Changing Japanese Society’s Attitude to Ex-Inmates
Japan’s prison system has been thrown into the spotlight in recent months thanks to the accusations against, and detention of, one Carlos Ghosn, illustrious ex-CEO of Nissan. This has exposed questionable practices such as “hostage justice”; forcing suspects into limbo through extended detention until they confess, irrespective of real guilt.
Once imprisoned and then released however, those with criminal records in Japan face an even more uncertain and hopeless situation. Societal stigma against ex-convicts, and lack of support for such people, means the hope of finding a job and reintegrating into society is slim. A new start up company, Cross Career is seeking to change this however.
Cross Career is a recruitment consultant for people with criminal records, to whom they offer job search and support services. The startup seeks to support those trying to build a livelihood who are fettered by their past. Cross Career believes that by helping such people they can tap into one of Japan’s unused labor sources. In doing so, they hope to help prevent a national labor shortage which Nikkei Shinbun reports will reach 6.44 million workers by 2030.
Impressed by their noble ambitions, we organized an interview with Cross Career’s CEO, Mr. Shogo Suzuki to find out more about what inspired him to embark on a mission to transform Japanese society. What follows is an uplifting story of a man who, having fallen on hard times, overcame the very social stigma he now seeks to change in order to chase his dreams.
Introducing: Shogo Suzuki
“Sorry I’m late”, he says through a smile as he rushes to take a seat at my table. I don’t care. I’m already taken by Shogo Suzuki’s affable charm, smart appearance and earnest smile.
Shogo was kept back at the office of his new startup, Cross Career. A modest three man recruitment operation seeking to help thousands of people with criminal records find the work they so desperately seek in a market that won’t have them. With such a big task at hand, it’s understandable he can’t leave on time.
I begin by asking Shogo to tell me about himself and his business.
“I established the company in January of this year (2020). Our mission is to connect job seekers that have criminal records with employment opportunities by providing a high level of service to both parties.”
Shogo speaks with confidence and sincerity. I find myself wondering out loud where the connection between this upright and proper young man and the criminal world is. As it turns out, Shogo and his potential customers have a lot in common.
Shogo lead an illustrious youth. “I used to be a gang member in junior high school”, declares the CEO politely, not a hint of irony on his face. “When I was a kid I got mixed up with the wrong crowd. My elder brother was involved with some bad people and I followed suit”. At 14, Shogo was cutting class, fighting, partying, in general living a much darker life than your stereotypical Japanese junior high school student. After graduation however, Shogo’s situation became more serious.
“I started working as a night scout after graduating junior high school”. You know those guys who hang around on the street and try to convince girls to work for the adult service industry”? Night scouts are generally young men and are commonly seen lurking in Shinjuku or Shibuya’s crowded streets. They target young girls who may be vulnerable to the promise of easy money in exchange for simply talking to older guys, or worse, and lure them to their bosses for persuasive interviews.
“I was good at it too”, confesses Shogo. At this point, given where he is now, I wondered whether his scouting prowess was an early sign of persuasive skills that are required as a CEO. This was starting to feel like a recruitment interview for higher level gang membership.
I thought too soon. “At 16 I was recruited by Hangure. I started doing phone fraud, I was pretty good at that too…”. Those unfamiliar with the Hangure should know they are a type of gang, similar to the Yakuza but without a specific Yakuza affiliation. The grey area of the criminal underworld. Shogo explained his “good work” was earning attention from his higher ups, it seemed he had a promising criminal career ahead of him. However, when his senior was arrested, Shogo was shocked. Shocked enough to try quitting the criminal life. “But in the end I couldn’t. I was addicted to breaking the rules, I was so free….until I ended up in jail that is”.
Shogo’s successful foray into Tokyo’s murkiest underbelly proved to be a step too far. Shogo was soon arrested too, charged on 4 different counts (he didn’t say which), held for 80 days in a police station and eventually sentenced to 2 years imprisonments in juvenile detention.
Hit rock bottom, struck inspiration
“I’d hit rock bottom. In prison before I was 18. I felt so hopeless and helpless at first. Prison in Japan is a really lonely place because I wasn’t allowed to communicate with other inmates in case we made connections that we used for criminal activities in the future. I shared a room with a guy and the only thing we ever said to each other is: “I’m going to use the bathroom”. Starved of companionship, love and belonging, Shogo instead managed to turn his time in prison into a period of growth.
“It’s funny, I couldn’t commit crimes in prison so I started doing so many good things, for myself that is. Like, I started writing a daily journal. I’d write down my ideas, my feelings, thoughts about my past. It gave me perspective.”
Shogo reflected on his life and where he’d gone wrong. Out of many things he realized his lawless pursuits had cost him, he identified gaps in education as something he could fix in prison. He decided to make use of the prison’s library to learn. Juvenile prisons in Japan support inmates basic education, so Shogo could study for and pass his high school exams in prison, as well as other vocational certificates that would help him find employment two years later. “I read around 500 books. I learned so much and gained skills and knowledge I felt I could use to be of value in society when I got out”.
What was the most important book you read in prison?
So what was the most important book you read in prison, I had to ask? Shogo thought for some time and then a smile cracked his lips. “My parents sent me a book called hyaku ichi paacento no douryoku or “101% Effort” by Ryouta Murata. It’s written by a Japanese boxer, and his message is you should always do 101%, whatever you do. The extra 1% isn’t so much but at the time it can be tough. All those 1%’s add up though eventually and you get used to going that little extra mile. Ever since I read that, I’ve always tried to do 101% extra. It’s part of my success!”.
As I write this, I wonder what Shogo’s smile was for, the book, the lessons it taught him, his parents, maybe all of it? In the end I think that smile was gratitude. After all Shogo is a man with a lot to be thankful for, and after speaking to him, I think he really does feel grateful. At rock bottom Shogo had nothing. But he used the few sparks he could find in prison, time, books and support from loved ones, to light a candle which has guided him ever since. Even if he did use the candle to set fire to himself after he got out of prison.
Out of the Frying Pan, into the Fire
Two years and however many thousands of pages later, Shogo was free. “When I got out, I decided to apply to University. I knew with a criminal record it would be hard, but I wanted to study at a good university and pursue a great career”. With a criminal record, Shogo’s prospects of entering one of Japan’s top universities were low. He applied to many, but was rejected by all the schools he aspired to enter. It was a tough time but Shogo said his parents were a great support. “To inspire me, they introduced me to all their friends who were successful in their field”. Exposure to role model figures helped to keep Shogo focused.
Shogo’s perseverance paid off and he got a spot in one of Tokyo’s top foreign language colleges on an English Major. Our entire interview was done mostly in English so I assumed Shogo studied hard. I was wrong.
“I went to college and tried to focus, to really study. But, in the outside world, my old urges resurfaced. I started partying in Shibuya and eventually I got a gig as DJ. All my good intentions were gone, I was addicted to partying”. Shogo spent all his time DJing and having fun. “I did a lot of bad stuff during that time he admitted”.
In spite of this, Shogo graduated language college and started studying in Hosei University, one of Tokyo’s top universities. Still he continued to DJ in Shibuya, a slave to his urge to party. He dropped out of Hosei in his third year, aged 21. It seemed as if he was doomed to squander away everything he had realized in prison to mindless self indulgence.
The sudden arrest of his DJing colleague however proved to be a blessing in disguise. Seeing his friend go down was a visceral reminder of the regret he felt in prison, but also his determination to change. Aspirations reignited, Shogo hung up his decks to try job hunting, the notorious process of Shuushoku Katsudou 就職活動 in Japanese.
Job Hunting with the Weight of Handcuffs
“I applied for hundreds of jobs. I was rejected a hundred times….And I thought prison was hopeless”…..
Shogo explained that people with criminal records face a lot of discrimination from employers who can’t bare the risk of hiring a potential criminal. Shogo knew this, he felt it too, rejection after rejection. But Shogo was determined to join a good company, he kept going.
Eventually, Shogo got a call while waiting for a train in Yotsuya. It was from LG, the South Korean electronics giant. “You want a job”, they asked. “After I said yes, we hung up, and I just wept. I can remember it, standing on the platform, just crying.” Perseverance in the face of a status quo that dictated he was unemployable, and his belief that he could bring value to society as a professional in spite of this won out. Shogo didn’t say which application number LG was. For the sake of a universal poetic justice, I’d like to think it was 101.
Unshackled and Successful
Shogo worked hard in LG. “I was part of a project to develop electric power plants in Ibaraki prefecture near Tokyo. ”Shogo’s first project was successful. “I got to work with great, inspiring people.” Shogo admitted that during his time in LG he was approached by old friends from the Hangure who tempted him to return. ”Because I looked up to my colleagues (in LG) and the great work they did for society, it kept my temptations to return to the crime at bay”.
Shogo’s success in LG lead him to apply to work at Maersk, a Dutch shipping company. He was fortunate to be placed in a corporate startup, Twill logistics, which was developing an Expedia like website for shipping companies. The role gave him a taste of startup life and the opportunity to spend 3 months training in the Netherlands.
While in Twill, Shogo was also encouraged to enter a Business Startup competition, in which he took first place. “This experience was really important. I realized I had what it takes to start my own business. Not only personally, but also in terms of professional relationships in LG and Twill. “I knew I could rely on my mentors to guide me about business”.
Shogo was fortunate to be offered a job with his criminal record. Recognizing this, he made the most of it, working hard to develop the skills and connections he needed for business. But working for someone else’s cause was not enough for Shogo. His formative youth had left him with his own goal to pursue and, having developed the skills for business, now was the time to achieve it.
Deep down, Shogo knew what business he had to build. His experience in juvenile detention gave him a new perspective on life, but also a perspective into the Japanese prison system rarely held by young businessmen. Shogo had achieved success in his career that Japanese society makes alien to most people with criminal records. “I wanted to help people like me to achieve something good with their lives. To give them access to the kind of opportunities I was lucky enough to get that most people like me never know”.
The first time Shogo went to the bank to apply for a loan to begin what would be Cross Career, the bank rejected him. “The business I wanted to start, a recruitment agency for criminals, was an HR business. I had no experience in HR so the bank rejected me”. It took Shogo 6 months interning in an HR company in Tokyo until he had enough experience to apply for a loan again. Second time around Shogo was successful.
He registered his own business and Cross Career was born!
What value does Cross Career’s bring to customers and society?
That’s an impressive journey, I said as I congratulated him for starting his business. I could see that Shogo had a heavy personal investment in Cross Career, but I wanted to understand its value as a business. “So what is Cross Career’s mission and how do you create value as a business”?
“Did you know that Japan has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world?” Shogo asked. “What’s more, 70% of repeat offenders are unemployed when they commit crimes again after getting out of jail. This is costly, it’s damaging society. In fact the Japanese government has been criticized for not doing enough to help offenders get back on the straight and narrow.”
“That’s where Cross Career comes in. We offer convicts the opportunity to re-enter society and make a positive impact. Without us, criminals would be stuck having to battle on their own against the stigma Japanese companies hold against those with criminal records. There are only one or two other companies offering a similar service to us. In short, Japanese society needs businesses like ours, and it’s good timing because the government is starting to realize they have to take action in this area too”.
“That’s awesome! So what have you achieved in your first few months?”
“We are just starting out”, smiles Shogo, honestly. “We haven’t done any business yet, but I’ve been working really hard”. “I’ve built relationships with companies who are willing to hire people with criminal records”.
In many ways, this is the hardest part for Cross Career. Shogo explains that hiring ex-criminals is a huge risk for any company. “Would you hire someone with a criminal record”, he asks? Only if you mean someone who put out a bad LP, I thought. Even then I’d be dubious.
“For companies, anyone with a criminal record poses a problem. They might commit crime again, maybe even target the company. The business and its reputation is too much to lose for most organizations”. Fortunately, Shogo has been busy making friends with organizations who are willing to hire people like him.
“I think people feel more confident about it after meeting me, seeing how much I’ve changed”. Shogo is a credible figurehead. He has a compelling story that makes a powerful point: businesses have the power to help criminally inclined people see a better, brighter way of life. What’s more, Shogo is a confident, intelligent and accomplished young man: a living, breathing counter to stereotypes about those with criminal records in Japan. If he’s sitting opposite organizations and asking the question: do you want to hire people like me, it would be hard for people to say no.
To support Cross Careers main business, they are also offering real estate services, the profits from which will be funneled into supporting clients to find employment.
Shogo’s Vision for Cross Career
It sounds like you’ve got a great plan and everything seems to be falling in to place. Can you give us a sneak peek into your vision for Cross Career?
“Well, I can’t tell you strategy, that’s top secret”, Shogo whispers in hushed tones. “But, what I aspire to do is reform Japanese prison’s education programs. Don’t get me wrong, I got a lot from my two years in Juvenile detention. But to be honest a lot of the prison programs are antiquated. You can learn skills like Japanese wood craft. Prisoners make little wooden sculptures or furniture and sell them every month. It’s nice and all, but what value does it really serve when they get out?”.
Shogo explained that another challenge his business faces is marketing client’s skills to customers. He made the point that if prisons invested in updating their education programs, prisoners would have a stronger chance of finding employment when they got out.
“I want to help prion’s set up education programs which teach inmates skills like coding, or computer skills. There’s a major demand for programmers, computer engineers at the moment, and there’s not enough people to meet this demand. I think inmates can be trained in these skills. Because the thing about computer based jobs is that they can be done remotely. I think this would help organizations bypass the fear of bringing people with criminal records into the workplace. They could work remotely, send their work to an organization who could check it, and then utilize it”.
Listening to Shogo’s vision was giving me a tingling sensation. What he was saying was smart, it had real value for inmates, for society and for organizations in Japan. Why waste money educating inmates with skills that have no value in modern society? Why not give them skills that society needs? As Shogo said, there’s a need in Japan for skilled computer programmers. Sure, this can be filled by hiring from overseas and updating Japan’s national curriculum. However, there’s a pool of people in prisons who could also be better utilized. It costs society money to house them, and it only costs more when they get out: unskilled, unsupported, they have no choice but to return to a cell or make money through illegal means.
Empowering people with criminal records to code arguably has risks. But as long as the education program was managed intelligently and content was kept in line with what’s available from general online training programs, such risks are easily manageable. This isn’t about rewarding prisoners with education. It’s about updating antiquated prison education systems, strategically so they align with modern society.
What he learned from life in a gang
If this interview with Shogo had taught me anything, it was that Shogo believed in the value of learning from experience. Digging in to this point, I asked: Did you think you learned anything valuable while you were in a gang?
“It wasn’t a good thing, but the Hangure have really good communication skills. Part of the reason they can make a business out of crime in Japan is that they’re persuasive speakers. I think I learned how to speak more persuasively during my time in the Hangure.”
I thanked Shogo for all the time he’d taken for the interview and wished him luck with his business. I felt confident he will succeed. Shogo was passionate, earnest, and his mission is to address the pressing social problem of high recidivism that Japan seems to have failed to address so far. At only 24, Shogo has lived a life fraught with obstacles and hardship, all of which he’s overcome to become a confident, driven CEO. His future, and that of Cross Career, are ones to watch.
So, I have one final question. It’s a hot topic at the moment, so you don’t have to answer…….Carlos Ghosn, if he’s convicted and he ever ends up coming back to Japan, will Cross Career help him out?
Shogo’s a good sport. “Of course”, he laughed.