Nissan Motor Co. employees reacted Tuesday with anger, surprise and dismay to the arrest a day earlier of the automaker's charismatic chairman Carlos Ghosn for allegedly understating his salary.
Despite criticism directed at the 64-year-old Ghosn for his financial misconduct reportedly over an extended period, some employees gave him credit for rescuing Nissan from the brink of bankruptcy in the 1990s and turning it around through drastic reforms.
The high-profile arrest also surprised Japan's Cabinet ministers, triggering calls for Nissan to take a fresh look at its system of governance that allowed the wrongdoing to take place.
At Nissan's headquarters in Yokohama near Tokyo, many tight-lipped employees in suits shunned reporters' questions as they hurried into the building.
"It all comes down to one man's rule, after all," said a male worker who agreed to speak, giving his take on events.
Tokyo prosecutors arrested Ghosn on Monday, along with Nissan Representative Director Greg Kelly, on suspicion of underreporting the chairman's salary by around 5 billion yen ($44 million) over five years from 2011, or about half of the amount he earned.
"They are the only ones reaping the benefits and it's unacceptable," a male worker in his 20s said on his way to a Nissan factory in Tochigi Prefecture. "Our management should have a sense of responsibility following a recent string of scandals," he said.
Nissan's brand image had already been hurt after it admitted in September last year that for many years uncertified employees had checked vehicles produced in Japan, leading it to recall over 1 million units sold domestically.
The automaker reported this year that data from emissions or fuel efficiency tests had been falsified at its domestic plants.
The stunning development caused Nissan shares to tank in Tokyo as Ghosn's dismissal is expected to be approved on Thursday by the automaker's board of directors. It also raises questions about its management and the outlook for Nissan's alliance with Renault SA and Mitsubishi Motors Corp., companies that Ghosn also serves as chairman.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the arrest is "truly regrettable" and vowed to "closely watch the situation" to gauge its economic impact.
After news broke of Ghosn's arrest, Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa told a late-night press conference on Monday that an independent panel will investigate the chairman's misconduct as he acknowledged that a lack of transparency and governance is partly to blame.
"There is a view that one of the factors (behind the misconduct) is the concentration of power at the top level. We urge Nissan to seriously discuss ways to ensure governance at a third-party panel," industry minister Hiroshige Seko told reporters after a Cabinet meeting.
Saikawa said what he feels about Ghosn's arrest "goes beyond regret" and is akin to "resentment and disappointment."
A male employee at the Tochigi plant who spent over four decades working for Nissan shared those feelings, but also demanded that employees be given a full explanation.
Meanwhile, another male worker dispatched to the plant from Nissan headquarters said Ghosn is irreplaceable. "Nobody but Ghosn could have gotten the company back on its feet. We have a lot to lose," he said.