Japan has seen few entrepreneurial success stories on the scale of SoftBank ’s CEO Masayoshi Son in recent decades, and not since the likes of Sony and Casio – both founded in the immediate aftermath of the nation’s World War II defeat – have many new Japanese companies gone on to carve a truly global presence. But with billions in losses from some of his biggest recent investments and a growing list of departures from his boardrooms, there is speculation whether an increasingly isolated Son has lost his lauded Midas touch. On Monday, Son announced SoftBank Group had lost 1.36 trillion yen (US$12.7 billion) in the year to March. The red ink largely stemmed from losses of 1.9 trillion yen (US$17.7 billion) at SoftBank’s US$100 billion Vision Fund, caused by misfiring investments in Uber, WeWork and Oyo, among others, which were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. On the same day, long-time Son confidante Jack Ma , co-founder of Alibaba , said he was leaving SoftBank’s board . Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post . On a conference call with investors after the earnings announcement, Son pointed out that Jesus was also criticised and misunderstood, leading to some derision and concern that the unshakeable confidence which drove his bold moves over the years had morphed into a messiah complex. On Tuesday, Son took to Twitter to say: “The reason for failure lies not outside, but with me. There is no moving forward without admitting that.” Son, 62, has bounced back before, most famously after the bursting of the dot-com bubble at the turn of the millennium cost him US$70 billion – reportedly the biggest individual financial loss in history. And it was during that bubble that he invested US$20 million in Alibaba, a stake that went on to be worth more than US$70 billion after Alibaba’s 2014 IPO. However, his recent losses have not been his own money, but that of global investors in SoftBank and its Vision Fund. The Son ‘origin story’ is littered with episodes which speak to the determination, audacity and vision that have defined the man and his career. “He was a child of poor Korean immigrants in Kyushu and has talked about facing discrimination and having stones thrown at him. From there he made himself into one of the outstanding businessmen in the world,” said Gerhard Fasol, CEO of Eurotechnology Japan consultancy and long-time SoftBank watcher. Rather than running from the prejudice, Son leaned in and changed his surname back to the Korean original after his family had adopted a Japanese name in an attempt to assimilate. Aged 16, Son camped outside the office of the president of McDonald’s Japan until he was granted a meeting, in which he asked for advice on success. Told he should study business and English, Son went to high school and university in the United States, starting his first venture as a student there. Founding Softbank in Tokyo in 1981, Son initially built the business around reselling software, though he was always on the lookout for new ventures. SoftBank said to be planning to sell US$14 billion in Alibaba shares During the dot-com debacle, Son set his sights on Japan’s then largely closed telecoms sector and in 2001 he infamously stormed into the communications ministry and threatened to set himself on fire if bureaucrats did not grant him a licence. He later convinced Steve Jobs to give him exclusive Japanese rights to the iPhone, despite the fact that Apple had yet to announce the product and he did not own a mobile carrier. That changed in 2006 when SoftBank took over the struggling Japanese mobile operations of Vodafone. “He raised the US$15 billion for the Vodafone deal in three days and turned the company around [helped by the iPhone] in six months to a year; few people could do that more or less single-handedly,” said Fasol. The success of the Japanese mobile phone business was the springboard for Son’s global ambitions and remains a source of profit even as other divisions have hit hard times. But Son’s success at home has not been repeated abroad. “The game he went into is dominated by the Silicon Valley ecosystem, which attracts the smartest people from all over the world,” noted Fasol. “He’s playing against a completely different team and I’m not sure he’s learned how to play the game.” SoftBank-backed start-up furloughs workers to survive coronavirus Son’s biggest misstep to date is the US$18.5 billion invested in WeWork, a releaser of office spaces with a questionable business model which has seen its valuation fall from US$47 billion to US$2.9 billion in under a year. Former WeWork CEO Adam Neumann is now suing SoftBank. In Monday’s earning call, Son called the investment “foolish”, and SoftBank announced it would pare down its assets to raise cash, including selling about US$11.5 billion in Alibaba shares. SoftBank currently owns just under US$117 billion in Alibaba shares, which would reduce its shareholding in the Chinese e-commerce giant to US$105 billion. “The WeWork decision was made after a taxi ride with the CEO. Son believes his gut feeling is always right,” said Parissa Haghirian, professor of international management at Tokyo’s Sophia University. “There should be a board which controls him.” Cash-strapped WeWork dumps about fifth of Hong Kong coworking space Following the departure of Tadashi Yanai – the man behind Uniqlo and the only other contemporary business-person to have built a globally-recognised Japanese brand – from SoftBank’s board in December, questions have been raised about who can rein in Son’s risk-taking impulses. Eurotechnology’s Fasol believes Son “will rethink everything” after the massive losses, but Haghirian is not so sure. “People don’t change so easily, nobody does, he’s no exception,” said Haghirian. Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.