At 10.30pm on a cold December night in 2019, a former titan of the global car industry lay bundled inside a box on board a plane, waiting to flee Japan.
“The plane was scheduled to take off at 11pm,” recalls Carlos Ghosn.”The 30 minutes waiting in the box on the plane, waiting for it to take off, was probably the longest wait I’ve ever experienced in my life.”Now, for the first time, the man who was once the boss of both Nissan and Renault has detailed his daring escape.
In an exclusive interview with the BBC, Mr Ghosn tells how he disguised himself to slip unnoticed through the streets of Tokyo, why a large music equipment box was chosen to smuggle him out of Japan and the elation he felt when he finally landed in his native Lebanon.”The thrill was that finally, I’m going to be able to tell the story,” he said.
Ghosn was at the time the chairman of the Japanese carmaker. He was also the chairman of Renault France and the boss for a three-way alliance of Mitsubishi and both carmakers.He was initially controversial for cutting costs at Nissan, but it ended up saving the carmaker. In the end, he became an instantly recognisable and respected figure. He insists that he was collateral damage in a fight against Nissan’s increasing influence over Renault, which still holds 43% of the Japanese firm.Storyville, a documentary series about Carlos Ghosn’s extraordinary rise to and fall in Carlos Ghosn: the Last Flight will air on BBC 4 on Wednesday, 14 July.
Three years ago, Mr Ghosn described the moment of his arrest at Toyko Airport. He said that it was like he had been hit by a bus, or that something very traumatizing happened to him.He said, “The only thing I remember of this moment was shock, frozen trauma.”Mr Ghosn was transported to the Tokyo Detention Centre, where he was dressed in prison clothes and placed in a cell. He said, “All of a sudden, I had to learn how to live without a watch, without a computer, without a telephone, without news, and without the pen – nothing.”After being released from bail, Mr Ghosn was kept in prison for more than a decade. He was also placed under house arrest in Tokyo. The date of the trial was unknown. It was feared that it might take many years. If convicted, Mr Ghosn would face another 15 years imprisonment in Japan.
“The plan was I could not show my face so I have to be hidden somewhere,” he said. “And the only way I could be hidden [was] to be in a box or be in a luggage so nobody could see me, nobody could recognise me and the plan could work.”He said the idea of using a large box that would normally contain musical instruments “was the most logical one, particularly that around this time there were a lot of concerts in Japan”.But how would someone once so famous – now infamous – in Japan be able to get from his home in the capital to an airport and make his escape?
The plan was, said Mr Ghosn, to behave as normally as possible on the day. “It should be a normal day where I have a normal walk with normal clothes, normal attitude and all of a sudden, everything change.”Mr Ghosn would have to swap the suits he’d worn for years as a high profile executive in the global automotive sector for something a little more casual. Think jeans and trainers.”You can imagine I had to go places where I never been, buy clothes I’ve never bought,” he said. “All of this was part of how do you give yourself a maximum of chance of being successful and absolutely not drawing any attention to yourself.”
To get to Osaka, Mr Ghosn took a bullet train from Tokyo. A private jet was waiting to depart at the airport. First, however, he had to get the box from a nearby hotel.He said, “When you get into the box, don’t think of the past, don’t worry about the future; you just think about what’s happening right now.””You don’t feel afraid. You have no emotion other than the intense concentration on ‘this your chance, you cannot miss it. You’ll pay the price with your life and become a Japanese hostage if you miss it.”
Two men dressed as musicians took Mr Ghosn from his hotel to the airport.Overall, Mr Ghosn estimates that he was in the box about an hour and a quarter, but it felt like it lasted for “one year and half”.
The private jet took off on schedule, and Mr Ghosn, now free from his prison cell, flew through the night, swapped planes with Turkey, before landing in Beirut the following morning.So, Mr Ghosn was allowed to stay in Lebanon even though there is no extradition treaty between Japan and Lebanon.The US has since handed Michael Taylor and Peter Taylor, an American citizen, over to Japan. Now faces three years imprisonment for helping Mr Ghosn escape.Greg Kelly, Mr Ghosn’s former colleague at Nissan and currently under house arrest in Tokyo, is also facing jail. Kelly was accused of helping his boss to conceal his earnings. The charges are denied by Mr Kelly.
What of the people who have been left behind in Japan?
Mr Ghosn stated that he was told by his lawyer that the [Greg Kelly] trial would be over by the end this year. Then, God will know what the verdict of this trial will be for.He said, “I feel sorry to all the Japanese hostage justice victims, all of them.”