Playing games: Japanese pinball machine games at a pachinko parlour in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho
Playing games: Japanese pinball machine games at a pachinko parlour in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho © Natsuki Sakai/AFLO/Alamy

If Mills & Boon were writing the script, the tormented romance of the American basketball star, the pachinko princess and her billionaire father would end in reconciliation and joy. The real-life version involves accusations of racism, a weaponised loan, a disputed bloc of shares estimated at $300m, tit-for-tat lawsuits, jurisdictional tourism in a Pacific island and a gambit that reveals a fascinating loophole in Japan’s litigation rules.

The unhappy saga centres on Maruhan — a privately held entertainment group that made its fortune in Japan’s $200bn pachinko gaming industry — and its chairman and chief executive Han Chang-woo. An ethnically Korean 89-year-old who emigrated to Japan as a teenager, he is now one of the country’s richest men and his six children have all received substantial stakes in the company. The eldest, Marina Haba (née Han), 51, has lived her life on the dividends, worth several million dollars a year.

As a college student in the early 1990s, Ms Haba met Joe Wallace, an African-American professional basketballer then playing in Japan. They fell in love but, after a stint living together, went their separate ways. Both later got married and divorced, and reunited many years later via Facebook. 

The old flame rekindled and the couple married in 2014. But Ms Haba says her father was opposed because of her husband’s ethnicity. “My father has made it plain that he does not approve of my relationship with a black man,” said Ms Haba in a court declaration seen by the Financial Times. A spokesman for Maruhan said the company believed the allegation was completely false.

Mr Han, he says, is strongly against ethnic or racial discrimination, and the company does “not tolerate any ethnic or racial discrimination . . . [a] policy that is strictly adhered by its directors and employees.”

Nevertheless, something about his daughter’s partner seemed to rankle. When Mr Han learnt they were married, Ms Haba alleges, he attempted to coerce a divorce by engineering a choice between love and livelihood. He cut the dividend payments from her Maruhan shares, she claims, and later removed her from the shareholder register. In 2019, Ms Haba and her husband attempted to appease her father by filing for divorce in Los Angeles — a ruse they never intended to follow through on and have not done so.

In September 2019, now painfully straitened economically, Ms Haba went to her father. He offered a loan, she alleges, but with explicit conditions: leave Mr Wallace, hand over her passport and agree to no “unnecessary” socialising. She reluctantly agreed, but was shortly afterwards spotted in Tokyo with her husband.

Marina Haba and Joe Wallace in 2018
Marina Haba and Joe Wallace in 2018

A Rubicon crossed and a rage ignited, Mr Han has since sued his daughter to recover the loan with interest, according to separate court filings obtained by the FT. An equally determined Ms Haba, however, now also plans to use Japanese courts to get her shares and dividend reinstated.

With so much at stake, and a major global law firm (Morrison & Foerster) in her corner, Ms Haba began to lay some strategic groundwork and sued her father in the US territory of Guam, where Maruhan has operations and which, crucially, should allow her to use US law to obtain documents to later support her case in Japan.

Ms Haba’s case will be closely scrutinised by litigators there as a test of what might be possible when using plaintiff-friendly US law to prepare cases that will be heard under defendant-friendly Japanese law. The civil side of Japan’s legal system erects notoriously high barriers to litigation. According to court documents and lawyers not involved in the case: document discovery is nominally available, but the constraints are formidable; applications must identify the information sought with a precision often impossible for a plaintiff to muster. Even if that hurdle is overcome, the party holding those documents can refuse to produce them if they argue (as they often do) that the documents were created solely for the holder’s benefit.

It is a system, says Peter Coney, head of dispute resolution at Clifford Chance in Tokyo, that is geared towards encouraging parties to settle and has made Japanese judges some of the best mediators in the world. 

Ms Haba’s strategy, however, strongly suggests that she is planning to pursue a full legal action to match her father’s. That makes a Mills & Boon happy ending less likely for her, Mr Han and Mr Wallace, but a distinct future possibility for dispute lawyers across Japan.

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