Sasakawa slips between the lines

August 4, 1995

For all his immense wealth and power, Ryoichi Sasakawa's death last week from heart failure, at the age of 96, was recorded in Japan with a brevity that betrayed the most intense discomfort. At once sinister and outrageous, complex and disarmingly direct, his tumultuous life and character could easily fill an epic film. Yet in Japan, where mere mention of the name Sasakawa for decades inspired suspicion and fear, his passing was a taboo subject to be interred with the memorial equivalent of quicklime.

Such valedictory haste avoids the embarrassment of having to account for one of this century's most audacious transformations: how a notorious Japanese fascist leader, so enamoured of Benito Mussolini that he piloted a plane from Japan to Italy to meet the Duce, and who was imprisoned from 1945 to 1948 as a "Class A" war crimes' suspect during the American occupation, could then acquire an enormously lucrative gambling concession from the Japanese government, become a rabidly anti-communist Cold War ally of his erstwhile American captors while still fostering ultra-nationalist causes and hobnobbing with Japanese gang bosses, and finally emerge as the world's most generous philanthropist - garlanded by a string of awards (including the United Nations peace medal), clasped to the bosom of Pope John Paul II, hugged by Deng Xiaoping, feted by Jimmy Carter, and respectfully visited in Tokyo by Baroness Thatcher.

For some time, hungry wolves from the Japanese government have been circling his philanthropic empire - founded on quasi-public money but without any accountability as to how it has been spent - waiting for the old man's demise to wrest control from the Sasakawa family.

Elsewhere in the world the Sasakawa name looks assured of lurid immortality, some of it via the scores of universities that gladly accepted his largesse.

In 20 countries, some 60 universities, colleges and institutes have either a "Sasakawa young leaders fellowship fund" or a "Sasakawa fellowship fund for Japanese language education". In the majority of cases, the endowment of these funds was a flat $1 million each - regardless of whether the recipient was Yale, Princeton or Sussex universities, the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris, or the Institute of Administration and Management Development in Mongolia.

Oxford University in 1985 accepted $833,000 for the establishment of a "Sasakawa Fund" that is being managed by the institute of the university. A spokeswoman for the Oriental Institute said that she was not aware of any controversy at having Oxford's name linked to someone as notorious as Sasakawa.

This covers only part of Sasakawa's munificence to higher education, however, for his philanthropic tentacles further extend through separately endowed Sasakawa Friendship Funds for distributing cultural grants in the regions he regarded as most strategic: the United States, Britain, France, China and Scandinavia.

The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation was established in 1984 with an initial endowment of $6 million, receiving another $6 million from Sasakawa headquarters in Tokyo one year later. Due to prudent investment, reserves had swollen to Pounds 15 million this year, according to David Warren-Knott, until recently the foundation's administrator.

Many of the foundation's grants have gone to support a host of Japan-related projects at British universities, and the British Council has taken a keen interest in its activities, to the extent of holding meetings with the foundation.

Until their recent deaths, the co-patrons of the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation were Ryoichi Sasakawa and Lord Wilson of Rievaulx. Other British luminaries on the board of trustees of the Sasakawa branch in Britain, and associated with this philanthropic phase in Sasakawa's life, included Lord Owen; Lord Butterfield of Stechford, the former vice chancellor of Cambridge University; Sir Angus Ogilvy; Sir Edward du Cann, the former chairman of Lonhro; and the chairman of Heron Corporation, financier Gerald Ronson, a defendant in the first Guinness trail.

Questions were raised in the Japanese parliament about the management of the central Sasakawa Foundation in Tokyo. But a hostile expose of Sasakawa that appeared in the influential Bungei Shunju magazine in Japan have not deterred fresh recruits to his philanthropic organisations.

Peter Mathias, master of Downing College, Cambridge University and former tutor of the Japanese Crown Prince, has become a Sasakawa director, as have Baroness Brigstocke, former mistress of St Paul's Girls School, and Baroness Park, former principal of Somerville College, Oxford. The recent recruitment as a trustee of the 33-year-old Earl of Saint Andrews, George Philip Nicholas Windsor, son of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, adds an air of royal patronage.

With the approval of the Foreign Office in London, Sir John Whitehead, the last British ambassador to Japan, also joined the Great Britain Sasakawa board last year, together with his counterpart Kazuo Chiba, former Japanese ambassador to Britain, and now an advisor to trading giant Mitsui & Co.

"I think what the foundation is doing in Great Britain is entirely worthy of support, and it is appropriate to have some say on the programme. As far as I can see there's no evidence of his (Sasakawa's) control. When you don't have a stomach ache, don't probe around," Mr Chiba said before Sasakawa's death.

Heads of houses and professors at Oxford and Cambridge who have taken Sasakawa grants for Japan study programmes are more defensive, and have said that they were vaguely aware of Sasakawa's insalubrious past and his captivity by the Americans as a suspected "Class A" war crimes suspect, although they also stress this was a long time ago.

Sasakawa's profile by US Army Intelligence in June 1947 as being "a man potentially dangerous to Japan's political future . . . squarely behind Japan's military policies of aggression and anti-foreignism for more than 20 years . . ." is not so familiar. Nor is the source of his fortune devoted to philanthropy well appreciated or understood.

Its origins date back to friendships and alliances he forged with fellow militarists and Rightists in the 1930s, but which he ironically cemented during his three years in Sugamo prison when he shared cells with Yoshio Kodama, a war profiteer and agent of the Japanese military in China and future fixer in Japan for the CIA, and with Nobusuke Kishi, deputy administrator of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, commerce and deputy munitions minister in the wartime cabinet of General Hideki Tojo, and from 1957-60 prime minister of Japan.

With Mr Kodama's bribe money and lobbying by fellow Rightists, Sasakawa succeeded in having a law passed by the Japanese parliament in 1951 that gave him control of motorboat racing, of which only a proportion of the gambling take was to be returned to Japanese local governments.

Eleven years later, Mr Kishi ensured that Sasakawa was appointed chairman of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation (JSIF) - renamed the "Sasakawa Foundation" in 1990 - that was allowed to use an additional 3.3 per cent of the gambling revenue for promoting domestic shipbuilding and other charitable purposes.

The JSIF chairman was elected by the board, which in turn was appointed by the chairman - giving Sasakawa absolute control for life. By the 1990s, the gambling revenue from the motorboat races reached around 2 trillion yen (Pounds 14.3 billion) a year.

In the early 1970s he turned away from overt support of congenial right-wing dictators, anti-communist and ultra-nationalist causes, in a bid to achieve more international respectability.

The JSIF's first overseas grant was of $32,500 in 1971 to the United Nations Secretariat. By the end of this March, the renamed "Sasakawa Foundation" had handed out a staggering total of $695,640,000 in 893 overseas projects, not counting the bulk of its assistance within Japan.

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