I am,” Ryoichi Sasakawa once famously boasted, “the world’s richest fascist.” There is not much doubt about either claim.
With a net worth estimated by Barrons magazine at $1.3 billion, Sasakawa has spent the last third of his long, extraordinary life trying to buy the Nobel Peace Prize by becoming the world’s greatest philanthropist.
He has also spent tens of millions trying to whitewash his past – his association with Japan’s yakuza mafia, the gigantic web of bribery and corruption that surrounds his empire, and his three years in jail as a suspected war criminal.
Now aged 95, confused and confined to a wheelchair, Sasakawa finds himself once again the centre of controversy following Macquarie University’s decision to accept a $2 million donation from the foundation that carries his name.
Sasakawa has never been able to shake off the image of ultranationalist fanaticism that he cultivated in the 1930s.
The son of a wealthy Osaka sake-brewer, he made his first millions speculating on rice futures – and dedicated his first fortune to sponsoring the war.
In 1931 he founded Kokusai Taishuto, a paramilitary force of 15,000 soldiers – with their own airport and 22 fighter planes – garbed in dark uniforms modelled on those of Benito Mussolini’s brownshirts. In 1939 he achieved a lifelong ambition and met Il Duce, whom he described as “a first-class person … a perfect fascist and dictator”. Cultivating close ties with the military and the Mob, and establishing a power-base as a member of Japan’s puppet parliament, Sasakawa was one of the most influential figures urging war. When Japan invaded China and established the pseudo-state of Manchukuo, he organised patriotic airlifts of supplies such as sake, sweets and pickles.
Sasakawa still makes a pilgrimage each year to the family tomb of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto – another close friend and ally – the Japanese commander who masterminded the attack that sank the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour.
Sasakawa had a good war. Operating from a base in occupied Shanghai, he made a fortune smuggling gold and diamonds, and shipping minerals for the military. When the war ended, he refused to repent or go into hiding.
Sasakawa drove through the streets of Tokyo to Sugamo prison – where the war criminals were later hanged – accompanied by a brass band playing the navy anthem and shouting “banzai” – “May the Emperor Live 10,000 years”. He turned himself in, claiming he was offering himself in place of Emperor Hirohito.
Although he was released without trial after nearly three years behind bars, a 1947 US Army intelligence report made no bones about it. “(Sasakawa)is a man potentially dangerous to Japan’s political future,” it said. “He has been squarely behind Japanese military policies of aggression and anti-foreignism for more than 20 years. He is a man of wealth, and not too scrupulous about using it.”
There are some who speculate that the Americans released Sasakawa to counter the growing threat of communism. If so, they chose the right man. Along with his friends Syngman Rhee, the Korean dictator, and Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese nationalist leader, he founded the World Anti-Communist League. Among other coups, the league claims to have played a part in the 1966 overthrow of Indonesia’s President Sukarno.
Financially, Sasakawa’s great coup was bribing enough members of Japan’s new Diet (Parliament) to persuade the postwar government of Shigeru Yoshida to grant him an exclusive licence for what was to become Japan’s greatest gambling industry after horse-racing, power-boat racing.
Inspired by a Life magazine article he read in Sugamo Prison, Sasakawa built 24 courses around Japan – like small moats with grandstands overlooking them – where drivers race power-boats. The industry turned over an eye-popping$27 billion last year, mainly in totalisator gambling, of which about $900 million went straight into Sasakawa’s pocket.
To be more precise, 3.3 per cent of the turnover went to the Sasakawa Foundation, his pet charity. In the 30 years since Sasakawa was given the franchise, the foundation has doled out $13 billion – last year, it had more money to give away than the Ford, Rockefeller and Japan foundations put together.
The list of those who have benefited from “Don” Sasakawa’s largesse -that’s what the tabloids call him – is an honour roll of the great and the good. He has been jogging with Jimmy Carter ($4 million for his library), dining with Elizabeth Taylor ($1.3 million for AIDS) and has been given an award by the World Health Organisation ($27 million towards eradicating leprosy). He has hugged Pope John Paul II, posed for pictures with Arnold Schwarzenegger and received Japan’s highest honour from Emperor Hirohito.
When Linus Pauling, the US Nobel laureate, accepted $5 million from Sasakawa to establish a scientific institute, he was challenged whether it was appropriate to take money from a fascist war-criminal. “Perhaps he’s just trying to make up for past misdeeds,” Pauling said.
Not everyone is as charitable. As long ago as 1980 the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan turned down an offer of $135,000 which they saw as a crude attempt to buy them off. And the University of Chicago refused a hefty donation, Professor Bruce Cumings declaring: “To my knowledge, Chicago is the only American university with a major East Asia program that did not take money from the foundation.” Of late, however, Sasakawa has been under increasing fire in Japan. One of the top officials of his foundation was arrested on bribery charges after a police raid on its offices in the Tokyo suburb of Toranomon.
More seriously, the Ministry of Transport – which technically controls the foundation, but which in practice uses its network of quangos for cushy retirement jobs for hundreds of its employees – has been demanding reforms, including even stripping the name Sasakawa from what is actually supposed to be a government welfare fund.
In failing health, his money rejected by an increasing number of institutions, and with the media baying at his heels, Sasakawa may at long last be losing control of what he calls his “private army of 15 million” -although his son Yohei, 56, the illegitimate child of one of 500 women Sasakawa boasts that he has slept with, can be expected to put up a fight to retain the empire.
Either way, Macquarie University would be well advised to bank the rich old fascist’s cheque as soon as possible. Ryoichi Sasakawa won’t be the world’s greatest philanthropist for much longer.
Caption: Ryoichi Sasakawa … described his hero Mussolini as “a first-class person” and “a perfect fascist and dictator”