Profile of Ryoichi Sasakawa in Irrawaddy

Some recommended light reading: Burma democracy movement news site The Irrawaddy has published a profile of Ryoichi Sasakawa, the enigmatic right-wing figure who went from war profiteering in Manchukwo to development state profiteering as the yacht racing (kyotei) mogul/ostentatious philanthropist.

Some excerpts:

A report prepared in June 1947 by US army intelligence described Sasakawa as “a man potentially dangerous to Japan’s political future…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. He chafes for continued power. He is not above wearing any new cloak that opportunism may offer.”

Twenty years later, Sasakawa was the head of a multinational foundation, named after himself, which funded health and educational programs mainly in Asia. He claimed to be a man of peace, and one branch of his philanthropical empire was even named “The Sasakawa Peace Foundation.” When he died in 1995, his deepest regret was said to have been that he never got the Nobel Peace Prize.

From the very beginning, Burma was one of the countries where the Sasakawa Foundation and its sister organization, the Nippon Foundation, were especially active. Apart from being an associate of Kodama, Sasakawa was also close to Nobusuke Kishi, the Japanese prime minister from 1957 to 1960—and, in the late 1940s, also a prisoner in Sugamo. Kishi led the once influential Burma Lobby in Japan, and the Japan-Burma Association counted among its members 11 trading companies allowed to operate in various aid projects in Burma prior to 1988.

A native of Osaka, he was born in 1899 into a family of wealthy sake brewers. In the 1930s, he led an ultranationalist group called Kokusui Taishuto, or the “Patriotic People’s Mass Party,” which grew to 15,000 members. Each one of them wore a dark uniform fashioned after Benito Mussolini’s Italian Blackshirts. He also had his own airplanes, which transported supplies for the Japanese army. In 1939, Sasakawa used one of them to fly to Rome, where he met Mussolini. Years later, he expressed regret about not meeting another European leader at that time: “Hitler sent me a cable asking me to wait for him, but unfortunately I didn’t have time.”

The problem after the war was that the American occupiers in Japan badly needed the extreme right to counter the leftist movement, which was growing strong in the late 1940s. So, in 1948, Sasakawa, Kodama and Kishi were all released and allowed to rebuild their former organizations.

Kodama took care of the yakuza, while Kishi became prime minister—and Sasakawa, through his powerful connections, secured a monopoly on the only legally permitted gambling in Japan at the time: motorboat racing. As a result, Sasakawa became immensely wealthy—and continued to back various extreme right-wing causes. In 1974, Time magazine quoted Sasakawa as saying, “I’m the world’s wealthiest fascist.”

At home in Japan, he supported rightist organizations with links to the yakuza: the Zen-Nihon Aikokusha Dantai Kaigi, or the “All Japan Federation of Patriotic Organizations,” and the Seinan Shisho Kenkyu Kai, the curiously named “Youth Ideology Research Organization.”

Internationally, he was linked to the World Anti-Communist League, which brought together Asian rightists, an array of Latin American fascists including Pastor Coronel, the chief of Paraguay’s dreaded secret police, members of Croatia’s Ustasha movement which had collaborated with Germany and Italy during the war, former Iron Guards from Romania, Ukrainian Nazis and former members of various US intelligence agencies.

And, then the charities. All the money was, of course, taken from unlucky Japanese gamblers, but it was Sasakawa who basked in fame and publicity. His children continue to reap praise for distributing funds which are not their own—and the board of trustees of the Nippon Foundation still includes Yukio Kageyama and Toshio Takeuchi, prominent members of the Japan Motorboat Racing Association.

Sasakawa’s special relationship with Burma is no coincidence. It was established when Gen Ne Win was in power, and he had been trained by the Japanese secret police, the Kempetai, during World War II. Today, Sasakawa’s foundations are apparently comfortable dealing with the Burmese junta—which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the origin and background of what must be two of the world’s most curious set of “charitable foundations.”

Am I wrong to be a little disappointed? Sure, he was an admitted fascist, but there’s way too much philanthropy and hob-nobbing and not enough agitating and left-baiting. But then again perhaps that’s the point – he provided – and the Nippon Foundation still provides – a banal-seeming source of funding to grease the right palms, fund favored groups, and help hide the inconvenient facts of investment in a repressive nation.

One bone to pick: the article calls Sasakawa a political “kurumako”. The appropriate term for “behind the scenes fixer” would be “kuromaku” after the bunraku puppeteers. But as a Burma expert living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I don’t blame Mr. Lintner for the error.

BTW, there is a “Sasakawa Memorial Library” in downtown Washington, DC. It’s the best place in the city to read Bungei Shunju or the newspapers for free. Outside is a color statue of Sasakawa frolicking with two children. It doesn’t quite beatify Sasakawa to the level of the Gandhi statue on Massachusetts Avenue, but it’s something in the spirit of that.

Also worth a look from Irrawaddy: A look at Japan’s now limited influence on Burma, summing up the issue nicely: “[With plentiful resource income,] Japanese aid and investment are no longer really needed, and the country’s historical influence over Burma’s leaders seems to have largely dissipated… Pro-democracy Burmese and their international supporters are not calling for a boycott of Sony or Toyota—but of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.”

21 thoughts on “Profile of Ryoichi Sasakawa in Irrawaddy”

  1. See, this is what makes me piss off about western asia hand treating Japan.They condemn us as the patron of oppressive regime and blame us as if we are the very source of all the problem,and when we change our policy to meet their demands they tell us that we are has-been and not in the big league anymore.”China is No1″,They tell us.

    This happend all the time and elsewhere where Japan wants to approach the problem differently from the west.South Korea in the 70’s. Post Tienanmen China in the early 90’s.Cambodia in the late 90’s and Iran in the 21century. When Japan has relatively large influence than the west,they demonize us and turn our diplomatic asset into political debt. And eventually Beijing would fill our vacuum. Then the west praise Chinese as “China matters”.

    Japan’s aid may not be needed to the eye of these western skeptics for now,but when shit hits the fun like Asian financial crisis in ’97,all the western nations that’s been preaching about well being of Asian people disappear like wind and only Tokyo stands alone to deal the matter financially. Rant ends.

    This Sasakawa article is completely lacking basic research. It seems the writer is solely quoting from Caplan/Duplo’s “The Yakuza”and nothing else……

    Aung Sang and his team are trained by Army-Navy joint organization called Minami Kikan led by Col Suzuki Keiji.Neither Sasakawa in the 30’s nor Kempeitai has anything to do with them.

    Sasakawa’s involvement with Burma is basically in post war days and his anti-communist right wing politics had little influence in Burma,of which at the time proclaiming it’s regime as practicing “Burmese way of socialism”.

    Sasakawa’s “Charity”has relation with collecting bones of KIAs and MIAs of Japanese servicemen in Burmese front. Something Nihon Izokukai has been keen on and demanding local LDP politician to negotiate with Rangoon. Sasakawa money was presented to Burmese in return of their cooperation in series of bone collecting tours and building memorials by veterans and their families.Sasakawa foundation is also doing these foreign aid program in Solomon Islands in return of allowing Japanese veterans excavate for the dead Japanese soldiers body.

    Sasakawa stopped anti-communist activity by the mid 70’s to launch Sino-Japanese friendship enterprise. Burumese coup was in 1988. Bringing Ukrainean and Croatian and their wartime link with Nazis as equivalent is completely meaningless.

  2. North Korea and Burma = two abusive regimes

    Japan refuses to deal with NK and backs sanctions = Japan condemned

    Japan (through various channels) probes engagement with Burmese leaders = Japan condemned

    Japan sends troops overseas = Japan condemned as militaristic

    Japan sticks to non-combat role = Japan condemned for paying with money while others pay with blood


    BTW, if the Canadian House of Commons passed a comfort women apology resolution in the woods and nobody was there to hear it, was it even passed at all? To the best of my knowledge, Canada’s national dailies didn’t even touch it…. despite the fact that they periodically run “militarist Japan” filler. WTF?

  3. Sasakawa offered to give me money once, so he can’t be all bad (I turned him down, just in case).

    I think I also lived in his town – Minoh city. I heard that Minoh’s wealth was due partly to a shady benefactor involved in the motorboat racing industry. Sasakawa was from Osaka. He was shady. He was into motorboating. If he was this benefactor, I’d be interested to know. Ace, perhaps you’ve heard of a Minoh-Sasakawa link. Almost everybody in Japan who knows the city thinks it has something to do with speedboats.

    It would be pretty odd if they were connected, as Mino seems to be something of a communist hangout. During the passage of the anti terror laws there were small communist protest marches going past my apartment (located on something of a backroad) at least three times a week.

  4. Can’t say much about the present situation of Nihon Zaidan, but I wouldn’t be surprised if actually the “ideology” behind this organization has rather changed to a liberal one.

    The son’s of Sasagawa are known that they are rather “progressive” so to speak.

    His second son Sasagawa Takashi, presently law maker at the LDP avid supporter of feminism who advocates for a new law which allows different family name between married couples.

  5. “BTW, if the Canadian House of Commons passed a comfort women apology resolution in the woods and nobody was there to hear it, was it even passed at all?”

    Did they pass it? I’d like to see a link for that.


    Passed it seems. Let’s face it, the reason that you didn’t see anything about this is pretty much because there hasn’t been anything about it…. It seems like CBC and CTV did small fluff bits about some Comfort Women going to Ottawa before the resolution went up, but nothing after. I’m not sure that many people heard about it at all. This is VERY strange as Canada’s big newspapers like “The Globe and Mail” have had “out of the blue” or “we’ll throw one in because it is August” Comfort Women articles in the past. ZERO chance of Japanese political pressure having had anything to do with the lack of reporting…. leaving a lack of interest as one of the only possible remaining explanations.

  7. Thanks for the Reuters link. Does anybody know if any Canadian papers (or print media anywhere) carried the story?

  8. “WTF, was that Takamiyama in the first video?”

    Yes, that he is.

    Sasagawa shouts everytime at the ending of each commercials “Jinrui mina kyodai (all humans are brothers)”.

    It is said that this was a kind of post war translation by Sasagawa of the notorious Japanese war time slogans Hakko ichiu(八紘一宇). “Eight corners around the world under one roof”, or “All the world under the roof of the emperor” ,in other words “All human are brothers under the emperor”.

    In post-war time he just dropped the “under the emperor” part.

  9. That Time magazine bit was interesting, but, as usual, contained lots of speculation.

    I’m not terribly knowledgeable about Sato, but it seems to me he didn’t need Sasakawa’s support for the top job. He was Kishi’s brother, but he was also Yoshida’s protege. He thus had good connections within the two main competing factions of the LDP. He may have welcomed Sasakawa’s support, but I doubt it was decisive.

  10. From Atlantic monthly 1997.

    “In 1984, at the age of seventy-one, Borlaug was drawn out of retirement by Ryoichi Sasakawa, who with Jimmy Carter was working to get African agriculture moving. Carter was campaigning in favor of fertilizer aid to Africa, as he still does today. The former President had fallen in with Sasakawa, who during the Second World War had founded the National Essence Mass Party, a Japanese fascist group, but who in later life developed a conscience. Today the Sasakawa Peace Foundation is a leading supporter of disarmament initiatives; Carter and Sasakawa often made joint appearances for worthy causes.

    Sasakawa called Borlaug, who related his inability to obtain World Bank or foundation help for high-yield-agriculture initiatives in Africa. Sasakawa was dumbfounded that a Nobel Peace Prize winner couldn’t get backing for a philanthropic endeavor. He offered to fund Borlaug in Africa for five years. Borlaug said, “I’m seventy-one. I’m too old to start again.” Sasakawa replied, “I’m fifteen years older than you, so I guess we should have started yesterday.” Borlaug, Carter, and Sasakawa traveled to Africa to pick sites, and the foundation Sasakawa-Global 2000 was born.”

  11. “Minoh city. I heard that Minoh’s wealth was due partly to a shady benefactor involved in the motorboat racing industry. Sasakawa was from Osaka. He was shady. He was iinto motorboating. ”


    I know nothing about Mino-Sasakawa connection.But local government gets 2.6% of profit of boat racing.

    Along with these money,there are gainings from cheap bars and sex related services around race yard.

    Going back to the topic relating with Burma-Japan relation,there are some papers in Chalmers Johnson’s JPRI called “Japan’s Buma lovers”by same Donald Seekins in 1999. So I knew his ideas on the matter. He concludes his paper like this. “Tokyo’s Burma policy, deeply influenced by the sentimental Orientalism of the business world and its allies, says as much about the limitations of Japanese-style democracy as it does about the lack of democracy in Burma.”
    I couldn’t understand what he was saying because contradiction between democratic values in domestic politics and national interest reflected in foreign policies are not very uniquely Japanese thing.(I am skeptic about current state of Japanese democracy,but that is a different matter).

    One of the reason is I had been to this apartment in Kouenji where all the inhabitants were Burmese refugees(about 6 people) back in 1995. The place was owned by the member of so called Biruma-Kai,fraternity group of ex-Japanese imperial army veterans fought in Burmese front. He let these people stay there for free. While Biruma-Kai was associated with Sasakawa and Izokukai and SLORC,at the time running the junta,all of the inhavitants in this apartment were Suu Kyii supporters. It was them who took me to the demonstration rally to the embassy in Shinagawa. I’ve aloso learned that Burmese Youth Volunteer Association,the democratic movement group in Japan,has branch office in Shizuoka using local B&B owned by another Biruma Kai member.This B&B was not only acted as office but the refugees worked there as employee and all the outcome of their lavor were used to sustain there stay in Japan and also for the movement.

  12. Confort women:
    Now that Canadian house of commons had fallen along with the U.S and Dutch,the next domino fall would be either Strasbourg or Canberra.

    Sarkozy is now visiting Algeria,but there was no apology on France’s brutal past on the country.Yet do I hear any moral outcry?

    Just one another sample why I think foreign commenter on Japanese diplomacy has some serious trouble in their intellectual integrity.

    Here’s Robyn Lim,Australian scholar currently got a post at a university in Nagoya,praising right-wing ex-diplomat Okazaki Hisahiko in 2000 at his 70’th birthday.

    When I worked for the Office of National Assessments (ONA), Australia’s foreign intelligence assessment agency, Ambassador Okazaki was regarded as the best strategic thinker in Japan. He was kind enough to spend time talking to visiting ONA officials, who understood, as he did, the importance of preserving a benign balance of power in East Asia, and why the US-Japan alliance was so important, including for Australian security. With the Cold War won, East Asia’s great challenge now is how to integrate China peacefully into the regional order. That can be done only by a combination of economic incentives and credible reminders to Beijing’s leaders that the costs of war would outweigh all possible benefits. Better coordination among America’s East Asian allies is essential to achieving this goal, and the Okazaki Institute is playing an important role in doing so. It is also fitting that the triumph of democratic transition on Taiwan should occur in the same year as Ambassador Okazaki’s 70th birthday, since he has done so much to help preserve Taiwan’s de facto independence. We all hope that by the time Ambassador Okazaki turns 80, a similar transition will have occurred in Beijing, and that China will be enjoying its rightful place as a responsible and cooperative member of the East Asian system.

    Robyn Lim,
    Professor of International Relations,
    Faculty of Policy Studies,
    Nanzan University,

    Here’s Robyn Lim,currently thinking about quiting Nanzan,because she thinks Nanzan is “xenophobic”(current dean of Nazan is a German national,mind you)
    and thinking about going back to downunder.

    NBR U.S-JAPAN discussion 2007

    Here we have Hisahiko Okazaki in denial, as he was on the “comfort women” issue.

    He was in the Japan Times the other day again egging on Chen Shui-bian.

    In my darker moments, I think he really does want to provoke a US-China war before China gets too powerful, while Japan does nothing more than hold Uncle Sam’s coat..

    Robyn Lim

    Now,why do I think 1854 was a big mistake…..

  13. I was checking the Sankei article that former Chinese military attache to Tokyo was filed a death sentence in Chinese court for leaking confidential information to Japan and Nippon Foundation was invloved in this.It seems the articles had over speculated NF role on the matter. (CCP had also arrested former ambassador to S.Korea a few month ago too. Could be somekind of purge on going in the diplomatic community)
    But on that process I took a good look into Sasakawa’s son’s blog. Which is rather interesting actually.

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