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.
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.”