Sasakawa began life in an unusually humble way, with only a primary school education. He was largely self-educated. At an early age he left his small hometown for Tokyo, where he trained as an aeroplane pilot. He joined the Air Force at Kagamihara in Gifu Prefecture.
After his discharge, he entered business and political life, founding a publishing company and becoming president of the Konnichi Shimbun newspaper. In 1931 he started publishing the right-wing National Defence magazine and founded the Kokusui Taishu-to (Ultra- Nationalist People's Party). In 1932 he became the leader and organiser of the nationalistic Volunteer Air Corps. Sasakawa and his followers adopted black Fascist-style uniforms, and eventually the party had 23 branches all over Japan. This gave Sasakawa a chance to show himself off in the style of his heroes Mussolini and Hitler. He loved the sound of his own voice haranguing the crowds.
But he was also an avid business opportunist. In 1932, when Japan formed the Manchukuo government, he and his right-wing associates immediately muscled in on a lucrative supply trade for the armed forces. He was probably also involved in the opium trade, buying the drug from Manchurian, Mongolian and Middle Eastern sources and transporting it to Shanghai. His shady commercial activities became notorious, and his political allegiances suspect.
During his frequent business trips to China, Sasakawa managed to hold talks with the last Quing emperor, Pu Yi (the subject of Bertolucci's 1987 film The Last Emperor). This meeting was considered such a great event in Japan that the Mainichi Shimbun devoted a special issue to it. Nevertheless, Sasakawa was jailed in 1937 for his illegal trading activities, but was released in 1939.
In that year he acquired greater fame when he flew in the first entirely Japanese-made aeroplane, the "Yamato-go", from Tokyo to Rome to meet Mussolini. Even in those days, it was usual for Japanese travelling abroad to meet prominent people to wear ordinary Western dress. But Sasakawa appeared in Rome wearing the formal hakama (a long, pleated, divided skirt) and haori (jacket) that comprise traditional Japanese formal costume. He proudly posed with Mussolini in this exotic garb, and the Italians were filled with admiration. Sasakawa's attention-getting performance made him a hero to his countrymen, who regarded him as the true initiator of the German-Italo-Japanese Asia.
Beneath all the staginess there was an ambitious schemer in close contact with the military and, along with his associate Yoshio Kodama, intent on making as much money as possible out of his deals, both in Japan and Manchuria. His political status rose sharply, and in 1942 he became a Diet member. His growing power was such that the authorities became afraid of his wealth and the aura of right-wing and yakuza violence surrounding him.
Sasakawa's private life was sensational. As well as a legal wife, he also had a common-law wife and various mistresses. His first son, Yohei, was born of a cabaret hostess: his other two were born of his mistresses. But Sasakawa denied that they were his true sons. He had his sperm checked in a clinic, and it was found to be sterile.
During the Second World War, his great love was a woman named Yoshiko Kawajima, who had been brought up in China, and was said to be related to the Imperial Family in Peking. She worked as a spy for the Japanese intelligence services, at the same time as for the restoration of the old imperial regime in China. Extremely beautiful, she always dressed in masculine attire. She used her physical charms to extort information.
She and Ryoichi Sasakawa first met when they were in Peking and he saved her life when she was in danger of assassination. They became lovers, but Sasakawa said he never stayed all night with her, because she was an opium addict and sexually insatiable. She became a legendary figure - her nude photograph recently appeared in Japanese magazines - and a highly successful movie, Sen-un ajia no jo ("War Clouds Queen of Asia"), was made about her life in 1957.
This Oriental madonna of the sleeping cars was captured by Chinese Communists and executed in 1948. Strangely enough, Sasakawa knew the exact circumstances of her death, though no one knows how he obtained the information. The Communists told Kawajima that because she was of noble blood her execution would be staged with dummy bullets: she just had to pretend to fall dead, and her body would be placed in a coffin and transported to a safe place, where she would be set free. But in fact, as she confidently faced the firing squad, rehearsing her death-throes, she was shot with real bullets. It was said that her whole face exploded. She was the one real love of Sasakawa's life.
With the defeat of Japan, it was inevitable that Sasakawa should face the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. When MacArthur's GHQ ordered him to report to Sugamo Prison on 12 December 1945, his reaction was predictably dramatic. He was so delighted to be designated an A-class criminal that he arrived at the prison one day early, accompanied by a truck of cheering supporters and preceded by a brass band blasting out the "Gunkan Battleship March".
He enjoyed life in prison, where he wrote a letter to President Truman accusing him of being a war criminal because of the atomic and hydrogen bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For this effrontery he was beaten up by the prison guards. But he was freed from Sugamo on 24 December 1948, the day before General Kideki Tojo was hanged there with seven other A- class war criminals. Among those freed with Sasakawa were Nobusuke Kishi (elected prime minister in 1957) and Yoshio Kodama (later implicated in the Lockhead bribery scandal). Sasakawa never revealed why he was not hanged: it is rumoured that he had CIA connections, as had Kiski and Kodama.
Sasakawa tells in his life story, Jinrui mina kyodai ("All Men are Brothers"), how while in prison, though he knew no English, he looked at the photographs in Life magazine and discovered picture essays on American powerboat racing. He became obsessed with the project of introducing motorboat racing (and gambling) to Japan when he got out of Sugamo.
The first powerboat race competitions between Japan and the US were held in 1949. Until then, the only gambling permitted in Japan, apart from the national lottery, was on horse and bicycle races. When in 1951 the government declared that gambling on motorboat races would be legal, Sasakawa founded his "Japan Ship Promotion Company" to take advantage of the huge profits to be made from the gambling fever that followed. This was the beginning of the "Sasakawa Empire", though he escaped government supervision by having his company operate under the auspices of the Ministry of Transport. Sasakawa began to earn trillions of yen annually, and kept on the right side of the authorities by scrupulous keeping of accounts. His power and glory made him one of the most prominent (and feared) figures of the post- war political and business world.
In 1980, Sasakawa heard a rumour that the Russian bullion transport vessel belonging to the old Imperial Russian Baltic Fleet had been sunk off Tsushima carrying 8 billion yen's worth of gold and platinum bars. Sasakawa had a salvage ship constructed in Singapore to raise the wreck - so, he said, that he could exchange the gold and platinum ingots for the Kurile Islands, in Russian hands since the end of the Pacific War: Japan had never signed any peace treaty with the Soviet Union.
But, when the vessel was brought to the surface, it was found that the metal bars were lead. Sasakawa had probably been hoodwinked into the operation by jealous rivals; his losses were estimated at 200 billion yen. He could not meet such huge debts, and it was then that his son Yohei began his takeover of the empire. His father was ageing fast, and though still blinded by greed for money he was reverting to type, becoming a naive old gentleman out of touch with the times, a Meji Period charmer whose business sense had not kept up with contemporary developments.
He suffered his first physical collapse in 1982 at a geisha party in Hakone. The second came while delivering a lecture at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo. He was then 84 years old. The state of his health had always been kept a secret by his entourage, so he started jogging in public, scorning the use of lifts, preferring to run up and down stairs to demonstrate his fitness. Sometimes, after running down flight after flight of stairs, he would arrive at the bottom only to find his way blocked by a locked emergency door, so that he had to run upstairs again and submit to the lift.
Saskawa wanted to leave a good impression before he died. In 1986 he created the Sasakawa Peace Foundation to brighten his tarnished image. This provided funding for international scholarly exchange, academic surveys and guest forums graced by leading intellectuals in economic and political fields. He provided funding for the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (Jet), and for schemes to help graduate students. All this latterday benevolence came from motorboat gambling.
But his hangers-on had higher ambitions for him. They wanted him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and started the "Nobel Prize Receiving Operation". Sasakawa promoted himself ever more aggressively. He was able to have an interview with Alfred Nobel's grandson when he was on a visit to Japan. From this interview it dawned upon Sasakawa and his entourage that one does not "receive" the Nobel Prize - one has to grab it, using whatever means one can command. The names of the people who made recommendations for the Nobel Peace Prize are kept secret, but Sasakawa's investigators found out who they were. One of them was Linus Pauling, twice Nobel prizewinner, for Chemistry and for Peace: Sasakawa started by helping Linus Pauling's Institute with huge gifts of money. Other institutions gladly accepted his cash handouts, but some refused his offers.
As President of the British Haiku Society, I myself must acknowledge a generous gift made by Sasakawa, which enabled us to publish The Genius of Haiku, a selective anthology of the writings of the great British Oriental scholar R.H. Blyth, whose books on haiku and senryu are world-famous, yet difficult to obtain in Britain, where the art of haiku is not understood. If only for that action, the old rascal should be remembered with respect and gratitude.
In other self-promoting activities, Sasakawa spent millions on television commercials showing him surrounded by happy, singing children or nobly carrying an old woman on his back. In these ads, he was always dressed in gorgeous, expensive kimono. But in his mid-nineties the end was obviously drawing near. He would act strangely at parties, and have to be rushed away by secretaries. Neighbours would see a broken gentleman just standing in his garden looking up at the sky. A mysterious attacker fired a gun at his palatial Setagaya residence, leaving a loaded pistol on the doorstep as a sort of delicate hint, at which the Japanese are experts.
Fate had been kind to him again when one of his right-wing rivals, Yoshi Fuji, was about to take over the Sasakawa Empire but was felled by a fatal heart attack. Another even more powerful threat had come from Kakuei Tanaka, the prime minister. Again fate lent a hand: at the last moment, Tanaka became involved in the Lockheed corruption scandal, and was forced to resign. Sasakawa was still not off the hook. His own newspaper, Rengo Shimpo, a boatrace fan sheet, started criticising its director, Yohei Sasakawa. Japanese political life went into turmoil. Ryoichi Sasakawa senior was confined to a wheelchair. Only with his death comes the end of the Sasakawa Empire - and also, one might say, of the "Sasakawa Era" in Japanese political and business life.
There was sometimes something almost comical in his twists and turns of fortune. The Japanese thought of him affectionately as a sort of comedian or clown of the economic animal farm. His curious character was a perfect blend of naivety and unscrupulousness, high-flown idealism and low-class squalor. Fate always smiled on one for whom crime nearly always paid.
Ryoichi Sasakawa, businessman: born Mini City, Osaka 4 May 1899; died Tokyo 18 July 1995.