TAIKICHIRO MORI, the richest man in the world, made his fortune from Japan's spiralling land prices. His wealth was estimated at dollars 13bn, and his business controlled 83 buildings in the centre of Tokyo, the site of the most expensive property on earth. But Mori himself was a quiet, modest man, who lived simply, giving little evidence of his fabulous riches.
He was first named the richest man in the world by Fortune magazine in 1991, when his wealth overtook another Japanese, Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, of the Seibu railway and retail group, who had been at the top of the list for the previous four years. At that time Mori seemed rather bemused by the title. 'I guess I am called the world's richest man, but that doesn't necessarily do anything for me,' he told an interviewer. 'I just got to be that because land prices in Tokyo shot up.'
Mori's career as a property developer mirrored the steep appreciation of land prices in Tokyo, which rose to such ridiculous levels that at one stage the grounds of the Imperial Palace in the centre of the city were theoretically worth the same as the entire land area of California. Over the past two years property prices have levelled off, and in some areas have begun to decline, although Mori did not live to see the property crash that some analysts say is imminent in Japan.
Popularly known as Tokyo's oyasan, or landlord, Mori thought the rise in the price of land somewhat ridiculous. With buildings, he said, 'the shape, weight, even the value are basically fixed. But looking at it through the telescope of the so-called bubble phenomenon, it gets ridiculously expanded, and then there is a gap with reality.' This led to a ghost image, which, he said, 'over the past several years has come to be treated as if it were the real thing'.
Born in 1904 in Tokyo in the Minato ward, the area where he was later to concentrate his development, Mori originally had an ambition to be an academic. His family ran a rice business, and at the same time his father managed 30 buildings in the area. Mori graduated from Tokyo Shoka University, and went on to become head of the School of Commerce at Yokohama City University in 1954. It was not until 1959, at the age of 55, that Mori left academia to follow in his father's footsteps in the property business.
But for some time Mori had thought Tokyo's buildings, mostly small structures of wood, should be replaced. He had seen the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923 destroy much of the city's housing. The same thing happened two decades later, when the US Air Force's firebombing again levelled much of the city. So when he finally entered the business himself, he was committed to steel-frame concrete structures - and 83 buldings later his still privately held company put him on top of Fortune's list as the world's wealthiest man.
Because his company was not listed on the stock exchange, Mori avoided the temptation to raise cheap equity and engage in the rampant speculation that has left many other property companies in serious financial difficulties since the bursting of the bubble. However, Mori Building Company does have large borrowings, and like anyone else is finding it harder to keep all its buildings fully occupied. These problems will be taken on by Mori's son, Minoru, 58, who was appointed president of the company in an emergency board meeting after his father's death.
Mori, although sometimes nostalgic about the picturesque old neighbourhoods of Tokyo which are now gone for ever, was adamant that the city needed to change to develop. 'We have to change to live in the new era,' he said, of Tokyo's modern cityscape of concrete, glass and steel.
His own way of life, however, remained simple. He became famous as the company president who went to work with his own lunchbox, and often wore a plain kimono in his office. His home was a small apartment close to his office - in his spare time, he said, he liked to listen to classical music or watch sumo wrestling. 'Even if I am called the world's richest man, I am really just a landlord like my father,' he said.