Exactly 50 years ago, Yasujiro Tsutsumi, founding patriarch of the Seibu business empire, was struggling with a grim problem. After three years of war, Tokyo's reserves of fuel oil were strictly rationed. Even the waste disposal trucks which ferried sewage from household cisterns to farms were marooned in their depots. Despite food shortages, the city was generating 7 million litres of human waste every day. "Tokyo", Yasujiro recorded in his memoirs, "was under faeces attack."
He devised a simple but brilliant solution. Using his private railway network he commissioned a fleet of freight carriages which could be emptied into tanks in rural stations. The "Gold Trains" were unveiled at a formal ceremony attended by cabinet ministers and a crowd of several hundred. Lesley Downer is too polite a biographer to spell it out, but the point is clear enough: Yasujiro Tsutsumi could make money out of anything. In the West, the Tsutsumi name is best known for the feud between the late man's sons - Seiji, the novelist, poet and founder of the dazzling Seibu department stores, and the younger Yoshiaki who (with a personal fortune estimated at between $10 and $40bn) is easily the richest businessman in the world. But the chapters on theirfather form the most fascinating part of this unlikely family saga.
Yasujiro was a monster of such superb ambition and arrogance that even in corruption-riddled Japan it is difficult to work out how he achieved and got away with so much for so long.
He was born in 1889 to peasant farmers; 14-year-old Yasu's first business venture was to flog fertiliser carted over from Osaka. Within six years he was paying his own way through Tokyo's Waseda university, all the time keeping one eye open for the main chance.
His luck (or genius) was to seek his fortune in land. Outside the cities, Japan was mountainous, undeveloped and cheap; Yasujiro treated it like a giant Monopoly board. His first stroke of fortune was the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, which opened up acres of devastated land for builders and developers. As Japan grew affluent, it was in Yasujiro's beach resorts, golf courses and hot springs that it took its leisure, staying in Yasujiro's Prince hotels and travelling home on Yasujiro's Seib u trains.
"If you don't get close to jail you won't achieve anything," he wrote, but apart from an awkward vote-buying scandal (he was a conservative member and Speaker of the Japanese Diet), his public activities were surprisingly straightforward. It was in his personal life that the outrages were perpetrated. From the beginning Yasujiro was a ruthless bully, a hypocrite (his last years were spent buttering up foreign heads of state), and a compulsive manipulator of women. Three wives, two mistresses and seven of their children were acknowledged; countless others were discarded, discreetly married off or given jobs in his companies. "Wherever you turned in Seibu," Downer records, "there was a drop of the old man."
The sons who succeeded him shared his golden touch but soon went their own ways. Yoshiaka inherited his father's hotels, land and railways, as well as his polygamous tendencies. Seiji got the department stores, filled them with theatres, galleries and bright graduates, and fostered a generation of designers (Issey Miyake, Eiko Ishioka), musicians (Toru Takemitsu) and dramatists (Kobo Abe). He also made his own fame with two startlingly frank romans a clef about, naturally enough, his own outrageous family.
Downer places a little too much trust in these: her most colourful moments seem be lifted from them almost verbatim, as well as from Yasujiro's own blustering autobiographies. Stylistically The Brothers is very Japanese, in its virtues as well as its faults.
The Tsutsumis' story is told, but rarely weighed up, and certain subjects (the havoc wreaked on the countryside by their roads, golf courses and ski resorts) are hardly touched upon. You are left in no doubt that these men have made a difference: but fo r better or for worse?