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A Charity's Checkered Past

By Bertil Lintner

Two Japanese foundations active in Burma have a past linked to World War II far-right war criminals

On a cold December day in 1945, a truck drove up to Sugamo Prison in Tokyo. On the back of the truck was a man in his mid-forties shouting “Banzai! Banzai!” accompanied by a brass band playing the Imperial Navy march.

The man was Ryoichi Sasakawa, a suspected Class A war criminal, and he had come to give himself up to the Americans, who had begun interning leaders of the Japanese war machine in Sugamo. He had spent the war years doing business in Shanghai, supplying the Japanese army with whatever it needed and plundering China for gold, diamonds and other minerals which he sold to the military.

His main companion at that time had been Yoshio Kodama, an ultra-rightist who later became a main kurumako, or backroom power broker, for the yakuza, Japan’s organized crime groups. After the war, they were cellmates at Sugamo.

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.

In more recent years, the Sasakawa and Nippon foundations have supported seminars organized in Rangoon by the Myanmar [Burma] Institute of Strategic and International Studies on “Research on International Economy in Myanmar” as well as various health projects. The Sasakawa Foundation has also in part financed the Myanmar Times, a weekly newspaper established in March 2000, which the Australian monthly The Diplomat in its November-December 2007 issue quoted critics as describing as “little more than a cheerleader for the junta.”

Yoichi Yamaguchi, the former Japanese ambassador to Burma who recently caused an outcry by openly supporting the regime’s brutal suppression of the monks’ anti-junta demonstrations in Rangoon and elsewhere, has also been linked to some of the activities of Sasakawa’s outfits. On December 14, 2003, the New Light of Myanmar reported that then intelligence chief Gen Khin Nyunt had received Yamaguchi together with Nippon Foundation president Yohei Sasakawa, Ryoichi’s youngest son who now heads the philanthropical empire, after his father—the accused war criminal—passed away 12 years ago.

What had happened? Had Sasakawa really become a man of peace? It is hard to believe, given his (to say the least) checkered past.

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.”

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, December 1, 2007

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