Ryoichi Sasakawa was among the most controversial of Linus Pauling’s many acquaintances. To this day, opinions on Sasakawa tend to polarize: a politician, successful businessman and generous philanthropist, he was also considered by many to be a war criminal. Many Japanese also referred to him as “kuromaku,” a shadowy force behind the visible power of a nation, because he had a hand in selecting two prime ministers and, as a result of his immense wealth, was a strongly influential player within Japanese politics. Sasakawa was also an avowed anti-communist and erstwhile admirer of Benito Mussolini.
Sasakawa himself admitted that he was a kuromaku – he thought them to be useful in a society where laws were ambiguous and law enforcement was weak. This impulse toward power was, however, couched in the rhetoric of equality – rhetoric that was backed up by vast amounts of charitable giving. Especially in his later years, Sasakawa publicly espoused the notion that “the world is one family; all mankind are brothers and sisters,” an idea that guided him in his charity work. Bringing peace to the masses became a stated life goal, and as a rich and powerful kuromaku, Sasakawa saw himself as well-equipped to redistribute resources to the poor and needy of the world.
Ryoichi Sasakawa was born in 1899 to a sake brewer and grew up in a Buddhist household. As a young man he was fascinated by airplanes to the point where he ran away from home to learn to fly and was eventually drafted as a pilot into the Japanese Air Force. He was discharged early from the service, having incurred a shoulder injury while working on an airplane. His military career ended, he returned to his hometown and founded the Konnichi Shimbun newspaper.
Coming from a respected family, having experience in the Air Force and professing a zeal for making things right in the world, Sasakawa became the Councilor of his village at the age of twenty-two. Quickly, he reformed the village council and eradicated a major drinking problem that was tainting the leadership of the village.
At the same time that he was dabbling in politics and the press, Sasakawa began accumulating his fortune by investing in the rice exchange. As his wealth began to grow, a business rival grew jealous and had Sasakawa arrested for “charges unknown.” In anticipation of such an event, Sasakawa had effectively sheltered his money before his arrest and emerged from the incident unscathed.
Not after long Sasakawa was released from prison, World War II engulfed the Pacific. Already a successful regional leader, Sasakawa decided to involve himself further in the realm of national politics. Rather quickly, Sasakawa and Isoroku Yamamoto – the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet during World War II and, over time, a friend of Sasakawa’s – came to be known as the the rightist leaders of the time. Both favored the ideals of fascism.
While Sasakawa and Yamamoto both spoke out against the outbreak of war, the two men were also strong patriots. As a result, the duo did all that they could to contribute to the success of Japan and its war effort. Notably, in 1932, Sasakawa became the leader of the nationalistic Volunteer Air Corps and “muscled in on a lucrative supply trade for the armed forces,” during the era of the Manchukuo government. These “supply trades” included traffic in both military goods and opium. In justifying his actions, Sasakawa stated, “once at war you must go all the way.”
Sasakawa was a strong advocate for Yamamoto, and because the United States viewed Yamamoto as a warmonger “bent on personally leading the Japanese forces into Washington,” the U.S. also put Sasakawa on its watch list. With the defeat of Japan in 1945, Sasakawa’s support of Yamamoto, coupled with his extreme nationalism and his having been a “prime move[r] in developing Japan’s totalitarianism and aggression,” earned him the label of war criminal. Sasakawa was ordered by Douglas MacArthur’s General Headquarters to face the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, and did so with pride and cheering supporters. During his time in prison he became an icon for a segment of the Japanese public.
As punishment for his war activities, Sasakawa was sentenced to be hanged. In 1948, however, he was released from prison for unknown reasons – the CIA is rumored to have played a role in his being freed. By his own account, during his time in prison, Sasakawa made a vow that, if he survived his ordeal, he would dedicate his life to preventing war and seeking world peace. After his release he vowed to stay out of the politics for the remainder of his life. He wrote a resolution so as to further confirm this promise to himself and others. The opening paragraph of this resolution is as follows:
The most horrible sin on earth is killing, with war being the paramount example. Despite the dedicated efforts of numerous people in the cause to end all wars, human history has shown us nothing but a repetition of wars. We cannot possibly account for all the victims of wars to date, but the number would be unimaginable. The only way to allow the souls of the war dead to rest in peace is to bring about everlasting world peace and rid the earth forever of the horror of war, building a heaven on earth where all people can live in harmony as brothers and sisters. There is no doubt in my mind that anyone dedicated to this worthy cause is abiding by the will of Heaven and will enjoy eternal life. May God protect and lead us in our efforts to achieve an early realization of our goal.
While in prison Sasakawa also developed an interest in powerboat racing through reading magazines, and once released from prison he introduced motorboat racing and gambling to Japan, eventually founding the Japan Ship Promotion Company. He was able to accumulate trillions of yen annually as a result of the success of this new venture. He was also able to exploit legislative loopholes that aided him in preserving his fortune.
Before he died in 1995, Sasakawa stepped up his efforts to help others in need and to “brighten his tarnished image,” especially by promoting good health. Over time Sasakawa’s Nippon Foundation, also known as the Japanese Shipbuilding Foundation, devoted substantial sums to a wide variety of health-related projects. Working with the United Nations, the World Health Organization and a host of other groups, the Foundation allocated tens of millions of dollars toward efforts to cure smallpox and leprosy, to control parasites and hunger in impoverished nations, to study population control worldwide and to provide disaster relief.
Sasakawa also worked with U.S. President Jimmy Carter to promote amicable relations among the world’s people through a project called The Friendship Force. He likewise created the B & G Foundation, which built exercise facilities in hopes of fostering sound minds and healthy bodies for young people. For his efforts he was, in 1975, awarded the presidency of the Japanese Science Society and, in 1980, given the Golden Heart Presidential Award by the President of the Philippines for his fight against leprosy.
It was in this light that Sasakawa also chose to support Linus Pauling and his research on vitamin C. Having heard of Pauling’s work on the common cold, the flu and cancer, Sasakawa traveled to the U.S. in June 1980 to meet Pauling in person. While there, the two men discussed the possibility of initiating a program of research the focus of which would be fighting leprosy with vitamin C. Pauling suggested contacts elsewhere who might be able to pursue this line of work, though research of that type was not something that the Institute was equipped to support.
The meeting planted the seeds of a relationship and over the next decade, the two men corresponded frequently and visiting one another on several occasions. In short order, Sasakawa became a generous supporter of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine. Beginning in 1981, the Japanese Shipbuilding Foundation pledged five million dollars over ten years to support the Institute’s research, primarily on vitamin C and cancer. The Institute also parlayed the Foundation’s support to establish the Sasakawa Aging Research Center, which used fruit flies to test theories of antioxidant protection against stress and in support of extending life span.
It is unclear just how aware Pauling was of Sasakawa’s past and reputation in Japan. What is clear, however, is that Sasakawa’s funds were crucial to the Institute’s ability to remain financially viable during some very difficult years in the 1980s. In acknowledgement of Sasakawa’s support, the Institute bestowed upon Sasakawa the 1983 Linus Pauling Medal for Humanitarianism, an award that was usually given to important financial backers. More importantly, on at least six occasions in the 1980s, Linus Pauling nominated Ryoichi Sasakawa for the Nobel Peace Prize. While Pauling often nominated multiple individuals for the award in a given year, and while his nominations in support of Sasakawa tended to be relatively brief, his formal support of Sasakawa for the award is an important detail for those seeking to understand the contours of the two men’s relationship.