French Nippon Foundation Sues Scholar for Libel to Protect the Honor of Sasakawa Ryōichi





Karoline Postel-Vinay is a senior research fellow at Sciences Po Center for International Studies and Research in Paris. The author among other works of Le Japon et la nouvelle Asie, she is also the defendant in the FFJDS vs KPV case.

Mark Selden is a Senior Research Associate in the East Asia Program at Cornell University and a coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Journal.

This article has been adapted from a longer version which was written for the Asia Pacific Journal.

Something unusual happened on 5 March 2009 in the quiet compound of the French school known as Sciences Po, the National Foundation for Political Science, from which most of the past and present French governmental elite graduated. It was the first day of a major conference on “Memory, The Writing of History and Democratization” that assembled political scientists, sociologists, and historians, addressing a vast array of issues related to World War II, Stalinism and Maoism, and recent African wars. Around one hundred people had gathered in one of the main lecture halls. The first session was ending when a woman from the audience quickly approached the speakers’ table. She was not your typical academic conference attendant. A bailiff, she was there to hand one of the speakers a subpoena to appear before the Paris district court at the request of the “French Sasakawa Foundation” (FFJDS). (1) The Foundation, having filed a libel suit against that particular scholar, had chosen this flamboyant way to make the case public.

A few months earlier, the scholar in question had joined some sixty other colleagues, including the co-organizers of the on-going conference, in signing a petition addressed to the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, asking him to withdraw his support from an event celebrating the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Franco-Japanese diplomatic relations that was mainly financed by FFJDS.

The concern of the petitioners was to avoid associating the name of a very controversial historical figure such as Sasakawa Ryōichi with that of the French Republic, especially in the symbolic context of a diplomatic commemoration. A number of the petitioners were all the more troubled by the choice of the sponsor for this official event, being aware of the link of the Sasakawa-related institutions in general, the Sasakawa “network” — or the “large family of organizations” as the Nippon Foundation puts it on its website — with historical revisionism in Japan today….

“Sasakawa” refers here both to the surname of a man, Sasakawa Ryōichi (1899-1995), and to his legacy, both tangible and intangible. This legacy is as much about the numerous institutions Sasakawa Ryōichi established in Japan and around the world, as it is about the narrative his heirs and surviving entourage are endeavoring to produce.

Sasakawa Ryōichi was a man of action and only in the later part of his life did he set about to create a cohesive self-portrait that would serve as the basis of the grand narrative his kin, and the foundations he financed, are now in the process of establishing. In 1981, Sasakawa’s old friend, the media and publishing baron, Robert Maxwell, commissioned a book that celebrated his life describing him as a “warrior for peace” and a “global philanthropist”. (2) It was, in a sense, the first draft for what appears retrospectively to have been a long-term biographical project whose aim was to design a historical figure that was so literally “remarkable” that it would be situated beyond the ordinary categories of right and wrong — or to put it more prosaically, to make it acceptable that “being Ryoichi Sasakawa meant never having to say you’re sorry.” (3) He would be a “messenger from another world” (4) whose deep love for his mother and his country would constitute the heart of a story, from which the crudity of crime, violent politics and jingoism would be obliterated, and replaced by an allegoric sense of mission which should logically have resulted in the reward of a Nobel Peace Prize, the dream of Sasakawa’s old-age, but one that would be unfulfilled.

Upon his death, Sasakawa’s obituaries in the international press clearly indicated that this story had not taken root. The British daily The Independent announced: “The last of Japan’s A-class war criminals has died, a nonagenarian multimillionaire. In the land where most people do their utmost to pass unnoticed, Ryoichi Sasakawa stood out as a monster of egotism, greed, ruthless ambition, political deviousness…” (20 July 1995). Another English newspaper, The Guardian, reported: “Ryoichi Sasakawa, philanthropist, billionaire, politician, candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, friend of the great and good, war criminal and “don” of Japan, has died (…). Controversy followed him to the grave with Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s best selling newspaper, saying he was regarded as a “monster of modern times.” (20 July 1995). The French daily Le Monde concurred: “Former war criminal, one of the dons of the Japanese mob, converted into philanthropy (…), in Japan he was powerful and feared but was little respected as no one ignored his history[.]” (20 July 1995)….

Fifteen years after Sasakawa Ryōichi’s death, controversies about acceptance of Sasakawa-tagged funding have not died away. As recently as 2008, Swedish public radio aired an informed and detailed program on the matter that prompted university representatives to publicly distance themselves from Sasakawa donations. But the most telling sign of the persistence of those controversies is the comment made on its website by the Nippon Foundation itself, the core organization of the Sasakawa network: “He (Sasakawa Ryōichi) is best known for the controversy that continues to surround him as a result of his unapologetically nationalistic stance, and the gambling-based philanthropic machine that he constructed following the war.” (5) Most telling . . . and yet an incomplete mention of the issues that continue to swirl around the Sasakawa name and legacy….

Some major reference dictionaries, as well as mainstream media, (6) have chosen to present Sasakawa Ryōichi as a “class-A war criminal” without any further specification. Such a presentation, one could argue, is inaccurate given the fact that Sasakawa was released from jail without judgment. Yet is the expression “suspected war criminal” chosen by other publications (7) more accurate? Being “suspected” could mean that he was never arrested, or that he was indeed brought to trial and acquitted, or at any rate acquitted through some formal legal proceeding. But that was not the case: he was both arrested and never formally acquitted of “class-A war” charges.

The Tokyo Trial raised a number of fundamental issues both because of the decisions that were then taken and because of those that were not taken. The decision to absolve the emperor of any type of war responsibility, or the decision to put aside all matters related to colonization, as well as the decision not to question the legality of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, produced, beyond concerns about “victor’s justice,” a long-term and complex debate on the role of international law and historical memory in addressing issues of war and peace. Among the decisions that were not taken were those concerning the fate of a number of individuals arrested in 1945 for committing “crimes against peace” (class-A war crimes) and that were eventually neither brought to trial nor acquitted. This non-decision, made by the prosecution, left these individuals in a state of legal limbo from the perspective of international law. From a historical perspective, however, this non-decision had consequences which remain to be addressed by scholars and concerned citizens.

By December 1945 the arrest of possible class-A war criminals had been completed in accordance with the Basic Directive for Post-Surrender Military Government in Japan Proper (3 November 1945). Around one hundred individuals were thus detained in Sugamo prison. As early as the spring of 1946, however, it was suggested that no more than a fifth of those individuals would be brought to trial, regardless of the actual contents of their respective files. The Chief Prosecutor, Joseph Keenan, faced conflicting pressures. One was to give priority to representativeness over legal considerations in the selection of persons brought before the tribunal: the trial was to be educational, and therefore both prompt and limited in scale, the endgame being to effectively demonstrate for future generations the criminality of planning and launching an aggressive war. The counter-argument to the principle of representativeness was that the one hundred or so people detained under class-A charges had been selected among tens of millions of Japanese for reasons that were not baseless, and therefore could not be released a priori without any legal justification. It was at that early stage in the process of the Tokyo Trial that Joseph Keenan, while considering that the trial of as many as one hundred individuals was not logistically feasible, floated the idea of a second, even a third trial that could follow the first of an agreed number of twenty-five defendants (a number that was eventually raised to twenty-eight). Thus emerged a compromise that would accommodate the desire for an early trial of a representative group of class-A defendants but keep options open, including that of another trial, for the remaining detainees. (8)

A few prisoners were released the following year, but by the spring of 1947, fifty “A-kyū sempan” (“class-A war criminals”), as they were by then designated by the Japanese public, were kept in limbo, neither selected for a possible second trial nor acquitted. In the summer of 1947, being under pressure for clarifying these detainees’ situation, Joseph Keenan ordered the resuming of their screening and later announced publicly, without consulting the other prosecutors, that a second class-A war crimes trial would be held. The result of the completed screening by the International Prosecution Section (IPS) was the further release of thirty-one detainees and the selection of nineteen others for the announced second trial. Among those carefully selected defendants was Sasakawa Ryōichi, as well as Kodama Yoshio, a close friend of Sasakawa’s and like him a civilian go-between for the Army and the Underworld, Abe Genki, head of the “thought police” (tokkō keisatsu) and Home Minister in August 1945, and Kishi Nobusuke, the man who had been in charge of the economic control of Manchukuo, had signed the declaration of war against the United States and would later re-invent himself as America’s best ally in the Eisenhower years. Sasakawa, in his own behind-the-scenes way, followed the same path of re-incarnation. He had actively supported the attack on Pearl Harbor, but he would become, a decade later, a de facto friend and power broker in the service of U.S. military policy-makers, as indicated by his involvement in the “Federation for Victory over Communism” (Shōkyō Rengō).

The file on Sasakawa produced by MacArthur’s team after thorough screening by the International Prosecution Section (IPS) in October 1947 reads as follows: “Subject is clearly one of the worst offenders outside the military in developing in Japan a policy of totalitarianism and aggression. He was active in the war and grew rich off ill-gotten gains.” It concludes by recommending that [the] “subject be retained in custody as a Class A war criminal suspect and tried before an International Military Tribunal in Tokyo.” (9)

A few months later, echoing the political mood in Washington, Joseph Keenan declared that a second trial would not be such a good idea after all — it could become, he said, a “sharp anti-climax” to the on-going first trial – and suggested recycling, so to speak, the “A” cases into “B” (conventional war crimes) or “C” (crimes against humanity) trials. The historian Yuma Totani notes how improbable the actual carrying out of such a suggestion would turn out to be, as the documents gathered so far by the IPS were specifically relevant to investigation of “crimes against peace” and could not as such be used to investigate possible “B/C” crimes. (10) To transform class-A war crimes charges into class B or C ones meant to pursue new lines of investigation for which neither time nor resources were available. One could also note that the very purpose of looking into “crimes against peace” — a more fundamental reflection on the significance of war — would be lost. Both of those preoccupations appear in the memorandum prepared by the Legal Section of the occupation authorities on the subject of “Trial of Class A suspects on B and C Charges” (25 September 1948), and again in the release document of the previously selected nineteen class-A defendants, also produced by the Legal Section (24 December 1948) — which, not surprisingly, simply states that “it was determined that they would not be tried on “A” crimes charges” but nowhere indicates that the charges had been dropped. (11)

It is interesting to see that this very word “determined,” used by the Legal Section in reference to the Chief Prosecutor’s instruction to abort, for explicitly strategic reasons, the project of a second class-A war crimes trial, is also used by the Nippon Foundation to narrate its founder’s history, but in a very different sense. Its website presentation states: “three years of interrogation determined that Sasakawa was not guilty of Class A war crimes.” The paragraph concludes that “Sasakawa was one of the many for whom the evidence was insufficient to bring to trial, let alone support a Class-A conviction.”…

Twenty years ago when the president of York University (Canada) accepted, over the objection of some faculty, Sasakawa funding, he justified his decision by arguing, among other things, that Sasakawa Ryōichi — who was still alive at the time — was just following in the footsteps of “many of the world’s most generous philanthropists” such as [Cecil] Rhodes who “stole land from black people.” (12) The official presentation of the Rhodes Trust does not provide, however, a portrait of its founder similar in tone and length as the one of Sasakawa Ryōichi on the Nippon Foundation website – the Rhodes Trust actually introduces readers to a few book references on both Cecil Rhodes and his institutional legacy that are far from uncritical. There is no indication either that the Rhodes Trust has been promoting a thesis denying the crimes resulting from the British colonization of [s]outhern Africa, including the [a]partheid regime. Even if that were the case, it would not really clarify the logic of justification put forward by the York University president, unless one were to adopt a “why bother” standard to define ethical expectations associated with academic sponsorship. The parallel between Sasakawa and Rhodes does point, however, to an important question that is increasingly present in international debates. It is the problem that has been summed up by the expression “Western hypocrisy” and that challenges the legitimacy of the West (whose definition varies) to pronounce normative judgments on issues such as human rights and democracy. One obvious illustration of this problem is how the quasi-absence of official self-introspection regarding their colonial past can undermine the credibility of former European imperial powers as norm-setters in the management of collective memory.

Yet if tackling this problem should in principle constitute progress, it has sometimes —because of the way the issues have been formulated — produced the reverse effect. The various and contradictory meanings given to the characterization of the Tokyo Trial as “victor’s justice” illustrate how the appeal for universal justice can be reduced to even narrower interests than some of those on display at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. When protesting the resolution submitted to the U.S. Congress on the “comfort women,” Watanabe Shōichi argued that the atomic bombings of Japan — for which the U.S. never apologized — constitute a human rights issue in comparison to which the problem of “comfort women” could be defined as “only a commercial act.” (13) It seems chimerical, however, that raising questions of international law and ethics — such as the legality and the morality of the atomic bombing, or the criminal dimensions of colonialism — should imply disregarding specific issues such as the atrocity that constituted the abduction, rape and torture of women and girls on a massive scale. The limits of the IMTFE that were already apparent at the time of the Tokyo Trial have become only clearer in retrospect, as in their failure to address the comfort women issue. It should nevertheless be possible to reflect on those limits, and the serious questions they raise, while still acknowledging the universal ambition, and indeed legacy, that this institution produced.

Confusing the enlargement of the debate on international ethics with an exercise in moral relativism — in which everyone is guilty and no one is accountable — is all the more problematic in that it resonates with the difficulty citizens and governments alike are confronted with in tackling political complexity. Faced with an inflation of divergent perspectives on an increasing number of issues — thanks to the global rise of political participation — many societies have sought the reassurance of the supposed objectivity of judicial findings. If the adjudication of politics (14) as such can be seen as a welcome development of civil society and the rule of law, especially in the context of recent democratization processes, it can have contradictory secondary effects that include suppressing legitimate scholarly inquiry. The filing of lawsuits against scholars and intellectuals in democratic countries, until recently the prerogative of authoritarian regimes, is one chilling effect of such tendencies.

Returning to the starting point of this article, the libel suit filed by the French partner of the Sasakawa network aims to obtain from a national tribunal a definitive judgment on Sasakawa Ryōichi’s history, and beyond that on the legacy of Japan’s imperial wars and the Tokyo Trial. A noteworthy argument put forward by the plaintiff is the minimization not only of Sasakawa’s part in Japan’s violent politics but of the historical significance of fascism in general. If it triumphs, this judicialization of intellectual life can only lead to the silencing of critical inquiry and the institutionalization of ethical relativism.


(1) This French foundation was created in 1990 with a 3 billion yen endowment from Sasakawa Ryōichi’s Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation. It is part of a network of organizations headed by the Nippon Foundation (link). Sasakawa Yōhei, Ryōichi’s son, is chairman of the Nippon Foundation, and is on the board of a number of partner organizations, including the French, the British and the Scandinavian ones, as well as the Tokyo Foundation. According to the French decree of recognition of the Paris-based foundation, its official name is « Fondation Franco-Japonaise, Dite Sasakawa » (FFJDS) which might translate into English as Franco-Japanese Foundation, so-called Sasakawa.

(2) Paula Daventry (ed), Sasakawa, The Warrior For Peace, The Global Philanthropist, Foreword by Robert Maxwell, Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1981.

(3) As captured by Andrew Marshall and Michiko Toyama in their investigative article: « In The Name of the Godfather », Tokyo Journal, October 1994.

(4) Satō Seizaburō, Sasakawa Ryōichi kenkyū. Ijigen-kara-no shisha, Tokyo, Chūō Kōronsha, 1998. See also by the same author: Seiyoku (za raito uingu) no otoko, Tokyo, Chūō Kōronsha, 1999, and the post-mortem autobiography of Sasakawa edited by Itō Takashi and Watanabe Akira, Sugamo Nikki, Tokyo, Chūō Kōronsha, 1997.

(5) Link.

(6) Konsaisu nihon jinmei jiten, Tokyo, Sanseidō, 1990, Asahi jimbutsu jiten. Gendai nihon, Tokyo, Asahi shimbunsha, 1990, Kyodo News, 26 May 1995, Jiji Press, 19 July 1995, Yonhap News, 30 May 2005.

(7) Encyclopedia Britannica, Chicago, 1980; The Associated Press, 20 July 1995.

(8) Ishida Takeshi, A Foreign Country in Japan: Sugamo Prison, The Asia-Pacific Journal.

(9) SCAP to the War Department, 28 October 1947 (NARA: RG 331, Entry 1289, Box 1416, File 010-2). Another SCAP evaluation of Sasakawa, as “a man potentially dangerous to Japan’s political future”, has often been quoted by historians. Although it does not contradict the above statement — it actually confirms it — one should, however, note that the former was produced on 4 June 1947, before the new round of investigations by the IPS had been set in motion. In other words, the later document is an even stronger argument for considering Sasakawa as a defendant in a class-A war crimes trial.

(10) Yuma Totani, The Tokyo War Crimes Trial. The Pursuit of Justice in the Wake of World War II, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 73.

(11) NARA: RG 319, Box 270, Row 84, Compartment 11, Shelf 5.

(12) The Chronicle of Higher Education, op. cit. A special edition of the Newsletter of the York University Faculty Association gave a detailed report of the controversy: Active Voice, 27 February 1990.

(13) Agence France Presse, op. cit.

(14) For an overview of this rich sub-field of political science see for example Ran Hirschl, “The New Constitutionalism and the Judicialization of Pure Politics Worldwide”, Fordham Law Review, 75/2, 2006.



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Alec Dubro - 5/20/2010

In 1985, David E. Kaplan and I published Yakuza, which brought the story of Ryoichi Sasakawa to a world broad audience. I had confronted Sasakawa on his war crimes record in San Francisco two years earlier as he was trying to cement his reputation as a misunderstood philanthropist. He never forgave us. When the British edition of Yakuza began to sell throughout Asia, Sasakawa prevailed on his friend Bob Maxwell, owner of the press, to end publication and shred all copies. That his legacy of intimidation lives on, doesn't surprise me in the least.

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