Not every day can you pocket thousands of dollars from a multibillionaire. It happened to me once, but it was memorable. Outside of Japan, Kenji O. was never much of a celebrity, but in Tokyo his star was dazzling during Japan’s boom years. I met Kenji in the Imperial Hotel as he was counting out $3,000 in equivalent yen bills. He handed me the cash wad as a wedding present. He and I had never met before so the gift was less a matrimonial congratulations. It was about business, like everything Kenji did. My dad had sold him a hotel on Hawaii, so the wedding gift was a convenient excuse to offer thank you money.
Japan did not have a reputation for Horatio Alger, rags to riches entrepreneurial stories. Tokyo business society was rigid, class conscious and it was extraordinary that a farm boy like Kenji could climb so fast and high. By force of courage, contacts, and bribes he made himself instrumental in Japan’s post war boom. In by way of compensation, he ended life owning a conglomerate worth $17 billion.
Kenji’s family aspired to become rice farmers. Tenant farming was as far up the agriculture ladder as they got by the time of World War II. When I met Mr.O. in the 1960’s, he was 45 and had come a long way from the rice paddies. He owned bus and taxi companies, bowling allies and bars. He had just become the largest stockholder of Japan Airlines. Along the way he had purchased several hotels on Waikiki Beach and in 1962 he purchased the Royal Hawaiian for more than $100 million. My dad was President of Sheraton at the time and that is how I met Mr. O.
Kenji’s numerous acquisitions brought power, influence and notoriety. He contributed heavily to the political campaign of Prime Minister Tanaka. However political influence accounted for Kenji’s ultimate fall. He became involved in a payoff scandal involving Lockheed Aircraft sales to Japan. The deal blew up and Mr. O. was sentenced to jail.
My brief meeting with Kenji was memorable. He was short, heavy set and resembled a bald fire hydrant with no neck. I never heard him simply converse with anyone. What I did hear was more like an exploding Japanese machine gun. His translator cast off all efforts to tone down obscenities, aggressive hostilities and bullying. The words flew out like dumdum bullets.
“Why didn’t you invite me to the wedding party?” he asked my Father.
“Why are you staying in the Imperial Hotel instead of one of mine? ” Kenji was not a man of pleasantries or small talk. One of Dad’s vice presidents at Sheraton worked closely with Mr. O and loved to tell stories of his character. Two of them come to mind:
“Kenji boasted to me of his connection to yakuza (Japanese mafia).” according to the Sheraton vice president. “He told me he could arrange to have some of my enemies knocked off. Because he liked me, he offered to do the first hit at no cost. After that the price would be negotiable. I never accepted the offer or knew if it was serious.”
On another occasion the same Sheraton VP told me how “Mr. O made a practice of meeting bathing beauties on the sands of Waikiki. As a man with considerable influence over Japanese Airlines, he would offer to make these beauties stewardesses instantly and fly them to Tokyo.”
Mr. O was not a warm fluffy or even likable. Influential, and ambitious?- Yes. Post war Japan was devastated, occupied and needed employers. Conventional business leaders at that time were dead or discredited. Kenji, may have been a bully, but he was an entrepreneur who employed thousands of desperate workers. He helped move his impoverished country’s economy forward through the 50’s and 60’s. It was up to others to repair his damage, pick up the pieces and make life in that economy bearable or worth living.
Even today we make Faustian bargains with some entrepreneurs and then struggle to judge them unvaryingly good or evil.