Japan's Motorboat Races: Peace Through Propeller

Part Two of a Two-Part Series Focusing on Gambling

The elevator stopped at the newsroom floor. As the doors opened, junior reporter Junko burst forth and headed for her desk. She was jabbering about something but I followed anyway.

Once there, she continued, "Didn't you read the copies of the briefings about the Nippon Foundation and motorboat racing that I gave you?" While she quickly rifled through some papers on her desk, I equally quickly rifled through my pack.

"Well, my dear, as you know, sometimes a newsman has to split his time. Priorities are a key to success in this business," I said before popping a cigarette into my mouth.

"You mean, for example, the priority you show for the hostesses in Shinjuku over those in Ikebukuro?" she asked, both her arms forming triangles at the elbows with the outer part of her wrists resting on her hips. Her right hand was grasping the alleged briefings, her left was balled into a fist, and her lips were clamped tight enough to suit a blacksmith.

I grinned, cigarette pointing to the ceiling, not to shield guilt, but in sincere reflection.

"In any case," she said, "if you can find time in your busy schedule to read these, they should be enough for you to continue what you started with the horse racing piece." She shook the pages in my direction.

"I don't suppose a morning cup of coffee comes with those pages, now does it?"

She slammed the half dozen pages into my gut. Out of reflex, my right hand crumpled around the sheets. I turned for my office, cigarette still unlit, remembering just how underrated solitude is.

Jinrui mina kyodai (all humanity is brothers and sisters) is the message that Ryoichi Sasakawa passed on to television viewers in a famous commercial he did while surrounded by children over a decade ago. At the time, Sasakawa was getting on in years. But the charitable work of his Nippon Foundation was also getting on to making him quite an international celebrity. The Pope, Prince Charles, and Jimmy Carter were among his associates.

Still, more than five years after his death, the Nippon Foundation is today one of Japan's strongest and most valued organizations. The organization is the umbrella under which dozens of other smaller organizations, most notably the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, huddle and distribute assistance to causes in Japan and overseas (13% of the annual budget).

From fighting famine and increasing agricultural production in Africa to providing inoculations in China to improving maritime technology in Japan, the Nippon Foundation, as current president Yohei Sasakawa (Ryoichi's son) says, "envisions a world in which we have transcended politics and ideology, religion and race, a world where we no longer suffer from hunger or disease." Noble goals indeed. But his father's first attempts at international transcendence varied on this current charter just a wee bit.

After forming an ultra-nationalist political group in the 1930s, Sasakawa engaged in the plundering of China and Manchuria in the years leading up to WWII. Asia, Inc. describes his exploits in Shanghai and Singapore as "ransacking gold, diamonds and other valuables" and claims that one time the cargo being transported to Japan was so great that the wheel shaft of one of his cronies' airplanes "warped under the load." Though he denied his involvement until his death, the U.S. arrested him after WWII, stripped him of his booty, branded him a Class A war criminal, and sent him to Sugamo Prison. In 1948, after not being tried for his crimes, he was released, purportedly for reasons linked to his anti-communist stance.

So how does one go from being a thief and war criminal to the founder of a billion-dollar internationally known philanthropic foundation? For Sasakawa, it was a matter of peace through propeller.

"Atsui desu ne?" complains a motorboat race fan, sopping his forehead with a towel as a means of relief from the summer sun. While leaning back on a concrete bench, his sweat-drenched shirt droops and a cigarette pack is clutched in his hand as he extends his legs and studies his racing sheet. Discarded betting tickets and newspapers litter the ground all around him.

With a little more than 5 minutes before the eighth race begins, thousands of others just like him are scattered all around the bleacher seats at the Heiwajima kyoteijo (motorboat racetrack) in southern Tokyo. Even with many of them missing teeth and some even missing shoes, it is the gambling proceeds generated from their "win" and "1-2 combination" wagers that provide the sole source of funds for the Nippon Foundation. As a result, it is the money from these chain smoking racing enthusiasts at this track and each of the 23 others scattered across Japan that brings $300 million in domestic and international aid through the Nippon Foundation's programs.

The racing began in 1951 when the Japanese parliament passed the Motorboat Racing Law. Under this law, the bettors get 75% returned to them in winnings and the Nippon Foundation gets 3.3%. The rest is split between various prefectural, city, town governments, and organizations responsible for race activities and promotion. But how did Sasakawa land such a monopolistic and, as a result, lucrative deal? Though the opportunity was competitive at the time, Sasakawa, as Asia, Inc. says, "settled the issue in 1951 with a $13,800 payoff to keep the contenders quiet."

With the start of the eighth race fast approaching, the fans slowly turn their attention to the track. Some stand in the grandstands, others take a space on the rail. All hope for a winner.

Each of the 12 daily races begin with the 6 competing boats lined up in a staggered formation behind the starting line with the first boat on the inside slightly ahead of each boat in the succeeding outside lanes. When the clock winds down to signal the start, the outside boats roar ahead first and are followed in succession by the boats inside so as to create an approximately even start by the time they all reach the starting line. From there, the racers remain in an aerodynamic crouch, only their helmets protrude above the boat's smooth shape, until the first turn. It is this turn that decides most races.

Over the race's 1,800 meters (3 laps around the 600-meter oval track with single turns at both ends), the wooden crafts can only be controlled by throttle and steering wheel. There are no brakes to slow the supposedly identical 150-pound, nine-foot, 400cc, two-cylinder, two-cycle engine boats on the turns. The racer must use other means.

To navigate this first turn, the most important element is the racer's ability to rise up in his cockpit like a monkey perched on a tree limb and create the drag necessary to slow the boat on the turn. He wants to decrease his speed just enough so that he can maneuver into the inside of the track and accelerate into the straightaway, leaving the other five racers behind in a sea of spray and waves. Slow down too much and the first turn will be lost to his competitors. Slow too little and he may go skidding to the outside where catching up will be nearly impossible. Balance is the key and it takes practice, training, and time. All of which is taught at the rigorous instructional school located near Mt. Fuji. Its 1,500 yearly students not only learn the subtleties of the turns, but also methods to properly tune the engine (which has not changed significantly since 1951). But the racer is not alone in his interest in engines.

Since the performance of the racer on the first turn is highly unpredictable, the past performance of the boat itself is many times the hinge for a gambler's bets. Before each racing day, the boats are assigned to each racer by lottery. The racer then attaches his own propeller - his one and only personal item - to the craft. In their free time, racers can be seen hunched over their propellers, hammering the blades to achieve the desired pitch. The lottery is crucial because most gamblers feel that an edge can be found in studying the past performance of a certain boat with a certain racer. Tout sheets provide all the information imaginable on what a particular boat has done and where.

From that first turn, the rest of the race is usually a formality. The boats separate with the boat that managed the best initial simian pose taking the inside track and, subsequently, the lead. For this boat it is clear sailing, or motoring, with the same crouching and aping for the remaining 1,500 meters until the finish. Total time for the three laps: less than two minutes, the same as one inoculation in China.

Like a cloud passing in front of the sun, she appeared in my doorway. I reached for my aspirin bottle in my desk drawer while simultaneously glancing at my Eisenhower wall portrait for inspiration.

"Is that enough there?" she asked. I popped the cap and spilled a half dozen tablets onto my desk.

"Sure, these are plenty."

She folded her arms. "This may surprise you but I wasn't referring to your hangover remedies."

"Hangover? My dear, I'll have you know that I was just going to simulate my own little boat race here in my coffee cup." I reached for my empty cup sitting at the edge of my desk.

She upturned her lip and squinted her eyes.

I continued, "Coffee might not be the best liquid for this little display, but I can make do. Junko, why don't you be a good little monkey and fill..."

Her arms dropped to her sides and she turned for the door. I again looked at Ike. He doesn't appreciate failure, but he liked my effort.

Note: Eric Prideaux contributed to this article.

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