THE ECONOMIST’S office in Tokyo is in the headquarters of the Yomiuri Shimbun, the world’s biggest-selling newspaper. Every day, as you walk past bowing guards and immaculate receptionists, set back in a corner you pass a bronze statue of an owlish man with a bald head and thick, round-rimmed glasses, poring over a paper. He is Matsutaro Shoriki (pictured), who acquired the paper in its left-wing adolescence in the 1920s, and turned it into a scrappy, sensational pugilist for right-wing politics. The statue is not flattering: with his potato-like head and beakish nose, he seems to be pecking at the newspaper rather than reading it.
Shoriki lurks in the background of much of 20th-century Japan, too. He created so much of what defines the nation today that it is a wonder he is not as well known as, say, William Randolph Hearst (one of his big Western admirers) is in America. Shoriki was as much the pugnacious, brooding, manipulative and visionary “Citizen Kane” as Hearst.
Before he took over the Yomiuri, Shoriki was head of Tokyo’s torturous secret police. Later, to help him sell papers, he introduced professional baseball to Japan. After the second world war he was jailed for alleged war crimes; upon his release he set up Japan’s first private television network. To cap it all, he was the “father of nuclear power”, using his cabinet position and media clout to transform an atom-bombed nation into one of the strongest advocates of atomic energy. That legacy now smoulders amid the ruins of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
Victories of the spirit
Japanese history is peppered with stories of giants whom almost no one outside the country has ever heard of. Because of Japan’s reverence for humility, their tales tend to be subsumed within the companies or projects the individuals created. Shoriki is different. There is nothing humble about him: his is a story of ruthless ambition, bordering on megalomania.
He got a taste for power early, when he rose like a rocket through the police force. He was 28 when, in 1913, he joined the Metropolitan Police. He had recently graduated from the elite University of Tokyo, but was more interested in judo than studying, so had failed the civil-service entrance exams. Police work carried lower prestige, but it suited him. Within a year he was promoted to head a police station in Nihonbashi, the old heart of the city.
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