Global High-Roller's Trail Ends in a Mystery : Japan: Slain real estate tycoon and gambler Akio Kashiwagi left a seedy reputation and millions in debts. His career is being likened to his nation's 'bubble' economy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He would bet $200,000 a hand at the baccarat table in Atlantic City, sometimes gambling for 80 hours at a time. He would carry as much as $1.5 million in cash stuffed in two bags on gambling trips from his native Japan to the casinos of Europe, Australia, the United States.

Akio Kashiwagi was known as a "whale," a member of the super-elite class of international gamblers with casino credit lines of more than $1 million. Donald Trump and others wooed him with penthouse suites and first-class air tickets, even flying the chef and tableware of Kashiwagi's favorite restaurants with him during his gambling excursions abroad.

But just as quickly as a roll of the dice, Kashiwagi's luck suddenly changed. In a matter of months, his stupendous casino earnings faded into staggering debt. In business, the man who had ridden Japan's real estate boom to millionaire status was caught in plummeting land values amid the collapse of the superheated "bubble" economy.

And in an abrupt conclusion to his spectacular life, Kashiwagi was found dead in his kitchen Jan. 3, stabbed 20 times with an object resembling a Japanese sword. The white paper screens in his sumptuous home near Mt. Fuji were splattered with what one weekly magazine called a "shower of blood."

Kashiwagi, 54, left behind an ex-geisha wife and three children, a seedy reputation--and gambling debts in Europe and the United States estimated at $19 million.

Because the crime occurred shortly after Kashiwagi reportedly told his European creditors he could not come up with $10 million he owed, some of the Japanese media speculated that he was killed by a hit man sent to make an example of him.

But last Saturday, police arrested Kodo Saiki, 44, a reputed local gangster known to be acquainted with Kashiwagi's eldest son, and charged him with the murder. Emi Miyashita, 23, a nurse, was also arrested and charged with helping Saiki conceal the evidence. The motive is not yet clear. Although Saiki was reportedly deeply in debt, Kashiwagi's killer did not ransack his house or touch the diamonds, antiques or $770,000 in cash Kashiwagi kept there.

Whoever killed Kashiwagi, those in Fujiyoshida, his hometown of 50,000 in the shadow of Mt. Fuji, say the murder was almost certainly committed by a close acquaintance. Police say there was no sign of forced entry, indicating that the killer may have had a key or that Kashiwagi--a nervous man who always kept his doors locked--let the person in.

Kashiwagi was murdered between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m., after returning from a dinner of noodles with a friend and watching a TV samurai drama about one of Japan's famous shoguns, Ieyasu Tokugawa.

When Kashiwagi's friends try to piece together the murder puzzle, they say that although he was generous to friends, he also had plenty of enemies.

"To good people, he was good, but to bad people, he was bad," said Kunitoshi Kajiwara, smoking Mild Seven cigarettes as he described the man he first met more than 30 years ago as a fellow worker in the Mt. Fuji tourist trade.

Kashiwagi, whose photographs show a broad face and close-cropped hair, hailed from a town once known for its paper mills and now its semiconductor industry. There, he was known as narikin-- a somewhat condescending term for new rich.

Few people knew much about the gambler who was known abroad as "The Warrior." But they all knew of him.

How could they miss the flash? He and his family owned a Rolls-Royce, a BMW and a Jaguar. He collected antiques and diamonds, many worth $385,000 per stone, Kajiwara said. He also favored traditional art by the Japanese painter Taikan Yokoyama, and his pieces were so rare that on occasion he lent them to local museums.

But Kashiwagi's most conspicuous luxury was a monument to himself that came to be known as the "Kashiwagi Castle."

The lavish home was enclosed by a high concrete wall and topped with traditional Japanese tiles. Kashiwagi scoured the country for the perfect wood--zelkova--for the home and built his own lumber mill nearby to finish the wood. He spent $38 million and more than 10 years on the house.

His personal style, however, was conservative. He disdained jewelry, shunning even tie tacks and cuff links. He almost always wore blue-and-white striped shirts and somber ties.

And despite his international gambling jaunts, he was very much a traditional Japanese man, friends say. For daily use, he almost always passed up his fleet of foreign cars in favor of a Nissan President, saying that Japanese cars are best. His favorite food was udon , a Japanese noodle dish, and he made his own oshinko , or pickled vegetables. His favorite television programs were samurai dramas. He wore a kimono during the New Year's season. And with the exception of the kitchen, all rooms in his castle were furnished with tatami mats and traditional Japanese furniture.

"Only his hobby, baccarat, was Western," said one close friend, who asked for anonymity.

Friends say he was extremely stubborn, and that his biggest regret in life was the feeling that he had raised his eldest son too strictly, creating a lifelong estrangement. The son hung out with unsavory types, they say, and lifted jewelry and antiques from the house to sell for cash. Kashiwagi gave him $150,000 to start a foreign car dealership, but the son squandered the money, Kajiwara said.

Kashiwagi's own childhood is obscure. The middle child in a family of 10, he dropped out of high school but later lied on a resume that he had graduated. After junior high school, he worked as a farmhand. His father was a skilled carpenter who specialized in temples and shrines.

But what the younger Kashiwagi lacked in formal schooling he made up for with guts, hard work and a knack for business, friends say. He started his rise to success around age 20, when he became a mountain guide and luggage handler at Mt. Fuji. It was there, local residents speculate, that he made the contacts and gained the knowledge of local land deals that launched him in real estate.

Others speculate that his wife, a popular former geisha six years older than he, provided the network of contacts.

Whoever his backers were, Kashiwagi moved to the nearby town of Kawaguchiko and suddenly shifted into real estate in the 1960s. His timing was impeccable. In 1963, the Fuji Subaru Highway reaching halfway up Mt. Fuji was completed. In 1971, a bridge over Kawamuchi Lake was finished. The developments turned the sleepy area into a tourist hot spot, and real estate values zoomed up a million-fold, according to Japanese press reports.

Although Kashiwagi had started his firm with a mere $600 deal, he rode the wave to fortune and "couldn't stop laughing" all the way to the bank, Kajiwara recalled.

He also began a money-lending business. Using tactics that would bring a reputation as a shady dealer, he reportedly would disappear on the due dates of loans so that the debtors could not pay him back. Trapping them in arrears, some accounts said, Kashiwagi would seize their property.

"He made money by hooking people," one local resident told a Japanese magazine. "If you went to his office, everyone would think you were penniless, so people avoided socializing with him."

Local newspapers began to cover his business, and stories of dirty deeds began appearing. After opening a Tokyo branch in 1985, Kashiwagi reclaimed land on which a kindergarten stood when the owner couldn't repay a loan. Over vociferous community protests, he evicted the children, tore down the kindergarten and built an apartment complex.

He also purchased land from 60 families in one area of Tokyo and allegedly began a campaign of harassment against the single family that refused to sell. The family, which ran a pharmacy, occupied the first floor of a building whose second floor was purchased by Kashiwagi. Even though the family stayed there, he tore down the second story. After enduring that and other forms of harassment, the family took Kashiwagi to court and won a restraining order.

But friends say Kashiwagi softened his business practices in the last few years. Indeed, he began helping friends in financial trouble, said one who had benefited from his generosity.

Both age and declining health helped mellow him, friends say. Doctors diagnosed both diabetes and gallstones a few years ago, and Kashiwagi lost considerable weight. As a result, he gave up his favorite drink, whiskey and water, and sipped green tea or water at the baccarat table. But he still chain-smoked his favorite Mild Seven cigarettes.

Kashiwagi burst onto the international gambling scene in 1990. In a splashy January debut, he won $22 million in Australia. The notoriety attracted the attention of Trump, who invited him to the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. Kashiwagi went in February and won $6 million in 10 hours. He was surrounded by up to 10 hotel bodyguards, his private table roped off in red velvet.

Dennis Gomes, president of the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, said that when he was an official at the Dunes in Las Vegas, he saw Kashiwagi bet $100,000 a hand for 80 hours at baccarat, the high-risk, high-reward game that was his favorite.

"He'd play two days straight without sleeping, go to bed, get up and gamble some more," Gomes told the Associated Press.

But, just as Japan's overheated real estate market collapsed, so did Kashiwagi's winning streak.

In May, 1990, Kashiwagi lost $9.4 million in Atlantic City after Trump lured him back for a rematch. Trying to figure out how to beat him, Trump had hired a mathematician with a background in nuclear physics. The mathematician recommended a long match, saying the odds of winning dropped as more hands were played.

A friend who accompanied Trump on that trip hotly disputes the $9.4-million loss figure. The friend maintains that Kashiwagi was forced to quit when he was behind, but Trump officials say he left in a huff after six days of play.

One close friend, who accompanied Kashiwagi on some of his gambling trips, says he did not leave any significant gambling debts behind. But others tell a different tale. According to Japanese press reports, Kashiwagi flew to Europe to try to recoup the money lost in the United States in May--only to lose another $15.4 million. After paying his European creditors approximately $5.3 million, he told them he could pay no more. At that time, he was said to owe the Las Vegas Hilton $5 million and the Trump Plaza and Casino $4 million.

In Japan, Kashiwagi's business was also reportedly in the red. Property sales began dipping after 1988. A $131-million bank loan reportedly exceeded his assets.

Hunted by creditors around the globe, the high-roller was spending the day alone in his one refuge--the Kashiwagi Castle--while his family went strawberry picking on Jan. 3. When they came home, they found him dead.

Japanese commentators have painted his life and death as a symbol of Japan's "bubble" economy, growing spectacularly because of inflated gains in real estate and stock values, then collapsing.

Likewise, few traces of Kashiwagi's splashy lifestyle were evident in the end.

The day of his funeral was dreary with snow. "It was," one magazine reported, "a truly lonesome affair."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°