We’ve all heard about famous billionaires like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Warren Buffet; people with bigger-than-life fortunes who could probably buy out a small country if they wanted to.
But with all the attention given to these wealthy men, why doesn’t anybody talk about a man who, at one point in time, was not only the richest man in Japan, but the richest man in the world?
Who is he, and why have we never heard of him?
Who Was The Richest Man In The World?
During Japan’s insane economic boom of the 80s, it looked like the country was unstoppable. Virtually every single metric of economic success had been going through the roof for decades with no sign of stopping.
And nobody was a more literal embodiment of Japan’s economic success than a businessman by the name of Yoshiaki Tsutsumi.
A young Tsutsumi
And according to the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers, on the list of the 75 richest people in all of human history – a list that includes 19th century robber barons, dot-com billionaires, kings, dukes, and pharaohs – Tsutsumi is the lone Japanese representative.
For a time, he chaired the Japanese Olympic Committee, and helped lobby for the 1998 Winter Olympics to be held in Nagano, Japan.
You can see that while he wasn’t a playboy like Richard Branson nor quite as immensely wealthy as Bill Gates, Tsutsumi was still an extremely rich and influential man.
How Did He Get So Rich?
Even though Tsutsumi was an illegitimate child, he was nonetheless born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
Tsutsumi’s father was the patriarch of one of the most influential families in modern Japan. He was the chairman of the Seibu Corporation, a powerful company that deals in railways, hotels, and other real estate.
His father held the position of chairman until his death, when Tsutsumi inherited the throne. After the torch had been passed, Tsutsumi continued to build upon his father’s empire.
Tsutsumi acquired hotels, ski resorts, and golf courses, growing his real estate empire to monumental sizes.
He bought the Saitama Lions baseball team and turned it around from a no-name franchise into a league winner and national champion. The Seibu corporation even, at one point, considered buying the Seattle Mariners.
But for being such a powerful man, it seems Tsutsumi has kept a relatively low profile as of late. What’s the deal?
Where Is He Now?
Tsutsumi has all but fallen off the map, and for good reason.
There was obviously the bursting of Japan’s real estate bubble, which brought down the entire Japanese economy from its astronomical 1980s heights; but there are also more devious factors behind Tsutsumi’s downfall.
In 2004, shady accounting practices and violation of financial regulations rocked his company, the Seibu Corporation. The company was taken off the Tokyo Stock Exchange and eventually had to reorganize. The president of the company hanged himself out of disgrace.
The following year was even worse for Tsutsumi. In 2005, he was arrested for insider trading and falsifying documents. His punishment? A fine of around $50,000, and a short prison sentence.
But the biggest blow to Tsutsumi wasn’t the fine or prison time, but his loss of the Seibu empire. When the Seibu scandal broke, Tsutsumi was forced to resign from every post he held within the company.
In a lot of ways, Tsutsumi’s success and downfall is an allegory for the boom and bust of the Japanese economy. The 80s brought larger-than-life financial success, but after the bubble burst, later years were filled with failure and scandal.
Right now Tsutsumi is 78 years old, and despite Japan’s extremely long life expectancy, I don’t expect to see him making any comebacks anytime soon. Hopefully he has a nice swimming pool full of 500 yen coins that he can lounge by to live out his remaining years.