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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.

February 08, 1992|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FUJIYOSHIDA, Japan — 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.

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