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Saturday, April 7, 2007

'Don of Roppongi' seeks peace in East Asia

It's a rum kind of shop. But then Takeshi Maki -- who, while regarding himself as a member of Japan's silent majority, is nicknamed the Don of Roppongi -- is a rum kind of bloke.

Takeshi Maki
Takeshi Maki wants to start a Japanese version of the Nobel Peace Prize, with awards to those people who most contribute to building up Japan's "Constitution of Peace."

Next to the entrance to his store -- flanked by the flags of the United States and Britain -- is a garage, containing Maki's pride and joy: a vintage white Jaguar. Quite the Anglophile, it seems.

As to the store -- two crazy floors jam-packed with furniture, jewelry, pictures, clocks, lamps, china and even a suit of armor -- price tags can make the head spin. Near half a million yen for a grandfather clock that is not simply repro, but brand new?

"It's true," he says shrugging and laughing. "Sixty percent of goods are reproduction, the rest antique. Everything is a bit of a mess, because of all the stuff from Karuizawa."

Up until last year, Maki had a second shop in Nagano Prefecture. But he sold it -- what he calls "my chateau" -- and brought the contents to Roppongi. Now he is getting a Web site designed to sell off what remains. Maki, you see, is realizing his assets with a single purpose in mind: to lay his fortune on the table toward peace in Asia. He believes the Korean Peninsula should be a neutral zone like Switzerland rather than the flashpoint for conflict. If his money can help bring this about, all well and good.

"I'm 72. There's little I need or want, and I'm not afraid of anyone. I believe Prime Minister Abe and his cronies are doing all they can to stir up trouble with Asia, just as their grandfathers did to start WWII."

Abe, he points out, is the grandson of a convicted war criminal. Foreign Minister Taro Aso has family connections with Aso Cement, a company that rose on the back of Korean slaves brought over from the peninsula. "Embarrassed by the irresponsible statements made by politicians -- the foolish attitude of my country -- I want to do something about it. Since all I have is money, then this is what I will use. I don't know how. I just want to start the ball rolling, get people talking."

Maki's story helps explain his peace-loving position. He was born, he says, on the northern island of Sakhalin in 1929. But try to pin Maki down, and he will shake his head and say the past is a blur, that he can see only the vaguest outline of his early life.

"My father disappeared in Manchuria. Having close links with Russia, I believe he was arrested by the Japanese military. But I have no proof, and now it's too late. It's the same with my mother. She died when I was 7, maybe of a sickness. Anyway, I was shipped back on a supply vessel and set ashore in Hokkaido, with no papers, photographs, nothing."

Luckily, a rich businessman took Maki under his wing, sent him from Sapporo to Honshu, where he was put to work in Kobe, and then funded through fashion school.

When Maki first moved into Roppongi 45 years ago to open a shop offering the MK label, it was a very different place. Now he says, it's hard to find decent Japanese food anywhere around.

The road on which his address is sited (he has an apartment on an upper floor) used to be called Army Street. After the war it was re-named Antique Street, and he can remember there being 30 antique shops up and down the road. Today, there are only five, including Maki's Roppongi New Gallery (formerly Roppongi Old Gallery) sited within the tall pink building that he built during the bubble years.

Roppongi was just a village until the U.S. moved in an army base, he recalls. That's why so many bars and clubs opened up. The antique shops also, because American soldiers wanted Japanese souvenirs to take back home. When the base moved to Zama in the late 1950s, all the entertainment stayed put.

Maki was one of a group of artists and intellectuals that hung out in the area from the 1950s on. "All in our 30s, we had a great time. I used to go dancing with Kawabata."

Yasunori Kawabata (the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel prize for Literature) died in his condo at Zushi Marina in Kanagawa Prefecture. Until last year Maki had an atelier in the same resort complex -- another asset realized.

He remembers also the American writer Henry Miller -- whose wife, the Japanese singer Toki Tokuda, ran a club called Tropic of Cancer in Maki's basement -- dashing off scribbles and pictures in lieu of rent.

But keeping Japanese yakuza and neo-hipsters happy and running several businesses for near five decades years took its toll; the Don of Roppongi began to tire. "That's when I began to think about selling up, doing something useful with my money."

He regards settling the impasse on the Korean Peninsula to be of prime importance; and that he is speaking for the silent majority of Japanese who feel they are not being represented.

A long-time supporter of the idea of a Silk Road rail link between Japan and the Middle East, he believes that rather than seeking peace in East Asia, the current government is keen to see conflict develop, so that it can do away with the Japan's postwar peaceful constitution and rearm.

"Despite its cars, electronics and fashion, Japan has one unique brand that you can find nowhere else in the world: its constitution, and in particular Article 9, which forever renounces war as a means of settling disputes.

"Abe and his cronies are just like Bush and his close circle," he continues. "They're keen to whip up bad feeling between nations in order to boost so-called national interests and to line their own pockets.

"Look at how the government is using the abductions issue to push Asia into war," he says. "North Korea is desperate for money, food . . . Yet every time they seem willing to negotiate, Japan shrieks abductions, and the North steps back. It's as if Japan has never heard of diplomacy."

Maki wants to start a Japanese version of the Nobel Peace Prize, awarding the first to each member of the six-party talks, and then subsequently to that person or those people who most contribute to building up Japan's No. 1 brand -- Article 9 and the "Constitution of Peace."

He seeks to force Japan by the sheer will of world public opinion to not change its constitution. That is why he plans to be on hand in Washington when Prime Minister Abe comes to town, to offer the view of Japan's "silent majority."

As Maki writes on his Web site: "I'm hoping I can light a fire under the good Japanese, and all other similar-minded people throughout the world who are as embarrassed and angry as I am."

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