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Thursday, January 22, 2015

“The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan’s Richest Family”, by Lesley Downer

418 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-0679425540

The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan’s Richest Family is the hundred-year saga of the loves, lives and rivalries of one of Japan’s most glamorous business dynasties, the Tsutsumi Clan, famous in Japan as much for their hatred of each other as for their fabled wealth. Set against the background of Japan’s rise to become one of the world’s most prosperous and technically advanced countries after the calamities of World War II, this is an epic tale written by Lesley Downer with such vigor and prose that it reads like a compelling thriller, no mean feat considering that we are discussing a business family here, not Kennedys.

Downer makes it succinctly clear at the beginning of this book that this is not an authorized biography of the Tsutsumis; in spite of that, she managed (somehow) to interview a bewildering array of people that are related to the clan, directly and indirectly, personally and professionally. At the heart of her tale are three men: Yasujirō Tsutsumi, the roguish father with his string of mistresses who built the family fortune before and during World War II; Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, the illegitimate son who inherited his father’s realm and turned it into a multimillion dollar empire; and Seiji Tsutsumi, the spurned legitimate son – rebel, poet, one-time communist – who inherited a single run-down department store which he used as the basis of an empire of style (fear not, dear reader; a family tree is provided to aid you in comprehending this unusual family structure, along with a map of Japan to assist you in appreciating the tentacles the Tsutsumis spread throughout Japan over the years).

The book is separated mainly into three major components that focus firstly on the founding father, Yasujirō, before moving on to Seiji and thence on to Yoshiaki (there is also mention made of the sister, Kuniko, the so-called black sheep of the family and who would eventually path her way in Paris). There are discussions about Yasujirō’s (many) wives and mistresses, business and political intrigues, and how that would eventually pass down to the younger generations; how the two brothers would tackle business in dramatically different ways.

Without question the Tsutsumis are one of Japan’s greatest dynasties and, like the Rockefellers or the Getty’s in the west, have achieved a near-mythic status in their homeland. Theirs is the ultimate rags-to-riches tale, a drama of cut throat business intrigues and ties of honor, family rivalry and the trials of wives and concubines, set against the turbulent background of Japan in the 20th Century. Here is a unique window on vast wealth and power – Japanese style – taking us beyond the stereotype of pinstriped drones to a sweeping drama of Shakespearian proportions.

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