Ripple Effect

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2003

Motorboat races have the power to transform.

by Bruce Rutledge

AT THE HEIWAJIMA MOTORBOAT racecourse in western Tokyo, six drivers take their color-coded speedboats on a practice run around the 600-meter oval course. They skip across the water like stones flung from the shore; the drivers, who all weigh about 50 kilograms, are hunched over, their backs parallel with the water. During the race they'll hunker down even further and get their 400cc boats up to about 80kph.

Behind me in the stands, through the cloud of cigarette smoke, is a down-market crowd of mostly male gamblers. The crowd makes hardly a murmur between races. This is the antithesis of colorful Harajuku; the dominant color here is grey. But moments later, when the ninth race starts, this grey mass will be as enthusiastic as a teenager with a new keitai.

Heiwajima racecourse is one of 24 kyoteijo in Japan. The courses are run by municipal governments and the Nippon Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by the late Ryoichi Sasakawa. In the bowels of Heiwajima stadium, men in tan uniforms stand behind podiums and offer tips on the next race for JPY100. These men work for Fuchu city, and they have perhaps the strangest municipal job title in the world: Motorboat racing expert.

Fuchu is also home to a famous horse racetrack, which is why, my gambling guide Yasuhiko Sambe explains, the city has such low taxes and efficient garbage pickup.

Bets start at JPY100 and can be placed at any of the windows or vending machines throughout the stadium. One quirk: If you want to place a bet on a boat to win -- as opposed to the exactas and trifectas preferred by the Japanese -- you have to walk to the far end of the stadium, where there is just one window open for these sorts of bets. I place a bet of JPY5,000 on red to win. It's for a friend.

Sambe is a cram school teacher and a veteran gambler. He consistently shaves a decimal point off of his winnings and losings when discussing them with his wife, he says. He says that while motorboat racing has a seedy reputation, the drivers are paid well. "They make as much as baseball players," he says. The drivers in today's Sasakawa Prize tournament pull in JPY300,000 for winning a race. Even drivers coming in dead last get JPY120,000 a race. The tournament spans six days.

The ninth race starts. The boats -- white, black, red, blue, yellow and green -- fly around the course, trying to stake out the inside position; several times the boats look like they're going to flip over. The crowd erupts in cheers as the boats enter the third and final lap. That's when the red boat, driven by 41-year-old Yasu Nishida, pulls away. It wins by several boat-lengths, and the large scoreboard quickly flashes out the payoffs for JPY100 exacta, trifecta and win bets. My friend wins JPY14,900, part of which quickly disappears at the beer stand.

I place exacta bets on the 10th and 11th races (there are 12 races each day), and win on the 11th one. My JPY100 bet earns me JPY2,740. I pay no taxes on my winnings. If I had only bet JPY1,000, I think.

And why shouldn't I think big? After all, motorboat races helped turn an accused war criminal into a Nobel Prize wannabe, so maybe, just maybe, it will transform some of these down-and-outs in the grey crowd into bright, shiny successes.

Ryoichi Sasakawa cornered the motorboat races in 1951. Some say he bought off his competitors. Sasakawa was an accused war criminal who worshipped Mussolini and led his own gang of ultranationalists in the 1930s. He was sent to Sugamo prison as a class A war criminal by the Americans, but he was later released without a trial. He went on to found the Sasakawa Foundation, today the Nippon Foundation, which generates around $300 million a year from motorboat race receipts, according to media reports. Sasakawa never got the Nobel Prize he so wanted during his lifetime, but the late fascist's son is now president of the respected Nippon Foundation. That says a lot about the transformative power of motorboat racing. @

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