This fear of losing control "to outsiders" can also be found in California, the second-favorite state for Japanese visitors and investors. When the owners of the Riviera Country Club announced in the spring of last year that they were about to sell the landmark club—a 168-acre golf and tennis playground on Sunset Boulevard, where Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn once cavorted—the members became alarmed only after it was learned that the buyer was an unnamed Japanese company. The objections eventually became so strenuous that the buyer, a billion-dollar Tokyo real estate company named Marukin Shoji, decided to buy only a 49% interest in the club, with an option to purchase the other 51% later. "There was a lot of anxiety," says Dick Caruso, a 27-year Riviera member who runs the pro shop. "A lot of people were talking about quitting."
Marukin Shoji has constructed office buildings all over Tokyo and is developing resorts throughout Japan. Outside its corporate headquarters, amid the visual poesy of Japanese ideograms, a sign written in bold script proclaims RIVIERA COUNTRY CLUB, TOKYO OFFICE. When the furor over the Riviera sale eventually subsided, Marukin Shoji began exercising its option to buy the club outright. "Riviera is like a shrine over there," says Caruso. "It has to be pride of ownership for them, because to pay $108 million for the kind of return you can generate from a sports club these days just doesn't make sense."
"The membership was up in arms," says Dr. Joey Rosenberg, chairman of the club's board of governors. "I'm not sure the American public likes the idea of foreign ownership coming in and buying our landmarks, which Riviera is. But a lot of our apprehensions disappeared once we were sure they weren't going to turn the club into a Western stopover for Japanese tourists."
It's an odd twist of history that so many of the country clubs of America, those former symbols of wealth and exclusivity, find themselves under siege from a group of people who once would have been excluded.
And real estate is not all the Japanese are after. Coming soon to a city near you will be a Japanese-owned major league franchise. It's almost inevitable, given their monetary power, their fondness for prestige and their business acumen. After all, the Japanese man who tried to buy the Cowboys, whose pockets are still bulging with dollars, is reportedly continuing his search for a team in the U.S. "I think there are certain high-profile teams he would be interested in," says Veatch of Salomon Brothers, "maybe L.A.- or New York-based teams. Any high-profile American sports franchise would be a natural target for a Japanese company trying to increase its recognition level in the U.S. market."
Who knows? Someday, we may have the Mitsubishi New York Yankees.