Half a century ago, Shigeo Nagano was shifting nightly from hotel to hotel in a frantic bid to stay ahead of pursuing business creditors. Now near his 80th birthday, and with a long career as one of Japan's most successful businessmen behind him, Mr. Nagano has embarked on a series of engineering feats of strength that he hopes will keep him active until his centenary.

First, he is leading a Japanese consortium that plans to build a new sea-level Panama canal that will handle supertankers and revolutionize the world's trading routes.

But he jokingly calls this a "preliminary trial" for the ultimate engineering marvel: a canal carved across the Indian subcontinent from the River Ganges to the Arabian Sea.

After World War II, Nagano built up the Nippon Steel Corporation as the world's No. 1 producer. Recently he has taken on a wider role -- that of an international negotiator through his presidency of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

It was in this latter capacity that he recently led a top-level mission to Panama to discuss details of the proposed canal.

Mr. Nagano sees himself as a modern Katsu Kaishu, a mid-19th-century samurai warrior whose patient diplomacy persuaded the various civil-war factions to lay down their arms, thus saving Tokyo from destruction and paving the way for Japan's emergence as a modern industrial state.

A native of atom-bombed hiroshima, he wants to use business diplomacy to secure world peace. He has played a leading role in long negotiations over Japanese participation in Siberian development, and insists Japan should go ahead despite apparent revival of the cold war.

No country is more vulnerable than Japan in the event of war (say, in the Persian Gulf), he says, and so his country must find ways of becoming a trusted mediator between the vested interests of the various world power blocs. He sees the construction of a new Panama canal as a way to please the Americans. And, to please the Soviets, he believes japan should go ahead with a planned $8 billion investment in the development of Siberian coal, natural gas, oil, timber , and copper.

With the existing Panama Canal becoming outdated and with its intricate system of locks vulnerable to terrorist attack, a new sea-level connection between the Pacific and the Atlantic has many attractions.

The proposal calls for a waterway some 40 miles long, 650 to 1,300 feet wide, and 110 feet deep. It would be west of the existing canal, between Puerto Caimito on the Pacific and Lagarto on the Atlantic, and could handle 300,000-ton ships at normal times and probably half-a-million-ton vessels at high tide. (Maneuvering in tides up to 20 feet high is one of the most difficult problems to be overcome.)

Panama is eager for the new waterway as a means of strengthening its economic and diplomatic hand in the region, particularly in relations with the United States.

But use of the existing canal has been falling off drastically in recent years. So when the US gave it joint control of the waterway, Panama looked for a way to restore the canal to a pre-eminent role in world trade.

It was a secret search at first, because a clause in the US-Panama canal treaty said that any new construction in this century must be approved by both treaty partners. Panama decided to take the lead in sounding out what changes were possible, then approach the US.

The Japanese, who were already deepening and widening the Suez Canal, seemed like an obvious contact.

The Suez will be accommodating 150,000-ton ships (instead of only 40,000 tons now) by the end of this year, if all goes according to plan. After that, "We'll dig a second canal to handle 300,000-ton ships," Mr. Nagano says.

Friends describe steelman Nagano as "a child of nature" and "just a small boy at heart." He has thrown himself into the Panama project with a gusto belying his years.

Of course, there is an element of self-interest.Forty percent of all ships passing through the canal are Japanese. Japan would very much like to have better access to the Atlantic Ocean for shipments of its goods and for bringing home raw materials and fuels from important suppliers like the US, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. Mr. Nagano says: "With the new canal, Brazilian and Venezuelan ore, coal from the eastern United States, Mexican crude oil, and essential foodstuffs from areas along the Mississippi River could be transported more directly, rather than around the Cape of Good Hope. The Eastern Seaboard of the US would also get better access to Alaskan oil." (There is also the consideration that a new canal would lessen japan's and the West's dependence on South African protection of the cape route.)

"I expect the Russians will oppose it," Mr. Nagano says. "It will be a matter of common sense to consider the military aspects of the new canal, even if we have no such intention. So let's cooperate with the Americans to build this canal, and offer the Russians a quid pro quo on Siberian development [at about the same cost: $8.3 billion]."

Such projects merely open up a hew phase of Nagano's career. He has just published his memoirs under the title "Have You Ever Fled by night?" a reference to the 1931 deadlock over financial reconstruction of Fuji Steel, when he changed his lodgings nightly to escape creditors. In the end, Fuji was saved and Mr. Nagano went on to forge it with other steelmakers into the powerful Nippon Steel.

"The Panama project will take 10 years to complete," he says, "so I'm considering what I should do when I turn 90."

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