Japan's scramble for 20,000 ingots under the sea

Millions of mystery-minded Japanese are engrossed in a modern-day treasure hunt for the pot of gold at the end of a sunken ship. The watery plot is being thickened by:

* A czarist warship sunk in a Russo-Japanese sea battle 75 years ago, taking to the bottom a treasure estimated to be worth anywhere from $4 to $40 billion.

* Repeated futile, and sometimes fatal, salvage operations rebuffed by the ship's armored plating, which is impregnable to primitive undersea cutting equipment if not the original Japanese shells that sunk it.

* Brave British divers battling cold, poor visibility, and giant conger eels 300 feet below the surface, using the latest equipment in eight-hour, around-the-clock shifts to finally carve open the fabled treasure ship.

* A salvage operation financed by a white-haired octogenarian billionaire shunned by many of his Japanese countrymen as suspected war criminal and shady right-wing manipulator, but earning their grudging admiration, too, by thumbing his nose at the mighty Russians.

* An international row over the treasure's ownership, reviving memories of the ill-fated Romanov dynasty.

The treasure hunt is merely the latest in a long series of exotic ventures that have fascinated and scandalized Japan for the last 50 years.

At the center of the current tale is the 8,250-ton czarist cruiser Admiral Nakhimov, part of a makeshift fleet a desperate czar assembled in 1904 to try to break the siege of his Siberian ports by invading Japanese troops.

The ships, elements of the Baltic fleet, had to sail around the world to reach their objective. But in the Strait of Tsushima between Japan and South Korea, they ran into the full might of the Japanese imperial fleet.

The aging, outgunned Russian ships suffered total defeat. The Admiral Nakhimov took half its crew to the bottom. But survivors managed to reach Tsushima Island a few miles away to tell stories of a veritable treasure trove locked in the cruiser's hold: 5,500 boxes of gold bullion, ingots, and British sovereigns, as well as precious jewels and crates of platinum ingots. All were allegedly used to buy ships and weapons to defeat Japan.

Treasure fever over the years attracted scientists, adventurers, and gangsters to the island. At least six divers died in abortive attempts to force the Admiral Nakhimov to give up its secrets. One gangster was reported knifed to death in a fight between rival treasure-hunting mobs.

Enter Ryoichi Sasakawa, staunch anticommunist, former fascist, and warcrimes suspect, political power broker behind the throne, influential business fixer, and known to many Japanese as "the godfather." He is financing the latest salvage operation using an ultramodern barge and diving bell that enables his divers to operate on the sea floor in continuous eight-hour shifts.

The 80-year-old Sasakawa, one of the country's best-known philanthropists, has given various estimates of the value of the czarist treasure, ranging up to conference, he has done little to confirm the truth of the legends.

He insists he has no intention of keeping the treasure.

"It belongs to the world" to be used in particular for eradicating tropical diseases, he says. With a puckish touch of humor, he has suggested a trade: the treasure for Japanese islands the Russians captured and have held since World War II.

Surely, he argues, the Russians should be happy to get an easy $40 billion for the islands. The government has come down on his side. The government has come down on his side. The Foreign Ministry officials also note that it is lying in Japanese territorial waters, although the area is beyond the three-mile limit in force 75 years ago.

But there is also the possibility that at least part of the treasure belongs to France, which provided the czar with war loans. So Mr. Sasakawa could still face another ownership fight -- this one with the japanese government.

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