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Mythbusting the Tanaka Confrontation

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Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka speaks to Club members on that infamous day in 1974.

 

 

An investigative journalist turns his focus to a subject still

guaranteed to spark hot debate at the tables of the Club.


by Eiichiro Tokumoto

O

One of the most famous and controversial events in this Club’s history was the press luncheon for Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. Held 40 years ago on Oct. 22, 1974, the event helped trigger a storm of criticism over Tanaka’s shady financial dealings that led to his resignation soon thereafter, making the FCCJ a forum that altered Japan’s politics.

It was famous, of course, because of the result – the fall of a powerful man. It was controversial because there were a number of differing accounts as to what happened and an equal number of theories as to why.

Among politicians of the postwar period, Kakuei Tanaka was atypical to the extreme. From the tenure of Shigeru Yoshida just after World War II, many of Japan’s prime ministers were graduates of the University of Tokyo who had served in the bureaucracy before moving into politics. Tanaka, however, was born to an impoverished farming household in Niigata. Soon after completion of his primary schooling, he worked as a laborer on road construction before running his own construction firm in Tokyo while still in his twenties.

 

He was referred to in such terms as

"the computerized bulldozer"

and enjoyed a high degree of public support.

 

Elected to the Diet soon after the war, he had held cabinet positions as minister of posts and telecommunications and finance before being elected prime minister in July 1972. He was referred to in such terms as “the primary school graduate who became the people’s prime minister” and “the computerized bulldozer,” and enjoyed a high degree of public support.

On the day Tanaka visited the FCCJ, however, he was in an exceptionally irritable mood. The November issue of the monthly magazine Bungei Shunju, which had been released just 12 days earlier, contained an investigative report by freelance journalist Takashi Tachibana titled “A study of Kakuei Tanaka – his money and political connections.”

 

The article provided details of how he accumulated enormous personal assets during his rise in politics, including records from real estate registries that pointed to suspicious transactions. Using multiple dummy companies, he had allegedly turned over properties for massive profits. While serving as minister of finance he cut in his crony, financier Kenji Osano, on sales of government-owned land. The huge profits from these deals, Tachibana alleged, were used to fund Tanaka’s political activities.

In the question and answer session at the FCCJ luncheon, Tanaka was besieged with questions from foreign correspondents regarding the article. Clearly aggravated, he rose from his seat five minutes before the event was scheduled to end and walked out, together with his secretaries. For a serving prime minister to cut short a press event was regarded as extraordinary.

Up to that point, Japan’s vernacular newspapers had been hesitant in their coverage of the Bungei Shunju article, but nearly all of them ran accounts of what transpired at the FCCJ press event. Tanaka’s wheeling and dealing quickly emerged as a major political problem and on Nov. 26, he announced his resignation.

Even 40 years later, memories of the luncheon live on in the form of legend, rumor and conspiracy theories. To this day, some believe the event was manipulated by people seeking to drive Tanaka out of politics.

 

MYTH 1: FLUSTERED AND UNPREPARED?

One widely discussed theory is that Tanaka was flustered, and had been completely unprepared for the hard-hitting and confrontational questions over his shady dealings.

Was there any truth to the assertions? Gerhard Hielscher, who, as the Club’s 2nd Vice President, was seated next to Tanaka on that day, recalls, “Just before the luncheon, we received a request from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking about what kinds of questions would be posed to Tanaka, and I replied that I supposed some would include questions about the political funding problem. As I was seated to Tanaka’s immediate right, I could see that when he replied to the questions about the funding problem he referred to notes. So it would be a lie to say he became flustered because of the unanticipated questions.”

 

MYTH 2: A TAIWANESE-LED CONSPIRACY

One of the persons who maintained the attacks on Tanaka were conspiratorial was Akiko Sato, his secretary of many years. In a book titled My Kakuei Tanaka Diary, she wrote:

“Even while saying ‘I don’t feel like doing it – I don’t want to go,’ Tanaka nonetheless felt he should speak at the FCCJ. There was word going around that the criticism over financial impropriety had been started by a Taiwanese reporter. Was this the price Tanaka was forced to pay for his having restored diplomatic relations with mainland China?”

 

Why this rumor could find fertile ground is understandable given the global politics of the times. Immediately after his assuming the post of prime minister in July 1972, Tanaka had visited China, met with Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, and in a joint statement announced restoration of diplomatic ties. For the next two years and five months, Tanaka’s success in restoring ties with China continued to reflect well on his government. At the same time, however, this had led to a severance of ties between Japan and the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan, infuriating pro-Taiwan factions within the Liberal Democratic Party.

So is there any truth to Sato’s suggestion that it was a reporter from Taiwan with resentment toward Tanaka who ignited the hostile questions? The answer can be found in the audiotape of the Tanaka luncheon, which is stored in the FCCJ library. Following are excerpts from that event related to the Bungei Shunju article.

Sam Jameson [Los Angeles Times] “In the U.S., the Senate is questioning Mr. Rockefeller about his personal wealth. Do you think that this sort of activity – asking a politician to account for his personal fortune – is appropriate in Japan as well? If not, why not? If you do think it is appropriate, would you comment on the Bungei Shunju article?”

 

Is there any truth to the suggestion

that it was a reporter from Taiwan who

ignited the hostile questions?

 

Don Oberdorfer [Washington Post] “Do you plan to take any other kind of action with respect to the article that appeared in the magazine?”

Matthew Seiden [Baltimore Sun] “Just to make sure we understand your last statement. I believe you said “as reported in the Bungei Shunju article, my sources of income and my income tax statements have all been made public.” Does that mean that you’re not denying but confirming the accuracy of the Bungei Shunju article? The question is a serious one. Are you denying it or saying it’s accurate?”

Gerhard Hielscher (Suddeutsche Zeitung) and Peter Crome (Frankfurter Rundschau) also posed questions concerning the article.

So while Sato may be forgiven for characterizing the questions as hostile it is clear that not only was the questioning not launched by a Taiwanese reporter but that no journalist from Taiwan even asked questions.

 

Sam Jameson discussed the reasons he brought up the subject at a lunch prior to his death last year. “Although the magazine had gone on sale about two weeks earlier, Tanaka himself had not made a single comment about it. That being the case, it was natural for me to ask him directly. I had only intended to ask him an extremely simple question.”

 

MYTH 3: THE AMERICANS WERE BEHIND IT

The dearth of reporters fluent in the Japanese language sowed the seeds for another conspiracy theory. Ukeru Magosaki, a former Japanese diplomat who headed the Foreign Ministry’s Intelligence and Analysis Bureau, said that he felt that the bringing up of the Bungei Shunju article was “an exceedingly inexplicable move.”

In his book, Sengoshi no Shotai (“The Truth behind Postwar History”), Magosaki wrote that the U.S., angry over Japan’s restoration of diplomatic relations with China, was keen to do a political hatchet job on Tanaka. “Many foreign reporters could not read Japanese. It seemed strange that five reporters in succession posed questions that had not appeared in any newspaper in Japan.” (Magosaki’s book also cites portions from Tanaka’s secretary Akiko Sato’s book, but omits the part in which she floats the idea of a Taiwanese reporter being responsible.)

He has a point. Given the language level of the foreign correspondents at the time, their knowledge about a dense 40-page article in a monthly magazine does seem mystifying. What was the truth?

 

It is clear that even foreign correspondents

incapable of reading the original article

would have known about its contents.

 

In fact, in the lead up to Oct. 22, the date of the Tanaka luncheon, Japanese newspapers had made few references to the Bungei Shunju article. However, Japan’s English-language newspapers had run detailed summaries of the article. On Oct. 14, eight days before the luncheon, the Japan Times reported on the article. The Asahi Evening News of Oct. 19 ran a similar story under the headline “Article on Tanaka’s Money Sources Shocking Tories,” which noted that the Bungei Shunju article had been taken up at the Executive Board meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Likewise, the Mainichi Daily News of Oct. 20, under the headline “Watergate, Japanese Style?,” introduced Tanaka’s questionable land dealings and other details from the magazine’s article. And on Oct. 21, one day before the luncheon, the Asahi Evening News ran a translation of the parent publication’s “Tensei Jingo” (Vox Populi, Vox Dei) column, which remarked that the Bungei Shunju article should be taken up more.

It went on: “If the contents of the article consist of facts, we do not want such a person as our prime minister. If they are not facts, shouldn’t Prime Minister Tanaka personally explain his innocence?”

From this, it is clear that even foreign correspondents incapable of reading the original article would have known about its contents. And they would have been aware that Tanaka’s “money politics” could lead to major political problems. That being the case, the press conference was simply about foreign correspondents asking the questions that Japanese reporters wanted to ask Tanaka in the first place.

 

Ironically, the day following the FCCJ press event, Japanese-language newspapers began running the Bungei Shunju article in its entirety. On Nov. 11, members of the prime minister’s press club began firing questions at Tanaka over financial irregularities. He was to announce his resignation just 15 days later.

From these events, foreign correspondents were viewed as courageous journalists in pursuit of the truth, while Japanese reporters were criticized for being cowed by political power. Such a viewpoint, however, is an oversimplification. Former Kyodo News Agency reporter Kotaro Nogami, who attended Tanaka’s luncheon at the FCCJ, was to admit in Political Reporter, his memoirs, that political reporters at the time were confronted with a serious dilemma.

 

That luncheon clearly highlights the relationship

between Japanese politicians and the mass media

and the role played by foreign correspondents

in Japanese society.

 

The fact was that it just wasn’t possible for a reporter to closely cover an influential politician and at the same time pursue how he raised huge amounts of political funds,” Nogami wrote. “To pose such a question would only set off Tanaka’s ire, and afterwards it would become more difficult to obtain unrehearsed, off-the-cuff remarks related to politics.”

That luncheon of 40 years ago clearly highlights the relationship between Japanese politicians and the mass media, the dilemmas that political reporters confronted, and the role played by foreign correspondents in Japanese society. Kakuei Tanaka passed away in 1993 at the age of 75, but the photo from that event still adorns the wall in the entry hall to the club. Certainly for the FCCJ he will be remembered as one of the greatest newsmakers of his era.

Eiichiro Tokumoto, a former Reuters correspondent, is an author and investigative journalist.

 

Published in: November 2014

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