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Number 1 Shimbun

Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo part 4

Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo part 4
By Charles Smith

When Charles Smith arrived in Tokyo in 1973 as Financial Times bureau chief, he had no idea he would end up spending most of the rest of his life here. Reaching 80 and having been diagnosed with malignant lymphoma, he set about writing his memoirs. When he finished the project recently, Charles – still an enthusiastic FCCJ member after all those 45 years – consented to share with us some memories from the early years of a long and interesting career. The series began running in the April issue. On May 18 Charles died, at age 82. We are continuing to run installments. In this, the fourth, he recalls prime ministers of the 1970s.

In my later years with the Financial Times in Tokyo I became fascinated by the nitty-gritty world of constituency politics, but it took me time to penetrate the grass roots to that extent. In the meantime I focused mainly on the leaders – men with distinctive talents and personalities who took turns in what seemed to be a choreographed power struggle.

Being a member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan was especially important in the 1970s because in those days every actual or aspiring prime minister felt obliged to address the Club. I never missed these meetings and was grateful for the first hand insight into the personalities of Japan’s leaders that I gained from them. But I failed to write one FCCJ story that became a legend. This happened in the dying days of Kakuei Tanaka’s premiership.

The prime minister had suffered a series of reverses before he came to speak at the Club in October of 1974. His weak point seemed to be the touchingly simple belief that, at the upper levels of factional politics, power equalled money. There were other senior politicians who agreed that ready cash was important but who also cherished a sense of the boundary between patronage and corruption.

Tanaka’s creed saw him through his first two years in office, but by 1974 I began to feel that something was wrong. The trouble seemed to start when he made a tour of Southeast Asia without proposing any solutions to a massive trade imbalance in Japan’s favor.

In mid-June Tanaka presided over what became known as a “money election” to the upper house of parliament, which the Liberal Democratic Party almost lost after the media discovered that some of his faction members were spending twenty to thirty times the legal limits of their campaign budgets. After the election debacle, Tanaka’s factional rivals began quitting his cabinet one by one.

On October 9 a package – some sixty pages – of two minutely informed articles, one entitled “Tanaka, His Money and His Men,” and the other, about his long-time secretary, “Lonely Queen of Etsuzankai: Aki Sato,” appeared in a November special issue of Bungei Shunju, a reputable monthly magazine.

The mainstream Japanese media – the big daily newspapers and broadcast networks – for several weeks paid little attention to the magazine’s revelations about Tanaka’s second career as a real estate tycoon.

But when Tanaka visited the FCCJ on October 22 for what had become an almost obligatory appearance, the Bungei Shunju stories were the main focus of questions.

I was present at the FCCJ lunch and heard the PM being crudely insulted by an Eastern European reporter who happened to be moderating. Then came reporters’ questions about the Bungei Shunju articles. Tanaka wouldn’t, or couldn’t, take it. He left the Club in obvious anger and distress well before the meeting’s scheduled finishing time.

Japanese reporters overcame their hesitation after that day and began questioning Tanaka. His retirement from office came shortly afterwards.

It wasn’t until much later that I came to believe that the FCCJ episode was part of a long running drama involving four bitterly divided LDP leaders: Tanaka; Takeo Fukuda; Masayoshi Ohira; and one regular side-changer, Yasuhiro Nakasone. Among the four I may seem to have singled out Tanaka for special criticism, but I now believe that Tanaka was one who could have changed the all-too-even course of Japanese politics.

Tanaka was not part of the Tokyo educational elite, and lacked the merit of belonging to a celebrated political family. But I believe the graduate of an industrial training technological college in provincial Niigata may have had a more comprehensive view of Japan’s problems and possibilities than a star pupil of Tokyo University’s law school.

It was Tanaka, not Fukuda, who saw that Japan’s long term hopes of maintaining social and economic health would require spreading growth outside the world’s largest city. His Archipelago Plan fell victim to the oil shock and probably wasn’t helped by some careless presentation. But by the early decades of the twenty-first century, the oppressive magnetism of Tokyo for rural Japan had begun to seem a major problem.

Tanaka was indicted in 1976 for receiving a payment of ¥500 million from Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, allegedly in return for influencing an aircraft purchase. A Tokyo court in 1983 convicted him of violation of foreign exchange control laws and sentenced him to imprisonment. He appealed and managed to stay free until his death in 1993.

He had been expelled from the LDP after the indictment, yet he was still the leader of the party’s largest faction. The disaster seemed to open a remarkable new phase in his career. His wealth and his sensitivity to local economic issues made him overwhelmingly the top vote winner in his own prefecture during two successive elections.

For several years a man whose support was needed to determine the leadership of the ruling political party was not a party member.

Tanaka wasn’t an expert solely on the claims of Tokyo versus the rest of Japan. Partly because he had not received a political inheritance, he seemed to be free of the war nostalgia that tended to surface in the thoughts of rivals.

Conversely, the man from Niigata sometimes seemed to go off on a tangent. This struck me in September 1974 when he spoke to a small gathering of European reporters about an approaching trip to Europe (his first and only one as prime minister). The issues then included a serious bilateral trade imbalance, disputed exchange rates, and how the two sides saw relations with the United States.

Tanaka’s theme, as I remember it, was that visiting Europe would give him the chance to see a number of famous structures – bridges, viaducts, causeways – that he knew of from his early civil engineering experience in Niigata. It was one of several occasions in the 1970s and ‘80s when I felt that Japanese PMs had personal interests that sometimes cut across or even overrode their concerns as politicians.

If Japanese politics was a tapestry of many colors and weaves there were, of course, other threads that stood out. While Tanaka was a self-made original, many LDP leaders owed their reputations and their party leverage to their descent from famous leaders of the past. Sons often succeeded fathers in the same constituencies; a great name was a sure way to get somewhere in a faction. But money wasn’t crucial. There were two important skills that also helped: versatility and personality.

Masayoshi Ohira, prime minister from December 1978 until his death from a heart attack in June 1980, was the first Japanese head of government to grasp that Japan’s direct taxation system, inherited from the United States, suffered from overreliance on personal and corporate income taxes. This had become clear from 1975 onwards as slower economic growth had begun to reduce tax yields. The direct/indirect imbalance eventually helped to create what came to seem an open-ended rise in Japan’s public debt.

Ohira’s solution, probably inspired by purse-conscious bureaucrats at the Ministry of Finance, was to introduce a European-style value-added tax that would levy a small percentage charge on all sales transactions. It was a good idea, but Ohira also became the first of a succession of prime ministers to show how not to do it, politically.

A VAT proposal was included in the platform for what had looked like a safe parliamentary election called by the PM in November 1979, but the LDP managed only a bare victory and the unpopular VAT idea had to be scrapped. Ohira may have made the mistake of assuming that the best way to cross a political chasm is to call a “can’t lose” general election.

His standing inside the LDP never quite recovered from this setback. The Ohira who held on for six months as prime minister after November 1979 was a shadow of the man who had defeated Fukuda in a party leadership vote in 1978. But he never lost the signature smile that may have helped him win the leadership. We discovered this one day at the Club when Umar Kahn-Yousufzai (“Doctor” Kahn to us, because he held an advanced degree in chemistry), a Pakistani reporter known for his slightly off-beat queries, asked the PM why the LDP did not recruit more talented ladies to become members of parliament.

The question gave Ohira an opening. “Actually it’s not just the ladies who have talents,” said the PM. “We all need them to stay in business, and mine is my smile.” The smile that followed was apparently spontaneous yet brilliantly professional. For me it was my last opportunity to see one of Japan’s more attractive leaders scoring a friendly point from an inquisitive foreign press. Before I leave the subject of prime ministerial versatility I want to add a word about Yasuhiro Nakasone.

Before serving in the Imperial Navy near the end of the World War II he had been an official in the Naimusho (Ministry of Home Affairs), the pre-1945 intellectual and administrative headquarters of the Japanese militarist state.

That record might have raised worries about his pacifist credentials, and Nakasone was indeed a nationalist with a right wing bias. But he was also one who knew how to sell himself. I saw him in action on three occasions, twice during interviews with editors and finally when he graced a farewell party for foreign reporters just before he stepped down after five years as prime minister.

During the second of these meetings, an interview with an American editor, I thought I saw the PM personifying Abraham Lincoln. He was seated upright with his arms stretched out on the wings of a presidential chair while he gravely assured us that Japan would never again be involved in conflict outside its borders and would never spend more than one percent of its Gross Domestic Product on defense.

On the third and last time, I watched Nakasone fling an affectionate arm over the shoulders of Dr. Kahn in a gesture that seemed to say, “We are comrades and we are all in this together.” If I had been asked which of those performances was the real Nakasone, I could not have answered. I was reminded of having watched a famous British actor giving brilliant renderings of a number of Shakespearean characters in a solo act in London. Nakasone’s “Lincoln” and his greeting to Dr. Kahn both seemed to me to be the real, spontaneous, thing.

Published in: July 2018

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