Obituary: Michio Watanabe

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The Independent Online
Michio Watanabe was often described as the Ernest Bevin of Japanese politics, and the parallels are indeed close. Watanabe was a burly son of the working class who rose close to the top of his country's government through native ability and who despite, or perhaps because of, his blunt outspokenness was an outstanding foreign minister and international deal- maker, one of the few Japanese that foreigners trusted as a negotiating partner.

He was also the last of the front-line wartime generation still active in Japanese affairs, and his passing will be a severe loss to the Liberal Democratic Party, whose image he did much to humanise. Watanabe came from Tichigo, a not particularly prosperous part of the main island, Honshu. He was drafted into the old imperial army, and reached the rank of sergeant in his wartime service in China.

Demobilised in 1945, he drifted into the shady world of the Tokyo black market, where he reportedly sold items fallen off the backs of US Army lorries. "A little of this and a little of that," he once told me when I asked him what he did for a living during this period. Watanabe thus shared the experience of millions of his compatriots and had the down- town, back-street vocabulary to prove it.

As Japan recovered economically, Watanabe studied at night to enter the Tokyo University of Commerce, where he qualified as an accountant, turned politician and was elected to the national parliament from his home district in 1963. An appealing figure among the party's unappealing array of shifty politicians and retired bureaucrats, he rose to become trade minister, finance minister and eventually foreign minister. A master of the tactless comment, Watanabe had to apologise to among others the Chinese, for saying that China was so backward that many people lived in holes, and to the United States for remarking that American blacks often avoided their debts by declaring bankruptcy - a matter for shame, and even suicide, in Japan. Stricken with cancer in 1993, Watanabe was still doing deals up to the end, and this year negotiated aid of 300,000 tons of rice to North Korea and even secured grudging thanks from that nation of staunch anti-Japanese Communists.

As Japanese politicians go, Watanabe was considered to be reasonably honest. He was named as receiving 5,000 virtually free shares of the Recruit real estate company in the mammoth scandal of 1988 but dozens of other Japanese across the political spectrum were named at the same time and this was generally accepted as having been a sweetener rather than a bribe, a mark of Watanabe's importance in Japanese affairs.

He stayed with the mainline Liberal Democrats when the party split and fell from power in 1993, after 38 years in office. He was a strong candidate for the party presidency that year and, but for his illness, might still have been a front runner for party president and perhaps prime minister. As it is, his protege Ryutaro Hashimoto is party president.

Watanabe's son has already announced his candidacy for the seat left vacant by his father's death, and is considered a certainty at the next elections, a reflection of Watanabe senior's popularity.

Murray Sayle

Michio Watanabe, politician: born Tichigo Prefecture, Japan 28 July 1923; member, House of Representatives 1963-95; Minister of Finance 1980-82; Minister of International Trade and Industry 1985-86; Foreign Minster 1991-93; married (two sons, one daughter); died Tokyo 15 September 1995.