Ryutaro Hashimoto

Old-school Japanese prime minister


Ryutaro Hashimoto, politician: born Soja City, Japan 29 July 1937; Minister of Health and Welfare 1978-79; Minister of Transport 1986-87; Minister of Finance 1989-91; Deputy Prime Minister 1995-96; Prime Minister of Japan 1996-98; Minister for Admin Reform 2000-01; Secretary-General, Liberal Democratic Party 1989, President 1995-98; married 1966 Kumiko Nakamura (two sons, three daughters); died Tokyo 1 July 2006.

Ryutaro Hashimoto, who was Japan's prime minister from 1996 to 1998, will probably always be remembered for the grubby scandal that ended his sterling political career. The incident epitomised the corruption and influence-peddling that has riddled Japanese politics for over half a century, particularly for Hashimoto's detractors, who also blamed him for badly mishandling the economy during the Asian financial crash of the late 1990s.

The diminutive politician is also associated, however, with a softer brand of conservatism and old-school diplomacy than the bitterly divisive Koizumi era that followed. Despite his faults, Hashimoto may ultimately be judged a lot less harshly than his flashier, more famous successor, who has undone much of Hashimoto's bridge-building with Japan's fast-rising neighbour China.

In July 2001, a group of executives from the Japan Dental Association handed Hashimoto, then leader of the Liberal Democratic Party's most powerful political faction, a cheque for 100 million yen (£500,000) in a Tokyo restaurant. The cheque, which Hashimoto folded and stuffed into his jacket pocket, was never declared in the party's annual funds report, and his repeated statements that he had "no memory" of receiving it made him a figure of ridicule in the Japanese media.

The image of a slightly oily politician, accentuated by Hashimoto's permanently slicked back pompadour and fox-like face, was fixed forever and the scandal forced him to resign from the LDP faction in 2004. In truth, however, he had already been eclipsed by the reign of Junichiro Koizumi, who, as well as being a member of the rival Mori faction, had declared war on the construction welfare-ism that Hashimoto championed. Hashimoto retired last September citing ill-health, a spent force and an emblem of the backroom politics that Koizumi said he wanted to sweep away.

It was an undistinguished end to a long political career that began in 1963 when he followed his father Ryogo into the Diet, aged just 26, after graduating from Keio University in Tokyo. In the "miracle years" of Japanese economic growth, he served in several key posts, including minister of health, director of party finance and LDP secretary general, and during the troubled 1990s was a famously tough negotiator for the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Throughout it all, he managed to avoid the muck that rained down on his closest mentors, especially the prime ministers Kakuei Tanaka and Noboru Takeshita, who both resigned in disgrace amid corruption and bribery charges. But the whiff of scandal trailed him into office when he took over from Tomiichi Murayama in January 1996 after two years of political turmoil that had briefly terminated the LDP's long post-war rule.

Hashimoto's market-driven economic instincts, financial and administrative reforms and hawkish politics were considered by many a retreat from the progressive, consensus-building style of Murayama - Japan's only post-war social democrat premier. Hashimoto helped pry open Japan's closed markets and controversially hiked consumption tax to 5 per cent, snuffing out a promising economic recovery; a sin he compounded with a huge government bailout of the housing loan industry. When the voters punished the LDP by taking away its Upper House majority in 1998, he resigned.

Hashimoto was a dedicated champion of traditional right-wing causes, earning his first political stripes by travelling to former Second World War killing fields in Asia to retrieve the remains of fallen Japanese soldiers. "I am not worshipping war criminals," he said.

But he also helped thaw the diplomatic ice with Russia and China and was in recent years highly critical of Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni, which have helped send Japan's relations with China to a 30-year low. Hashimoto was part of a Japanese delegation that met Chinese President Hu Jintao in March this year.

David McNeill

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