Obituary: Kakuei Tanaka

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The Independent Online
Kakuei Tanaka, politician: born Niigata 4 May 1918; member, Lower House of Parliament 1947-90; Parliamentary Vice-Minister of Justice 1948; Minister of Posts and Telecommunications 1957-58; Minister of Finance 1962-65; Secretary-General, Liberal Democratic Party 1965-66, 1968-71; Minister of International Trade and Industry 1971-72; President, Liberal Democratic Party and Prime Minister 1972-74; married 1942 Hanako Sakamoto (one daughter); died Tokyo 16 December 1993.

KAKUEI TANAKA was the ablest, most popular, most reviled, most feared, most corrupt and, for more than 20 years, the most powerful man in Japanese post-war politics.

Tanaka came from by far the humblest background of any Japanese prime minister, an office normally occupied by former bureaucrats or, like the present incumbent, descendants of the ancient land- owning aristocracy. Tanaka was born in 1918, the son of a struggling cattle dealer in the province of Niigata, on the Japan Sea, or 'backside' of the main Japanese island, Honshu. The lord of Niigata unwisely joined the losing side in the decisive battle of Sikigahara, in 1600, and the province, squeezed between mountains and a rocky coast snowbound in winter, mistrusted by the shoguns in Tokyo, was (until the rise of Tanaka) one of the poorest in all Japan.

Tanaka senior compounded his son's difficult start in life by a premature venture in breeding milking cows (milk-drinking became popular after the Second World War) which ended in bankruptcy. The young Kakuei had to start work as a building labourer at the age of 13, probably (the records were lost in the confusion of the war years) without completing even elementary education. In 1937 he was conscripted into the Imperial army and served briefly as a private in China, before being invalided out after a bout of pneumonia. Like a young Scot trying his luck in London, Tanaka made his way to Tokyo, already a wartime capital, with no assets beyond a quick mind and a robust constitution.

Working as a day labourer, Tanaka lodged with a family named Sakamoto, and was soon courting Hanako, his landlord's daughter. Financed by his prospective father- in-law (he married Hanako in 1942), he qualified at night school in the Japanese equivalent of quantity surveying, and set up, just before Pearl Harbor, as a small-scale building contractor.

The war, which ruined Japan, made Tanaka. Only 22, energetic and exempt from the army, Tanaka soon mastered the art of procuring cement, glass, roofing iron and other scarce building materials to repair the homes of important people in a Tokyo that was being steadily bombed, in the picturesque phrase of Curtis LeMay Jnr of the US Air Force, 'back to the Stone Age'. Tanaka's method, which he used all his life, he often explained in two crisp words: 'Money talks'. By the end of the war Tanaka's company, prophetically named Japan New Home, was the second biggest of its kind in a Japan that was about to embark on one of the most frenzied building booms in history.

Tanaka had, at first, no interest in politics. He had, however, developed high-level political contacts, and a keen understanding of the importance of permits, priorities and contracts that can only come from government. In 1947 he was elected to the lower house of the parliament in Tokyo from his home province, a seat now held by his daughter, Makiko. Her husband, who has taken the name Tanaka, is also a member of parliament, and their son is expected to continue the Tanaka political dynasty.

A dynamo of energy, Tanaka continued to expand his construction businesses, and soon had a following of parliamentarians deeply impressed by his fund-raising methods. Japanese politics, particularly on the conservative side, have long been based not on political issues, but on candidates proving that they are princely fellows by buying voters drinks, neckties, and trips to the seaside, and by giving cash presents at the weddings and funerals of their constituents. Before the war this munificence was financed by discreet cheques from Mitsui and Mitsubishi, one each to the two conservative parties. Tanaka's innovation was to, as it were, cut out the middleman.

Instead of Tanaka the politician wheedling contributions from companies in search of favours, Tanaka the businessman made money directly out of politics, distributing the surplus to his grateful followers. His machine, based on the money and influence of local building contractors, spread through Japan, and at one time Tanaka directly controlled a third of the voting strength of the Liberal Democratic Party - enough to make him prime minister in 1972 and, after his fall two years later, enough to prevent anyone else being prime minister without his permission, well into the following decade.

Tanaka did not run his huge politicial/business machine single- handed. In 1948, in a bar frequented by politicians in Shimbashi, a raffish Tokyo pleasure quarter, the young MP met a hostess who came, like himself from Niigata. She was a young war widow, down on her luck, by the name of Saito. They talked politics. In one edition of the Japanese parliamentary handbook Saito-san was listed as his personal assistant, then disappeared from public view. All through the years of Tanaka's power, however, it was 'Mama' Saito who kept the books of the Tanaka faction and did the deals which kept the boss in abundant funds, and thus in power.

The Japanese public first heard of this formidable combination in 1974, when an article on 'Kakuei Tanaka, his money and his men' appeared in the Japanese literary magazine Bungei Shunju - Japan's first exposure to investigative journalism. The article was based on Tanaka's tax records, probably leaked by political rivals of his own party unable to compete with his dynamic fund-raising technique. Tanaka was forced from office and, when the Lockheed scandal broke two years later, was unable to protect himself from a charge of taking a dollars 2m bribe from the American aircraft maker. Tanaka claimed that he could not remember the incident - entirely possible, considering that more than pounds 200m of mostly Tanaka-raised money was spent on the Japanese upper house election of 1972.

In 1976 Tanaka was arrested and symbolically lodged overnight in the Tokyo Detention House. In 1983 he was sentenced to four years in prison which he was, in theory, still appealing at the time of his death. Only this year did his potent political machine finally break up, permitting the radical revision of Japanese politics now under way. Long before, in the years of his power, Niigata had climbed from 49th to first in the list of Japanese provinces receiving central government help.

In his enormous abilities, his charm and common touch (he loved to appear on radio, and later on television, singing the drinking songs of his region in a broad Niigata accent) Tanaka was a kind of Oriental Lloyd George, a man touched by scandal who has been denied proper recognition of his not inconsiderable achievements: Tanaka began, for instance, the reconciliation of Japan and its old enemy and victim, China. The people of Niigata still refuse to hear a word against him, his family and his methods. From their, admittedly parochial viewpoint, Burutosa-san, 'Mr Bulldozer' as they respectfully called him, was simply the best daimyo ('great name', local notable) unlucky Niigata has ever had.

(Photograph omitted)