Obituary: Shin Kanemaru

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In a country generously endowed with political monsters, Shin Kanemaru was, for 20 years, the most colourful, the most powerful, the most ruthless, and the most corrupt figure in Japanese politics.

A backroom string-puller of the old school, he operated in the wings of the public stage and manipulated power through a matchless network of friends, proteges, minions, and stooges. As a senior member of the Liberal Democratic Party, he never rose higher than deputy Prime Minister; but, as leader of the LDP's biggest faction, four premiers owed their office to him. George Bush received him at the White House; he also maintaned a notorious relationship with Kim Il Sung, the Stalinist dictator of North Korea. He was as comfortable with gangster bosses as with company presidents, and his spectacular fall from grace four years ago demonstrated that between politics, business and organised crime in Japan there is frequently no discernible difference.

Like the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, his friend, patron and fellow political delinquent, Kanemaru rose to power from a rural power base, far from the bright lights and relative political sophistication of Tokyo. He was born in 1914 in a remote village in the rural prefecture of Yamanashi to a family of brewers. A love of booze remained with him, and his sake- fuelled benders were the source of countless anecdotes, many of them told by Kanemaru himself.

As a child, he also acquired the habits of power which would later make him so infamous - bullying (his memoirs, My History, proudly record his early victories in schoolyard scraps) and disbursement of favours (he won popularity by distributing treats among his classmates). One hagiography records the occasion when young Shin helped one of his classmates overcome an unfortunate bed-wetting problem, by tying a rope around his penis.

As a student he was a poor scholar but a fine athlete. Tall and bulky (in later years, his neck disappeared almost completely, giving him his famous bulldog appearance), he was winning judo tournaments in his teens, and after scraping through university in Tokyo he worked briefly as a biology and martial arts teacher before being shipped off to Manchuria in 1937. A bout of pleurisy saved him from the nastier extremes of Japan's war and he returned to Yamanashi to marriage (leavened by a series of mistresses), and stewardship of the family sake business.

He entered politics in 1958, winning the first of 12 elections to his local constituency, and quickly put his robust talents to good use in the service of the LDP. During a bitter struggle over the Japan-US Security Treaty in 1960, the opposition attempted to prevent its ratification by physically blocking the entrance to the Diet chamber. Hoisting him on his shoulders, Kanemaru carried the Speaker in through the melee, fending off parliamentary colleagues with judo moves and, by his own account, breaking his leg in the process.

But public confrontation was not Kanemaru's style; his true milieu was not the theatrics of the Diet, but the geisha houses and restaurants where the real decisions were, and still are, made. As Chairman of the LDP Diet Policy Committee, he gained a reputation as a miraculous forger of deals with the truculent Socialist opposition. After a rich meal and fine sake, served by elegant hostesses, Kanemaru would play mah-jong with his political adversaries and deliberately lose. Then he would request co- operation in some knotty piece of legislation. "There must be at least 10 top opposition officials," he once boasted, "who would willingly do my bidding with a single phone call."

It was Tanaka who first put Kanemaru in the Cabinet, as Construction Minister from 1974 to 1976. He later served as head of the National Land Agency, then of the Defence Agency. As Construction Minister, he generously expressed his gratitude to his voters. "To say that I was involved in the construction of 99 per cent of bridges in Yamanashi," he shyly acknowledged, "would not be incorrect." A bridge in the prefecture still bears the name Shin-chan Bashi - "The Boy Shin's Bridge".

Despite his brazen politicking, Kanemaru inspired loyalty as well as respect. But his boldest and most brilliant move was a stunning act of betrayal. In 1985 he brutally broke away from Tanaka, by this time facing bribery charges over the Lockheed scandal, and set up his own political faction with the man who later became Prime Minister, Noboru Takeshita. It was an astonishing act of political parricide, a coup d'etat which crippled the old man physically as well as politically - three weeks after the formation of the Takeshiat faction, Tanaka was paralysed by a stroke.

When another bribery case, the Recruit scandal, toppled a whole generation of LDP leaders, including Takeshita and another former Prime Minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, the field was open for Kanemaru. The prime-ministership became his personal gift; probably accurately he said, "If I myself ever became premier, I would be a major embarrassment to Japan." But he acted like a head of state, visiting America, China and North Korea, where he provoked fury by apologising for Japanese aggression during the Second World War. For this act of unofficial diplomacy he narrowly escaped assassination by a right-wing gunman.

His ultimate demise was more predictable, and more appropriate. In 1992, the head of the Sagawa Kyubin trucking company was arrested for political presents worth 40 billion yen (some pounds 250m by today's exchange rates of 160 yen to the pound). Electoral rules barred political donations of more than 1.5m yen; Kanemaru, it turned out, had received as much as 500m yen. Investigators raided his offices and removed boxes of share certificates and gold ingots. Even before the charges were formally filed, he resigned his party post and soon after his party seat and leadership of the faction.

Almost as shocking as the vastness of the corruption was the leniency of the sentence: Kanemaru was fined just 200,000 yen. At his trial he appeared in a wheelchair, pushed by a young aide. It looked like a bid for sympathy, but Kanemaru's career really was beyond salvation; in his last years he suffered increasingly from diabetes, which contributed to his final stroke yesterday morning.

Shin Kanemaru, politician: born Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan 17 September 1914; twice married (three sons); died Yamanashi 28 March 1996.