Takeo Fukuda was the Edward Heath of Japanese politics - a clever, cultivated politician, Prime Minister of Japan from 1976 to 1978, who was, in his own estimation, robbed of his destiny by an energetic rival infinitely coarser, more cunning and unscrupulous than himself, although Fukuda was much too much the gentleman ever to say so.
His passing has removed a well-modulated, courteous voice from the scene, but it has not ended a Fukuda era, because there never was much of one to start with. History will remember him as a mild man overwhelmed by something rather like an irresistible force of nature, wielding, in his case, a wallet rather than a handbag.
Fukuda had a privileged start in life, which may account for his apparent lack of the political killer instinct. He was born in 1905 of a family of former Samurai, hereditary men-at-arms, in a pleasant provincial capital, Gumma, in the mountains of central Honshu, where his father was the mayor. Fukuda graduated from the law faculty of Tokyo University, nursery of bureaucrats, and at 25 joined the Finance Ministry with an Imperial commission, in pre-war days the fast track to the heart of power. Brains of his calibre were considered too precious to scatter on the battlefield, and Fukuda enjoyed steady promotion, uninterrupted by war or Japan's defeat. By 1947 he held the high post of chief of the Budget Bureau, working closely with the US Occupation.
The following year he was implicated in the Showa Denko scandal, one of the complicated and murky affairs which Japanese have where other island people used to have elections (much later, he was cleared of any wrong- doing). This one, involving the clandestine transfer of US-sourced funds to a fertiliser firm, led to the fall of the Ashida coalition, Japan's last socialist-led government for almost half a century. More tragically, it compelled the brilliant young official to resign, as the high Japanese bureaucracy have, to this day, more or less successfully avoided even the appearance of corruption. These scruples do not, however, apply to politicians, and Fukuda was elected from Gumma to the national parliament at the next suitable election, in 1952.
As a rough rule of thumb, the parts of Japan that suffered least in the Second World War are the most conservative in politics; Gumma was never bombed, and Fukuda naturally ran as a Liberal Democrat, practising the party's traditional generosity to the voters, financed by contributions from businesses grateful for bureaucratic favours. Bureaucratic connections, above all with the finance ministry, rival brains as political assets, and Fukuda rose quickly though the portfolios of agriculture, finance and foreign affairs to take over the faction of his boss, Eisaku Sato. By the genial Buggins' turn of Japanese conservative politics, Fukuda was meant to follow Sato as prime minister in 1972.
The glittering prize was, however, snatched - some say stolen - by a cheeky rival, Kakuei Tanaka, son of a bankrupt horse-dealer, a drop-out from primary school, who sang sentimental ballads to the voters in a thick provincial accent and wore open-toed wooden clogs with a business suit, lapses of decorum which, it was reported, made the fastidious Fukuda silently wince. Boss Tanaka, however, was not only a prosperous building contractor himself, but the head of a nationwide organisation of builders at a time when Japanese industry was growing like a weed.
Tanaka simply had much more money to spend on the intra-party election than Fukuda, or anyone else in Japanese public life. Where he got it from was disclosed in a series of articles, "Kakuei Tanaka, His Money and His Men", published in 1974 and still the best portrait in print of a Japanese political big-shot at work and, occasionally, at play.
The articles precipitated the downfall of Tanaka in the same year. They were based on Tanaka's tax returns, leaked to their author by someone with good connections in the finance ministry. Two years later, when Tanaka was no longer in office and was thus unable to protect himself, the news from Washington that he had been paid $2m as a bribe by the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation led to his arrest, conviction and interminable, unsuccessful, appeals.
Thus began the "Kaku-Fuku Wars" (from Kakuei and Fukuda) which, in a sense, are still going on. Each had a big enough factional following to prevent the other dominating the political scene, leading to years of paralysis and drift at the heart of Japanese economic affairs, for which the country now pays dearly. Fukuda eventually became prime minister - in 1976 - but lasted only two years, before a Tanaka-backed coup in turn brought him down. He did some useful things, like signing a peace treaty with China - a process actually begun by Tanaka, showing what an Attlee- and-Bevin team they might have made, if only they could have agreed to disagree on questions of political finance, dress and elocution.
After he left office, Fukuda blossomed as something of a philosopher, holding forth on "issues facing the globe and the human race", matters not known ever to have crossed Tanaka's calculating-machine of a mind. Fukuda even had the satisfaction of not going to his rival's funeral, when Tanaka died two years ago, still fighting his appeals.
But, just when Japan needs strong, undivided leadership, their feud has outlived them both. The rump of the Liberal Democratic Party, now under the foreign minister, Yohei Kono, part of the governing coalition, is actually the old Fukuda or gentlemanly wing of the party, while the main opposition, the New Frontier Party, headed by Toshiki Kaifu, but in reality the cat's-paw of Ichiro Ozawa, the one-time Tanaka fund-raising prodigy, is the durable Tanaka machine in reformer's disguise - a case, as an old Japanese children's story puts it, of a crowd of warty toads going from village to village trying to sell a cure for warts. And, whatever happened all those years ago to the fertiliser funds, no one outside the Tanaka faction ever called Takeo Fukuda any kind of unsightly, insincere amphibian.
Fukuda is survived by a widow, Mitsue, three sons, a daughter, numerous grandchildren and, just, by the Liberal Democratic Party, represented in the Lower House by his eldest son, Yasuo.Reuse content