The Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, who has pledged to reform the money- politics that Mr Tanaka did so much to perpetuate, said he was 'a prominent politician with his pros and cons'.
Mr Tanaka was an outsider to Tokyo's well-heeled, university-educated political cliques. He began work after only a primary school education, and at 19 he started his own construction company.
He won his first Diet (parliament) seat in 1947, aged 29. He rose quickly, using a network of connections in the political, bureaucratic and business worlds that intertwined influence and money in what came to be known as the 'iron triangle' that governs Japan to this day.
It is this corrupt triangle that Mr Hosokawa's political reform proposals are aimed at dismantling. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which Mr Tanaka ruled for most of the 1970s and early 1980s, has been resisting the reform laws.
On Wednesday evening Mr Hosokawa forced through an extension of the current Diet session until the end of January in a last attempt to pass the laws: if he fails, new elections are likely to be called.
Mr Tanaka became prime minister in 1972. By 1974 outrage over his corrupt property deals forced him to resign. In 1976 he was arrested in the Lockheed scandal. Although he resigned from the ruling LDP, his political power only increased: he dismissed two prime ministers and then personally chose three more in succession.
His political career came to an end only in 1985, after he suffered a stroke, which left him unable to speak.
Ichiro Ozawa, the main force behind the current government, has modelled his career on Mr Tanaka. The original 'shadow shogun' gave the young Mr Ozawa his first shove into politics.
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