Former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who died Saturday at age 68, was a passionate, tough politician with a great deal of policy expertise.
Although he usually appeared before reporters as a short-tempered politician who often threw tough questions back at them, Hashimoto was a warm-hearted man devoted to medical and social welfare issues and a dove when it came to diplomacy.
Several years ago, when he was asked why he became a politician, he related a story about when he was a student at Keio University. He accompanied his father, Ryugo, then welfare minister and wheelchair-bound, to a home in the Tohoku region for children with muscular dystrophy.
“He spoke about his disabilities to the children. And when he finished, I could see all the children rush over to touch him, deeply moved by his speech,” Hashimoto said.
“When I saw that, I really thought, ‘what a fortunate politician he was!’ “
Hashimoto followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a lawmaker with extensive knowledge on social welfare issues. He worked tirelessly at helping efforts to eradicate infectious diseases in Asia and improving medical facilities around the world.
Having served for many years as head of the Japan War-Bereaved Association and making annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine dedicated to the war dead, Hashimoto was often perceived as a hawk and a conservative.
Yet toward the end of his career he was one of a handful of lawmakers left who remembered the war firsthand and deeply regretted Japan’s engagement in it.
Recalling the time when his elementary school teacher headed to war, Hashimoto said, “I went to the station to see him off. My teacher patted my head and said, ‘See you again when I return to Yasukuni Shrine.’ My cousin who also went to the war told me the same thing.
“I don’t think I can break the promise I made with the people who are already dead,” Hashimoto said. “My visits are not for worshipping war criminals.”
One of the first assignments he took as a politician was to go to Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand, China, Siberia, Guam and Okinawa to collect the remains of Japanese soldiers who died during the war and return them to Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in Tokyo.
“After recovering them, I washed the remains covered with dirt with water. I can never forget the touch of those remains,” he said.
In the last few years, Hashimoto was critical of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni, seeing them as the main cause of Japan’s deteriorating relationship with China, and tried to mend ties by making numerous trips to China.
He was also active on the diplomatic front when he was prime minister. He forged close relationships with U.S. President Bill Clinton, French President Jacques Chirac, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Cuban President Fidel Castro.
“Japan needs more politicians who can establish close ties with other nations — those who can truly engage in diplomacy and not just seek out their own concessions,” the former prime minister said in a 2004 interview with The Japan Times.
Although he led what was the largest faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party between 2000 and 2004, he never had many followers in his political clique and remained a lone wolf. In contrast, he had many friends and admirers in the world of kendo — Japanese fencing — which he practiced since he was a youth.
His age didn’t prevent him from exploring the cyber world, either. Even after retiring from politics due to a political donation scandal in 2005, he always packed his personal computer when traveling overseas and used e-mail to stay in touch with friends, bureaucrats and reporters.