Watanabe instrumental in forging cozy political-news media relationship

by Minoru Matsutani and Masami Ito

Staff Writers

Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman and chief editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun who doubles as chairman of the Yomiuri Giants baseball team, is one of the most influential figures in Japan as he reigns not only over the nation’s biggest media empire but also acts as a political fixer.

Since climbing the powerful daily’s corporate ladder starting from his days as a political reporter, Watanabe, nicknamed “Nabe-tsune,” has built close relationships with major politicians, including former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and Banboku Ono, former vice president of the once long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

“Watanabe is the person who conspired to connect the two powers — the media and the political world,” said political analyst Minoru Morita. “By joining hands with the media and gaining (their) support, the Japanese political world became strong. And by colluding with the politicians, the media became powerful as well.”

For decades, Watanabe used his strong political influence to serve as adviser to prime ministers and often shaped their thinking on key decisions, including personnel issues.

He and conservative LDP lawmakers, including Nakasone, are also leading a movement to revise the war-renouncing Constitution, which was drafted during the Occupation. Yomiuri Shimbun in 1994 became the first newspaper to draft its own proposal for revising the Constitution.

And in 2007, he caused public outrage for allegedly being the instigator of a closed-door meeting between then LDP Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and Democratic Party of Japan kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, in a failed bid to form a grand coalition of the nation’s two largest political parties.

At that time, the Upper House was controlled by the opposition, led by the DPJ, and Fukuda and his LDP were struggling badly to get legislation passed by the Diet.

“Watanabe meddles in everything. And the public has lost trust in Nagata-cho politics,” Morita said.

Morita recalled around 20 years ago when Yomiuri editorial writers, who sit high on the daily’s corporate totem pole, were devoted to the media baron and “worshipped Watanabe like a god.”

If you wanted to climb up to the top in the Yomiuri group, you had to make sure you were on Watanabe’s good side, the political analyst said.

And if you rebelled, you were booted just like Hidetoshi Kiyotake, the Yomiuri Giants general manager recently fired after holding a scathing news conference to denounce Watanabe’s attempt to meddle with the ball club’s personnel decisions.

“Watanabe established absolute power within the Yomiuri group — those who go against him will be eliminated without mercy,” Morita said. “He is a super dictator.”

But the don is 85 now, and no one knows how much longer he can stay at the Yomiuri helm. Kiyotake’s punch could be the beginning of the end of Watanabe’s power.

“I think (Kiyotake) created a major opportunity. The crumbling of a dictatorship begins with one man’s anger,” Morita said.

Watanabe is also known for making blunt remarks, a trait that is sometimes taken as a sign of his arrogance.