Former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, who wielded enormous influence over Japanese politics long after scandal forced him to resign more than a decade ago, died of respiratory failure at 12:53 a.m. Monday at Kitasato Institute Hospital in Tokyo, his aides said. He was 76.

The death of Takeshita, who announced his retirement from politics last month, comes just weeks after the deaths of two key proteges — Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and past LDP Secretary General Seiroku Kajiyama.

Takeshita had not been seen in public since being hospitalized in April 1999 with spondylitis deformans. The condition, caused by aging, is characterized by inflammation of the vertebrae, which puts pressure on the nervous system and causes back pain and paralysis in the limbs.

Takeshita had said in a taped message May 1 that he would not seek re-election in Sunday’s Lower House poll. His brother, Wataru, 53, is running for his seat from Shimane Prefecture.

Learning of Takeshita’s death, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said he had renewed his determination to win in the poll. “We have to overcome the sorrow and win this election at any cost,” he said. “Our win will be an expression of our gratitude to Mr. Takeshita.”

Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa said he feels “a big loss.” Miyazawa said one of Takeshita’s greatest achievements was nurturing the numerous political talents in the faction he formed within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Several of the faction would later go on to become major political figures.

Takeshita’s disciples include Obuchi, who died May 14 after suffering a stroke in April, as well as Tsutomu Hata, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, and Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the Liberal Party.

“No one has raised as many politicians as he did. Those people are now playing active roles,” Miyazawa said.

Takeshita served as prime minister between November 1987 and June 1989 and played a key role in introducing the consumption tax in April 1989. A native of Shimane Prefecture, he was elected to the Lower House 14 times.

The English-teacher-turned-politician began his political career as a Shimane Prefectural Assembly member in 1951 at age 27. In 1958, he entered national politics at 34, winning a Lower House seat as an LDP member.

He became a political heavyweight in 1964, when he was named deputy chief Cabinet secretary in the first Cabinet of the late Prime Minister Eisaku Sato.

In subsequent years, Takeshita held a variety of key posts in the government and the LDP: chief Cabinet secretary, finance minister, construction minister and LDP secretary general.

He became known as an artist in back-room politics, while close personal ties with opposition leaders also enhanced his clout in the Diet.

In February 1985, Takeshita launched a study group of Diet members within the LDP’s largest faction, which was led by former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. The move was in defiance of his boss.

In July 1987, Takeshita set up his own faction, which was inherited by Obuchi in 1992 and remains the largest force within the LDP.

In October 1987, then Prime Minister and LDP President Yasuhiro Nakasone handpicked Takeshita as his successor.

But Takeshita stepped down in June 1989 amid the outcry over the Recruit stock-for-favors scandal involving politicians, senior government officials and businessmen. His secretary at the time committed suicide after being questioned about his involvement in the scandal.

Shin Kanemaru, who played a pivotal role in the political world between the late 1980s and the early 1990s, said before he died in March 1996 that he had sought help from a yakuza leader to silence an ultrarightist group that was harassing Takeshita during the LDP presidential race in 1987.

After stepping down as prime minister, Takeshita continued to exercise his influence by utilizing the dominant power of his faction in selecting subsequent LDP leaders and hence prime ministers, including Sousuke Uno, Toshiki Kaifu and Miyazawa. Lawmakers and bureaucrats alike reportedly sought his approval whenever key policy decisions were made.

His power remained unabated as he effectively controlled his faction even after Obuchi took the helm in 1992. His disciples included two men who went on to become prime minister — Ryutaro Hashimoto from 1996 to 1998 and Obuchi from 1998 until his collapse in April.

Since he had been effectively absent from the public view for more than a year, Takeshita’s death is not expected to have any immediate impact on the political scene. Commentator Masaya Ito, however, predicted that the death of the “absolute coordinator” may trigger chaos within the LDP if the party suffers a serious setback in Sunday’s election.

According to LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka, also a Takeshita disciple, the late prime minister appeared concerned about the party’s fortunes in the election until the end.

As Takeshita’s last request, Nonaka said he was told that LDP candidates should not attend his funeral or wake, and instead focus on the election.

“Therefore, I intend to call on all party candidates not to come to the wake or funeral and instead give their all toward the finish line so that they can live up to Mr. Takeshita’s request,” Nonaka said.

Nonaka and Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki, a longtime aide to Takeshita, jointly campaigned for Takeshita’s brother Wataru in Shimane over the weekend.

A private funeral for Takeshita will be attended by family members Wednesday from 1 p.m. at Tsukiji Honganji Temple in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward. A wake will be held at the same temple today from 6 p.m.

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