National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

The second life of Kakuei Tanaka

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

In July 1976, the month when 218 million Americans were feting their nation’s 200th birthday, dramatic events were taking place on other continents also. On July 4 — America’s Independence Day — an Israeli commando force staged a dramatic raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda, rescuing all but four of the 106 hostages who had been aboard a hijacked Air France jet.

On July 28, in one of the most deadly natural disasters of the 20th century, a massive earthquake struck the Chinese city of Tangshan, Hebei Province, killing hundreds of thousands.

The day before the earthquake devastated Tangshan, Japan was rattled by a manmade quake, in a manner of speaking, as Kakuei Tanaka — who had served as prime minister from July 1972 to December 1974 and, as head of the largest faction in the Liberal Democratic Party, remained Japan’s most influential politician — was arrested and marched off to the Tokyo Detention Center on charges of receiving nearly $2 million in bribes from Lockheed Aircraft Corp.

Referred to in some quarters as the “computerized bulldozer,” Tanaka was the enfant terrible of Japanese politics in the early ’70s. Unlike the scions of powerful samurai families and elite bureaucrats who had led the country since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Tanaka was a self-made man, a farmer’s son who left school at age 15 to help his family by working in the construction trade. He certainly had a flair for the dramatic, capable of transforming a supposed act of humility into a public performance. My late tax accountant, Koichi Takano, who hailed from Tanaka’s home district, once related to me an eyewitness account of Tanaka’s appearance before the grave of one of his mentors.

“It was during a heavy downpour, but he cast his umbrella aside and bowed deeply, for what seemed a long time. You could see the rain splattering off his head and shoulders,” he recalled, gushing with admiration.

After the court sentenced Tanaka to four years in prison and a hefty fine, he appealed the verdict and, as the voters of Niigata kept returning him to the Diet by landslides, he continued to dominate politics from behind the scenes. It was only after Tanaka suffered a crippling stroke in 1985 that he gradually withdrew from politics. He died in 1993.

Now, 40 years since his arrest, Japan is seeing a major revival of interest in Tanaka, including a slew of books and magazine articles that portray him in glowing terms.

Publisher Takarajima has devoted extensive coverage to Tanaka in two issues of its Bessatsu magazine and a 224-page book titled “One Hundred Sayings of Kakuei Tanaka.” Already into its 21st printing, Takarajima claims to have sold more than 300,000 copies.

This quote, from page 182, clearly reflects Tanaka’s lack of affection for the fourth estate: “There are three things you can trust in newspapers: the obituaries, the stock quotations and the TV program listings. These three won’t be lies.”

On page 214, Tanaka nevertheless makes an astute observation on generational differences in attitudes toward war — a point that unmistakably affects the current debate over revising Japan’s Constitution. He had said:”It is a good thing that the generation that knows war forms the core of society. When society is made up only of those who don’t know war, it will be scary.”

Even a religion, the Science of Happiness, has jumped into the publishing fray, channeling the great man’s ghost in a recently published book titled “The Revival of a Genius: Kakuei Tanaka’s Spiritual Messages.” A newspaper ad for the book reads, “If Tanaka were prime minister now, this is what he’d do.”

Earlier this month, evening tabloid Nikkan Gendai began running daily installments of a series titled “The True Face of Kakuei Tanaka,” based on the personal recollections of Tanaka’s former secretary, Akira Asaka.

It may seem a bit of a stretch, but Shukan Post (Apr. 22) came up with a list of 10 “surprising, surprising” points that Tanaka supposedly had in common with Donald Trump. Most of these are debatable to say the least, but here they are: 1) His style of speaking could move listeners; 2) he had a successful record as a businessman; 3) his rebellious nature helped him overcome adversity; 4) his familiar and generous style was able to capture people’s hearts; 5) he could achieve breakthroughs without fear of taboos; 6) the common people adored him; 7) his rise was timed to coincide with the public’s rebellion against elitism; 8) money was the source of his power; 9) he was legendary in terms of his romantic life; and 10) he had a daughter who helped him during tough times.

A third-tier subculture magazine, Jitsuwa Bunka Taboo, deserves credit for taking an iconoclastic stance toward the current Tanaka boom, which it dissects in a four-page article in its July issue.

“Why now?” the magazine asks. “Kakuei bought the prime ministership for ¥5.6 billion,” a subhead proclaims. The article then goes on to assert, “Alas, to say that Tanaka was an outstanding politician is no more than a delusion.” It ungrammatically describes Tanaka as motto saiaku (“more than worst”) when compared to today’s Japanese politicians, and remarks, “Under his banner of ‘rebuilding the Japanese archipelago’ the government just ran up bigger deficits. Tanaka was the instigator of pork-barrel politics to win over voters, laying the groundwork for the debt-ridden fiscal situation that Japan faces today.

“Whatever the era, the only things inside the heads of politicians are money and votes, fame and power. And when you look at the breed of greedy politicians who had a knack for lining up supporters, Tanaka was the worst of all.

“The sales of several hundreds of thousands of books that venerate this kind of politician serve as proof of how Japan’s cultural standards have declined,” the article concludes.