National

Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, a political titan who spanned eras, dies at 101

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Yasuhiro Nakasone, the 101-year-old former prime minister who strengthened Japan’s military alliance with the United States and privatized the Japanese National Railways (JNR) in the 1980s, died Friday, the Liberal Democratic Party said.

Nakasone was one of a handful of Japanese politicians dubbed yōkai (monster) due to their lengthy political careers and powerful influence. He served as prime minister from 1982 to 1987, when Japan was emerging as a new economic power, leading to trade frictions with the U.S.

A former officer of the Imperial Japanese Navy and native of Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, he challenged a number of political postwar taboos, based on his conservative political creeds.

Nakasone called for a revision of the U.S.-drafted postwar Constitution, promoted the introduction of commercial nuclear power plants and built closer military ties with Washington.

“Mr. Nakasone took the helm of this country at a turning point of the postwar era, taking heavy responsibilities as the prime minister for five years,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a statement Friday.

“It was a time when Japan was in severe situations both at home and abroad, such as the East-West military confrontation and the rise of Japan-U.S. trade frictions,” he pointed out.

“I cannot help but feel deep sorrow upon receiving the news of his death,” he said.

Yasuhiro Nakasone visits Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Aug. 15, 1985, marking the first official visit by a postwar prime minister to the controversial shrine. | KYODO
Yasuhiro Nakasone visits Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Aug. 15, 1985, marking the first official visit by a postwar prime minister to the controversial shrine. | KYODO

On Aug. 15, 1985, Nakasone also paid the very first official visit to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine as a postwar prime minister, causing great controversy both at home and abroad. Faced with such criticism, he never paid another official visit to the controversial Tokyo shrine thereafter.

The statesman’s tenure was also notable for how, in a calculated bid to show off Tokyo’s close relationship with Washington, he and U.S. President Ronald Reagan started to call each other by their first names in public.

Nakasone publicized the “Ron-Yasu” relationship as a symbol of Japan’s rising international status. The custom has been continued by the top leaders of the two countries ever since, including by Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Nakasone also stirred up controversy when he described Japan as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” when he visited the U.S. in 1983 amid the Cold War. Critics argued his statement exceeded the scope of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.

Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone shakes hands with U.S. President Ronald Reagan at the Prime Minister's Office in November 1983. | KYODO
Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone shakes hands with U.S. President Ronald Reagan at the Prime Minister’s Office in November 1983. | KYODO

Nakasone also abolished a long-held government policy of keeping the defense budget at less than 1 percent of gross domestic product in 1986, another policy shift that drew much public criticism.

“If I should summarize my political career in a few words, I would say I tried to settle all the postwar issues in politics and thereby revive good things lost after (Japan’s) surrender and open a door to the future for Japan,” Nakasone wrote in an autobiography published in 2004.

He became prime minister and party president on the back of strong support from former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who headed the largest intraparty faction of the ruling LDP at the time.

Nakasone, once widely regarded as an opportunist concerned only with surviving in a power struggle, was initially seen as Tanaka’s puppet when he formed his own Cabinet.

However, he maintained a certain distance from Tanaka after 1983, when the Tokyo District Court found Tanaka guilty of receiving a ¥500 million bribe from U.S. aircraft-maker Lockheed, which reduced Tanaka’s political clout in Nagatacho.

Nakasone also caused controversy in 1986 by making a racist remark against minorities in the U.S. He said the “average” intellectual level of American people is “still very low because there are many blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans” in the country.

In the same year, Nakasone succeeded in carrying out the difficult task of privatizing the deficit-ridden JNR, turning it into what are now the six Japan Railway firms.

He called a snap double election later the same year and the LDP won a landslide victory, securing more than 300 seats in the Lower House.

“The division and privatization of JNR would not have been realized without the leadership of (Nakasone). That result has led to today’s developments of railway systems,” said Yoshiyuki Kasai, chairman emeritus of Central Japan Railway Co. in a statement Friday.

“He has left great achievements. I pray that his soul may rest in peace,” he said.

He was first elected to the Lower House in 1947 and joined the LDP when it was established in 1955.

He succeeded in 20 Lower House elections, serving as a Diet member for 56 years and nine months, the longest postwar tenure, according to the secretariat of the chamber.

Born in 1918, he was one of few politicians who witnessed the eras of the recent four emperors — Emperor Taisho (1912-26), Emperor Showa (1926-89), Emperor Akihito (1989-2019) and Emperor Naruhito.

Nakasone was also a key member of the group of lawmakers who in 1955 drew up and enacted a law stipulating basic policies to introduce U.S. nuclear power plant technologies to Japan. He then served as the head of the science and technology agency from 1959 to 1960, and again in 1972.

Nakasone’s political style was characterized by his “top-down” decision-making, rather than the traditional consensus-building style of Japanese politics.

Nakasone often criticized Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as “populist,” even though he was known for having a similar leadership style.

In 1996, the LDP leadership promised to keep Nakasone in the No. 1 position of its proportional representation list of candidates for the rest of his life, but Koizumi withdrew the promise for the 2003 Lower House election and effectively forced Nakasone into retirement.

Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone speaks at a hotel in Tokyo in July 2018. | KYODO
Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone speaks at a hotel in Tokyo in July 2018. | KYODO

Even after retirement, Nakasone often attended a meeting of politicians calling for the revision of the Constitution, in particular the war-renouncing Article 9.

In his 2004 book, Nakasone said he “has consistently called for constitutional revision all through the postwar years,” saying he believed Article 9 was “irrational” in terms of national defense.

At the same time, Nakasone admitted the Japanese people didn’t support his argument because they “have had keen and absolute desire to maintain the peace and stability” they have enjoyed since the end of World War II.

After graduating from the predecessor of today’s University of Tokyo, Nakasone entered the then-powerful Internal Affairs Ministry.

Serving as a pay officer of the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II, he set up a “comfort station” in Indonesia by recruiting local women, according to his own memoir. Many historians believe it was a wartime brothel for Japanese naval personnel, although Nakasone denied it during a news conference in 2007, saying it was a “recreational” center, not a brothel.

In a 1988 bribery scandal, it was revealed that personnel agency Recruit distributed some of the firm’s profitable unlisted stocks to a secretary of Nakasone and Takao Fujinami, a former aide to Nakasone.

Nakasone voluntarily left the LDP in the wake of the revelation, but returned to the party in 1991.

Staff writer Sakura Murakami contributed to this report.

Yasuhiro Nakasone: A life spent in the political spotlight

May 27, 1918: Born in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture

1941: Enters the home affairs ministry

1945: Joins the Tokyo Police Department after World War II

1947: First elected to the Lower House

1955: Joins Liberal Democratic Party

1959: Given his first Cabinet post as director-general of the former Science and Technology Agency

1982: Becomes LDP secretary-general and then succeeds Zenko Suzuki as Japan’s 71st prime minister

1983: Becomes the first Japanese prime minister to officially visit South Korea

1985: Makes first official visit by a postwar prime minister to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo

1986: Sparks outrage by suggesting Japan was an economic success because it didn’t have minorities with a lower intellectual level

1987: Steps down as prime minister

1989: Quits the LDP over an influence-peddling scandal involving Recruit Co. but two years later was welcomed back as a senior adviser

1997: Awarded the Grand Cordon of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum

2003: Retires from politics