Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who died at 101 on Nov. 29, will undoubtedly be remembered as a giant in Japan’s political history.
But before he became a political titan and Japan’s fifth-longest-serving postwar prime minister, Nakasone was on the fringes of the nation’s conservative establishment. In spite of being the leader of a minor faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Nakasone went on to overcome its internal politics and defeat his rivals.
Having fought in the Pacific War, Nakasone was apparently an optimist at heart. Despite being mocked as a “weathercock” for his opportunistic ways and his habit of vacillating on his positions depending on the political winds, the statesman accepted the critique graciously and chose to take advantage of the chances that came his way.
He rather viewed the role of the weathercock as a virtue, responding to changing social needs while having its foot firmly grounded.
This kind of positivity and strategic vision allowed Nakasone to become a political giant and an icon of postwar Japan.
Nakasone was noted for three major achievements since World War II: top-level diplomacy, laying the groundwork for concentrating political power in the Prime Minister’s Office and transforming the conservative LDP’s factional politics.
First, Nakasone’s diplomacy was the zenith of Japan’s foreign policy after the war. He excelled at foreign policy and national security throughout his tenure, paying 22 state visits to foreign leaders — the most ever until Junichiro Koizumi. His friendship with U.S. President Ronald Reagan — colloquially known as the Ron-Yasu relationship — garnered worldwide attention.
But for Nakasone, Japan’s relationship with the United States was not the only one he valued. He also sought to nurture relations with Beijing and Seoul.
In his talks with Hu Yaobang, general-secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the two agreed that Sino-Japanese relations would abide by the “four principles”: peace and friendship, equality and mutual benefit, mutual trust, and long-term stability.
Nakasone was also the first sitting prime minister to pay an official visit to South Korea since Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula ended when Japan lost the war in 1945. Nakasone also welcomed South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan during his visit to Japan. It was the first visit by a Korean president.
Nakasone also placed importance on ties with other Asian countries — putting his political savvy on full display. Although there are many prime ministers who put great importance on Tokyo’s relationship with Washington, Nakasone was one of the rare leaders at the time who equally sought to build stronger ties with China and South Korea as well.
When Tokyo’s ties with Beijing and Seoul dived after his highly contentious official visit to Yasukuni Shrine, where millions of war dead — and convicted Class A war criminals — are honored, he and all of the parties worked together to repair the damage.
Second, Nakasone laid the groundwork for what became today’s political power structure by concentrating power in the Kantei, or Prime Minister’s Office.
His priority was to reform Japan’s postwar policies. He shifted the nation’s focus from prioritizing economic growth while maintaining lightly armed forces, as pushed by his predecessor Shigeru Yoshida, to policies centered on strengthening Japan’s self-defense system, financial reforms and international cooperation programs.
Nakasone also abolished the state policy of limiting the annual defense budget to 1 percent of gross domestic product.
Under his reforms, Nakasone sought to give more power to the private sector and privatized three state-owned enterprises — the Japanese National Railways (JNR), Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corp., and Japan Tobacco and Salt Public Corp.
Nakasone also installed numerous advisory bodies, which became the centerpiece of his “presidential” leadership style. Many of his consequential decisions were made in top-down style, weakening the role of the Diet.
A case in point is when he raised the defense budget above the 1 percent GDP threshold. Nakasone used his influence over a private advisory committee to shore up approval.
But the former prime minister didn’t only change Japan’s political course. He also transformed the ruling LDP’s factional politics, given his intense personal rivalries with the representatives of its five factions.
Nakasone was a lightweight among heavyweights like Takeo Miki, Kakuei Tanaka, Masayoshi Ohira and Takeo Fukuda — all whom served as prime minister.
A pivotal point was when Tanaka had a stroke while Nakasone was in power. The resulting paralysis weakened Tanaka’s once-mighty influence.
Nakasone filled the void by appointing Noboru Takeshita as LDP chief, contributing to a generational shift on the political stage with Takeshita, Shintaro Abe (Shinzo Abe’s father) and Kiichi Miyazawa emerging as the next generation of leaders.
Nakasone also left office on a positive note — something that was rare in his day.
But his leadership had weak spots, too.
Economics apparently wasn’t his forte. He showed his weak side in a 1966 New Year interview with Fukuda in which they were discussing Japan’s economic climate and fiscal policies. Nakasone got cornered during the debate and the interview subsequently appeared in his hometown newspaper in Gunma Prefecture.
His lack of confidence may have been reinforced by a sense of inferiority, knowing he would never measure up to his fellow LDP politician in economics. Fukuda could have even defeated Nakasone had the two vied for a seat representing a Gunma electorate. But Nakasone was more focused on leading the country rather than gaining support from his constituents.
Despite his success in boosting Japan’s global profile, the results of his leadership show Nakasone failed in three areas.
Regardless of whether it was calculated or not, Nakasone failed to introduce a sales tax, reform the education system and revise the Constitution.
In 1986, the prime minister abruptly dissolved the Lower House despite appearing to give up on the ploy to set up a national election the following month. He claimed the move was aimed at reducing the nation’s vote-value disparities, but in reality the maneuver became a strategy to put pressure on the opposition camp.
Nakasone managed to outmaneuver the system, but he was forced to kill his plan to introduce a sales tax in 1987. However, the enactment of the Consumption Tax Act, which took effect a year later, is one part of his legacy he should get credit for.
His eagerness to bring about education reform, meanwhile, stemmed from his concerns that the existing education system was tilting toward mannerism and discouraged individualism among students — tendencies he noticed when he was a president of Takushoku University. In seeking to create change, he appointed an advisory panel on education.
But Nakasone didn’t manage to push all his proposals for educational reform through. His attempt to amend the Basic Act on Education only turned the opposition against him, which sparked fears the bloc would also halt his plan to privatize the debt-ridden JNR. Eventually, he opted to push rail privatization forward, leaving his education reforms unfinished.
The Basic Act on Education wasn’t revised until 2006.
However, revising the Constitution was Nakasone’s biggest dream and the main goal of his political stewardship.
He sought to transform the political climate created by Yoshida, who had been foreign minister as well as prime minister after the war. Nakasone criticized him for abiding by the orders of Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Allied Occupation.
Nakasone believed Yoshida’s obedience led to the creation of Japan’s U.S.-drafted Constitution, which became his ultimate target. Since becoming a politician, he had sought to revise it to establish a public election system for the prime minister and to strengthen Japan’s defenses. He was hoping the reforms would establish strong democratic rule.
But Nakasone’s drive to amend the charter didn’t gain traction because fellow LDP members — including mainstream conservatives Hayato Ikeda and Eisaku Sato — wanted to maintain the status quo. In the end, Nakasone never managed to push his initiative through the Diet during his stint as prime minister.
This topic remained his main concern even after he left office. During one of our more than 30 interviews, Nakasone, who usually spoke in a slightly detached manner, erupted in a rage after I asked him a question about plans for constitutional change.
When I asked him whether he ended up shelving his plan to revise the Constitution during his tenure, Nakasone vehemently denied it, thundering that he never gave up on the plan.
His response, however, contradicted the stance he maintained during his prime ministership when he declared that he would not put constitutional amendment on the agenda.
In his later years, Nakasone released his draft proposal for constitutional amendment. His proposal advocated that the government maintain Japan’s parliamentary system while introducing a public election system for the prime ministership.
He also wanted to name the emperor, who is defined as the symbol of the state in the Constitution, as head of state and called for Japan to rearm. He also placed importance on the family unit in Japan and added a clause on family values in his draft. His ideas still have not seen the light of day.
Nakasone wrote a haiku just after he retired as a politician:
Even after dusk,
Cicada persists in song,
While it still has life
These words represent his persistence. Out of a genuine sense of patriotism, Nakasone wanted to change Japan and pass it on to the next generation. He was among a handful of prime ministers whose passion would so vividly resonate with the public.
Nakasone was a politician for life — a statesman who grappled with the country’s challenges until the very end.
Ryuji Hattori is a professor in Chuo University’s Faculty of Policy Studies. His books include “Nakasone Yasuhiro: Trajectory of a ‘Presidential-Type’ Prime Minister.”