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Journalist Takashi Tachibana, whom many in his field would rank as the best of his era in Japan, died of acute coronary syndrome on April 30, his family said Wednesday. He was 80.

Tachibana became famous nearly five decades ago thanks to a widely publicized investigative reporting project. Then, like the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward after Watergate, the frizzy-haired reporter refused to rest on his laurels. He continued for decades to produce leading-edge journalism, scholarship and criticism.

Tachibana’s leadership of monthly magazine Bungei Shunju’s project, which involved relentless investigative digging into open sources, is often credited with having played a major role in bringing down the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, Japan’s most powerful leader in the postwar era, who was convicted over his involvement in the Lockheed bribery scandal.

The mainstream Japanese dailies initially gave Tachibana’s reporting a lukewarm reception. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan intervened, arranging for Tanaka to speak at a luncheon — which became the most famous (notorious, in some people’s view) news conference the club has ever hosted.

Thanks to the fame that Tachibana thus acquired, he enjoyed remarkable freedom in what he could report on for the rest of his career. He made astonishing use of that freedom and continued to inspire youngsters who wondered how they could get the real story in a country where exclusive press clubs dominate.

Born on May 28, 1940, in Nagasaki Prefecture, Tachibana graduated in French literature from the University of Tokyo. He started working for the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun in 1964 before returning to his alma mater to study philosophy in 1967.

Finding it hard to make ends meet as a young scholar, he freelanced, writing articles for various magazines. In 1971 he opened a tiny bar/eatery called Gargantua in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai, an iconic Tokyo nightlife area. He did the cooking, handling a large number of menu items. He sold Gargantua in 1972 and left for Europe and the Middle East to travel.

Journalist Takashi Tachibana speaks to reporters after a high court ruling over the Lockheed bribery scandal in Tokyo in July 1987. | KYODO
Journalist Takashi Tachibana speaks to reporters after a high court ruling over the Lockheed bribery scandal in Tokyo in July 1987. | KYODO

Tachibana was a 34-year-old freelancer when he became famous for speaking truth to power. Leading a team of 20 journalists, relying not at all on leaks, he meticulously waded through an ocean of publicly available information to chronicle Tanaka’s dealings.

He waited until a couple of days before the monthly magazine’s deadline to start confronting officials with his findings.

“A hastier approach,” wrote Mainichi Shimbun in 1976, “might have touched off a counteroffensive from the prime minister’s quarters, which could possibly have wrecked the whole venture.”

When the Bungei Shunju editor was looking for someone to lead the reporting project, “no establishment journalist would touch it,” Newsweek reported. “They had all been pressured away or they had too much to lose.”

Tachibana hadn’t been ground down to fit a Japanese reporter’s routine of covering briefings, following press club rules and showing up at politicians’ houses late at night to receive the daily dose of wisdom. Another similarly intrepid reporter, the late Takaya Kodama, wrote in the same Bungei Shunju issue about Tanaka’s female “shadow,” Aki Sato. Tachibana and Kodama would eventually be lionized as Japan’s Woodward and Bernstein.

The magazine’s 61-page expose, Time reported in 1974, was “a devastating chronicle of Tanaka’s financial dealings through dummy corporations, secret bank accounts, incomplete tax statements and the use of vast amounts of money to buy support within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Tanaka clung to office just long enough to welcome President (Gerald) Ford to Tokyo.”

Time added that “Bungei Shunju’s feat would have been a coup in any country. But in Japan, where the press seldom mentions the private peccadillos of government leaders, it was an unprecedented display of hara (guts). The nation’s last major political scandal, the 1966 ‘black mist’ influence-peddling affair, went unreported in the press until the matter came before the Diet. This time, Bungei Shunju’s disclosures were ignored for nearly a fortnight.”

Takashi Tachibana speaks in an interview in Tokyo in December 2013. | KYODO
Takashi Tachibana speaks in an interview in Tokyo in December 2013. | KYODO

What turned the tide? “It was only when foreign reporters grilled Tanaka about the article that big Japanese dailies began to print disapproving editorials,” Time reported.

“Why such docility?” Time asked. “For one thing, Japanese journalists have a tradition of pleasant bonhomie with their news sources that makes hard digging difficult. Then there are the reporters’ clubs. … Beyond that, many major news organizations are in debt to banks that have close ties to the Liberal Democratic Party. … Tokyo dailies have also built their offices on government land relinquished to them through important politicians.”

At that Oct. 21, 1974, FCCJ news conference, first sarcastic-sounding introductory remarks by the moderator, a Hungarian correspondent, and then tough questioning from the floor aroused government outrage. Tanaka grew so disturbed by persistent questions – which from the third question focused on the Bungei reportage – that he walked out before the scheduled end of the event.

Tachibana was not present at the news conference. The main effect on his career came from the fact that, after the FCCJ presser, the mainstream Japanese media began asking tough questions – and within days the prime minister had to resign.

While Tanaka never returned to the FCCJ, Tachibana became friends with a number of foreign correspondents and went on to speak several times at the club over the following decades.

Right after one of his FCCJ talks, in 1976 when he was preparing a major piece on the Lockheed scandal, Newsweek quoted him as saying that “the establishment press has always played journalistic kendo at a meter’s length from their opponent’s sword and has never closed in. I think some of the individual reporters on the major papers will notice what we’re doing, but I think the impact on management will be negligible.”

He always acknowledged an inspirational debt to investigative journalists abroad. For example, he wrote a book published in 1978 entitled “Journalism wo Kangaeru Tabi,” (“A Journey to Think About Journalism”) in which he interviewed David Halberstam and other well-known journalists.

But although he continued to do political journalism, he also branched out to become a polymath. While people close to him have lost count of how many books he published, all say the number is more than 100.

Journalist Takashi Tachibana speaks at a news conference in Tokyo in December 1993. | KYODO
Journalist Takashi Tachibana speaks at a news conference in Tokyo in December 1993. | KYODO

“His strength is really his diversified interest in different subjects,” says his close friend Hideko Takayama, who worked for the Baltimore Sun, Newsweek and Bloomberg News during a long career with the foreign media. “His interest went into so many directions it’s been hard to keep up.”

Those directions, she says, “have ranged from Kakuei Tanaka to the sexual revolution in the U.S., from space to brain death, from the Japanese Communist Party to near-death experiences, from agricultural cooperatives to music, from science to the emperor.”

Tachibana, she recalls, “was a fantastic chef, and was into music as well. He once produced albums recorded at his own place under the label Chez Tachibana.”

Takayama says one of his major works was “Uchu karano Kikan” (“Return from Space”), in which he interviewed American astronauts about how their space trips changed their lives. “I think it is one of his best books.”

One of his later works, published in 2016, is “Toru Takemitsu – Ongaku Sozo e no Tabi” (“Toru Takemitsu — Journey Toward Musical Creation”), over 700 pages of text based on interviews with the late Japanese composer Takemitsu. Another 2016 Tachibana book title can be translated as “Tachibana Talks About War.”

A little later, he penned a Bungei Shunju article entitled “Diabetes and Cancer.” Tachibana suffered from both.

Journalist Bradley Martin came to know Takashi Tachibana starting in the late 1970s, when he was based in Tokyo for the Baltimore Sun. The Japan Times’ staff writer Alex K.T. Martin also contributed to this report.

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