• KYODO, staff report

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Toshiki Kaifu, who was Japan’s prime minister for about two years from 1989, died earlier this month, the government said Friday. He was 91.

Kaifu, best known for sending the Maritime Self-Defense Force to the Persian Gulf in 1991, died Sunday of natural causes, the House of Representatives said.

“He dedicated himself to tackling many policy challenges amid a turbulent international situation, including the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said in offering condolences during a regular news conference.

Kaifu, who loved wearing a polka-dot necktie, was close to former Prime Minister Takeo Miki and had an image of being politically clean.

The reputation helped him win the premiership in August 1989 after his predecessors Noboru Takeshita and Sosuke Uno were knocked from power over a major insider trading and corruption scandal and an extramarital affair scandal, respectively.

The Nagoya native started his political career as a lawmaker secretary and was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1960 on the ticket of the Liberal Democratic Party. Before becoming prime minister, he served in key government posts, including deputy chief Cabinet secretary and education minister.

Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu reviews troops of the People's Liberation Army along with Chinese premier Li Peng in Beijing in August 1991. In 1991, Kaifu became the first leader of a major democracy to visit Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, and his government was the first to dispatch the Self-Defense Forces on an overseas mission. | KYODO
Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu reviews troops of the People’s Liberation Army along with Chinese premier Li Peng in Beijing in August 1991. In 1991, Kaifu became the first leader of a major democracy to visit Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, and his government was the first to dispatch the Self-Defense Forces on an overseas mission. | KYODO

Under his leadership, Japan made the key decision to send the SDF to the Persian Gulf after being criticized for engaging in “checkbook diplomacy” after it gave $13 billion to coalition forces in the U.S.-led 1991 Persian Gulf War rather than contributing personnel.

Recently declassified diplomatic records show former U.S. President George H.W. Bush directly urged Kaifu to provide logistical support to the U.S. military via the SDF in the wake of the 1990 Gulf crisis, despite restraints imposed by Japan’s pacifist Constitution.

In the end, the SDF took part in a minesweeping operation in the Persian Gulf as a postwar contribution, resulting in a diplomatic turning point for Japan. In 1992, Tokyo promulgated legislation enabling its participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations, and the country has joined such missions overseas ever since.

In August 1991, Kaifu was the first leader of a major democratic country visit Beijing since the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy students protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 sparked worldwide rebuke and the imposition of diplomatic, economic and military sanctions against China.

On the domestic front, Kaifu tried to carry out political reforms, including introducing single-seat constituencies in elections.

But he was forced to step down as premier in November 1991 after a key bill for bringing about the change failed to pass parliament. The bill was eventually passed in 1994, creating the single-seat constituency system along with the proportional representation scheme.

Kaifu left the LDP in 1994 and became the leader of the now-defunct New Frontier Party, which he formed with Ichiro Ozawa and others, but returned to the LDP in 2003. He retired from politics after losing his seat in the Lower House election in 2009.

Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu speaks with U.S. President George H. W. Bush at a hotel in New York in September 1990. | AP / VIA KYODO
Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu speaks with U.S. President George H. W. Bush at a hotel in New York in September 1990. | AP / VIA KYODO

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