Resurrection of TanakaIn the postwar history of Japan, no prime minister has had more stories than Kakuei Tanaka. A hard laborer who only completed eight years of elementary school education, he became the president of a construction company and then the youngest prime minister in 1972 at the age of 54.
After his term, he was arrested on charges of receiving bribes during his tenure in return for purchasing passenger jets from Lockheed Martin. After being released on bail in this unprecedented scandal, he still controlled the ruling Liberal Democratic Party as a leader of a major faction, although he was an independent lawmaker standing trial for bribery.
The succeeding Ohira, Suzuki and Nakasone administrations were able to be born with the aid of the Tanaka faction. He ruled the country again as the “shogun in the darkness.” His life was more dramatic than a drama.
In Japan, there is renewed interest in Tanaka. Since last year, 13 books on him have been published.
The highlight of the latest publications was “Genius,” published by Shintaro Ishihara, the former mayor of Tokyo. Ishihara, who used to be the champion of Tanaka critics, wrote a nonfiction book about Tanaka’s life from a first-person perspective. In 1974, Ishihara wrote a contribution to Bungei Shunju, a popular literary magazine, to criticize Tanaka’s plutocracy, creating an opportunity for his resignation. And yet, Ishihara shed new light on Tanaka by depicting him as a genius and a patriot.
Ishihara paid particular attention to Tanaka’s foresight. He sponsored 33 bills as a lawmaker, mostly on improving infrastructure and developing the country.
When he was the minister of telecommunications, he granted 43 permits to broadcasters, opening the TV era in Japan.
The origin of his power was a nationwide development campaign, since he was a politician from Niigata. In order to reduce the gap between urban and rural areas, he expanded bullet train services, airports and roads. Massive industrial complexes were built during his term. The advanced infrastructure of Japan was built under his rule.
Ishihara admitted that postwar prosperity and new culture were in a significant way created by Tanaka. Ishihara treated the Lockheed bribery scandal as a conspiracy of the United States. He pointed to China-Japan normalization in 1972 and Tanaka’s foreign policy of refusing to rely on major U.S. oil companies during the oil crisis of 1973 as the reasons. Since its first printing in January, over 600,000 copies of “Genius” have been published.
Various reasons are offered for this Tanaka boom. Eiji Oshita, a nonfiction writer, said, “It is criticism toward contemporary politicians who are tasteless like distilled water,” according to the Mainichi Shimbun. Kunio Hatoyama, a lawmaker who once served as a secretary to Tanaka, called him a genius in humanism. Tanaka was strong, but he was also considerate, he recalled.
Tanaka, according to many people, was a politician with a human touch who allowed the people to dream. He is also remembered as a leader of determination and action. And Japan is not the only country thirsty for true leadership from politicians.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 26, Page 30
*The author is the Tokyo Bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.