Chapter 35 – The Rise of Tanaka Kakuei


part one. (1972)

1. Tanaka Kakuei
2. Recognise China
3. Japanese – Chinese Differences
4. Sato Secret Lobbying to Bar China UN
5. Tanaka’s Asian Tour
6. Tanaka Makiko
7. Tanaka – Computerized BullDozer
8. Indonesian Mobs
9. Whistle-Blowers Not Needed

Returning from China, I still had to keep on top of the Japan story.

1.Tanaka Kakuei

1972 saw the drama of Tanaka Kakuei winning the LDP presidency away from Fukuda Takeo, the conservative old guard candidate. Fukuda was supported by the devious and rightwing Sato Eisaku.

Tanaka’s main election slogan was a call to build a network of new highways and bullet train lines in formerly neglected regions in northeast Japan and facing the Japan Sea.

Later he would be accused of wasting public funds on extravagant projects.

Yet today no one suggests Japan would have been better off without the projects — the highways and bullet train lines, to the north of Honshu especially.

At the time, Tanaka’s defeat of the LDP conservatives, and his ideas for improving transport links, captured many Japanese imaginations.

The progressive Asahi Shimbun was so excited that it even ran an editorial saying ‘Ganbaru (go to it) Kaku-chan” (Kaku-chan is the cute diminutive of Kakuei).

(Today’s Asahi would probably prefer not to be reminded of all this.)

2. Recognise China

Tanaka moved quickly to recognise Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China.

Today that seems a very reasonable thing to have done. Even at the time, in the wake of the pingpong diplomacy and Beijing’s accession to the UN, it was hardly revolutionary.

Even so, it was opposed by many in the LDP – the LDP’s conservative and powerful Taiwan lobby especially.

Western commentators then, and even now to some extent, seemed to look at Japan and China as East Asian cultural lookalikes, destined to come together eventually, but kept apart only by US pressure.

The reality was, and remains, very different.

3. Japanese-Chinese Differences

The Japanese and Chinese are very different people. The Japanese – groupist, mood/boom prone, emotionalistic. The Chinese – individualistic, argumentative, rationalistic.

On Japan’s conservative/rightwing the emotional factor is strong -virulent anti-communism, fear of China’s size, resentment at China’s harping on wartime atrocities, denial of those atrocities.

(However, the right-wing argument that says that Japan never intended to attack China proper, that it planned to go into the Soviet Union from Manchuria but was sucked into China by the anti-Japanese Chinese reaction to the Marco Polo Bridge incident of 1937 deserves more attention than it gets.)

Where the Western commentators get it wrong is the belief the Japanese deep down were destined to be friends with China (shared history, ideographs, shared sayings). Only US plots keep them apart.

This thinking is strong among Japanese liberals and progressives. Until China-Japan differences broke out recently, some of our media commentators also agreed.

4.Sato’s Secret Lobbying to Bar China’s UN Entry

But the dominant conservative/rightwing thinks differently. Through to the very end, in 1971, the Sato administration was secretly lobbying, mainly among Latin Americans, to get the votes needed to prevent Beijing from joining the UN.

Tanaka himself was no progressive. But on China he was a realist and was prepared to follow the advice of his progressive and humanistic foreign minister, Ohira Masayoshi.

5. Tanaka’s Asian Tour

I was to get to know and see something of Tanaka when in January 1974 he set off on a brave, five-nation tour of Southeast Asia.

Four foreign correspondents were to be allowed to go with him on this voyage into the unknown. I was one of them.

The tour was a bid to repair some of the damage caused by Japan’s former postwar prime ministers refusing to go into the area, fearing anti-Japan sentiments.

And anti-Japanese resentments there were. Japanese visitors to the area were notorious for their bad behaviour. They still seemed to want to look down on their fellow Asians as backward and primitive.

Japanese trade and investment in the area was seen as exploitative.

Worse, Japan had made little effort to apologise for its former aggressions and atrocities. Indeed, it seemed even not to want to admit atrocities had occurred.

Among the materials handed out to us in advance of Tanaka’s tour was a Foreign Ministry advisory for Japanese visitors to Singapore. It told them to avoid any discussion with the natives about Japan’s wartime behaviour.

Such discussion would simply cause trouble and misunderstanding, it was claimed.

One of those atrocities had been the deliberate selection of progressive, Chinese-origin, Singaporians (many students) and English-speakers for execution, on the grounds that such people by definition would be anti-Japan.

According to some reports, several tens of thousands from the educated elite — the best part of an entire generation— were shot and hacked to death at a secluded beach on the north side of the island – the Sook Ching, or cleansing.

Another generation was needed before Singapore could recover.

(One rumor has it that Lee Kwan Yew, then also an obvious target for execution, was only spared because he was willing to cooperate with the Japanese military in helping to choose others for execution.Whatever.)

It does help explain Lee’s deep and generally correct suspicions of the Japanese psyche, through to the eighties.

Rearming Japan would be dangerous, he warned.

As late as 1974 there were still many Southeast Asians, those of Chinese origin especially, who did not trust Japan. And understandably

On the plane traveling with us, was a demure young Japanese lady who spoke good English. We discovered later that she was Tanaka’s daughter.

6. Tanaka Makiko

Makiko was to fill in for Tanaka’s wife (a very plain, elderly, rural lady who would not have been very suitable as Tanaka’s opposite number at official banquets).

On the plane trip, Makiko declined most of our less than fully professional requests for interviews. But many years later I was to be involved with her in a very different capacity.


In 2001 she had been made Foreign Affairs minister in the Koizumi cabinet.

Fearing isolation in her highly conservative ministry, she had formed a private advisory committee on which I was asked to be a member, even though I had not seen her or talked to her since that 1974 Asian tour.

The details I will relate later.

7. Tanaka – Computerized BullDozer

Tanaka Kakuei had a deserved reputation for intelligence, bluntness and action — the computerised bulldozer, as he was called. (Makiko later in life came to share some of that quality.)

His willingness to tread where others had feared to go in Southeast Asia, despite fears of anti-Japan demonstrations, was typical.

At first, in Manila, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, the demonstrations were subdued.

But when we reached Thailand, the one nation that had not suffered Japanese aggression, the students became violent.

They claimed they were against Japan’s alleged economic exploitation.

And to some extent they were right.In Thailand especially, Japanese heavy, brand-name advertising had made life almost impossible for local entrepreneurs trying to set up new businesses in competition.

But the students were also looking for an excuse to attack their own oppressive, and later brutal, regime.

Ignoring the panicky advice of his Foreign Ministry aides (those nice people responsible for the cowardly Singapore advisory which had urged refusal to discuss war atrocities in Singapore), Tanaka said he would meet and talk to the student leaders.

This he did, for over an hour, at our hotel. Overnight the demonstrations were defused.

8. Indonesian Mobs

In Jakarta it was not so easy. The mobs were out for blood, even though they too were protesting more against their own government than against Japan.

All Japanese cars in sight that night, Toyotas especially, were torched.

Why Toyota? Because the company had put a large neon sign spelling out TOYOTA on the 

top of Jakarta’s largest hotel.

In the nearby slums it was very visible.

It was typical of Japan’s unthinkingly pushy trade drive into the area.

Many of the slum dwellers may have been illiterate. But they did know how to spell TOYOTA. (Soon after Toyota wisely removed the sign.)

Throughout the chaos Tanaka refused to be panicked. He went ahead with his schedule. He scored some achievements.

But when he got back to Japan he ran headfirst into the weird Japanese logic that says you judge things on the basis of what you see before you, without considering causes or effects.

As far as the Japan’s excitable media were concerned, the riots, protests and demonstrations were all Tanaka’s fault. Why? Because he had gone to Southeast Asia and the mobs had rioted. Therefore he had to be the one to blame.

He had brought shame and disgrace to the nation.

No one seemed to want to blame the cowardly former Prime Ministers who had refused to venture into the Southeast Asia before.

9.Whisle-Blowers Not Needed

The same shallow thinking cripples efforts in this otherwise intelligent nation to tackle corruption.

Few thank the whistle-blower or courageous reformer who exposes the wrong-doing in an organisation. As they might put it, the organisation was operating quite peacefully until the reformers came along.

So if the organisation was being thrown into tumult, that was the fault of the whistle-blower.

Or to put it more bluntly (and as I was to be told bluntly years later as a member of Japan’s nuclear power committee) whistle-blowers are not welcome.


Ironically, Makiko was to run into just the same phenomenon almost 40 years later.

One of her first moves on being made Foreign Minister was to expose the long-standing corruption in the Ministry’s administration.

The ensuing uproar left her vulnerable to every kind of media and political attack.

She was forced to resign, in semi-disgrace, little more than a year later.

Meanwhile the truly guilty men — the collection of bland, humdrum politicians who had headed the Ministry for years and who had lacked the courage to do anything about the corruption going on right under their noses — they continued to be regarded as people most worthy of representing Japan in foreign affairs.