Chapter 36 – The Fall of Tanaka Kakuei


part two

1. The Growing Anti-Tanaka Mood
2. Bungei Shimbun Exposes
3. Foreign Media Power – Uno Sosuke Forced Out
4. Tanaka – Under Attack
5. Ignorant Foreign Correspondents
6. The Kikkake Strikes
7. Foreign Media Self-Congratulation
8. Economic Upheavals
9. Political Upheavals

By alleging failure of the 1974 Southeast Asia tour, the Japanese media hoped to add fuel to the developing anti-Tanaka mood in Japan. 

1. The Growing Anti-Tanaka Mood

That mood started with the large oil shock price increases of late 1973. 

The economy was already somewhat over-extended, partly due to Tanaka’s heavy spending on public works. 

The oil price rises had then triggered a vicious inflation. 

Housewives panicked. Photos of them clamouring to buy toilet paper —  rumoured about to go out of stock — filled the media. 

The ‘toilet-paper panic’ became code-words for the era.

Tanaka was blamed, again, as if he could have done something to stop the oil sheiks from raising prices, or as if Japan really did not need those new roads and railways.

As well, some in the public and the media were getting tired of his manners – his gruff, gravelly voice and blunt approach to problems. 

He was from the provinces, not the halls of the elite universities. 

And the powerful LDP conservatives were still fuming over the way he had used his massive fund gathering machine to beat Fukuda for the leadership.

Worse, he had then sidelined Taiwan in the move to recognise Beijing. 

In short, the tom-toms were beating.  The mood for change was in the air. It would not be long before someone would want to move against him openly.

The only question was who, when and where. 

2. The Bungei Shimbun Expos’es

That someone, it turned out, was the maverick, conservative and disaffected LDP politician, Ishihara Shintaro. 

The somewhere was a May 1974 article in the widely read conservative magazine, Bungei Shunju. 

In its pages Ishihara was to launch a vicious attack on Tanaka’s kinken seiji — money politics. 

Vivid images of Tanaka henchmen scurrying around with shopping-bags full of money to buy the votes needed to defeat Fukuda were drawn.

Heavy kickbacks from public works projects were said help fill those shopping-bags. 

Much of what Ishihara said was true.  But the same was also true for a lot of other conservative politicians.

If anything the anti-Tanaka, Kishi-Sato-Fukuda, LDP old guard were worse. 

They got much of their money from foreigners — the CIA, the banana trade with Taiwan, kickbacks from projects in South Korea. 

Japan’s national interests could easily have been sacrificed as a result. 

They also relied on funds and electoral votes from bogus religions. 

The lives of the many Japanese citizens lured into making massive donations to alleged gods and spirits were often crippled as a result.

Tanaka at least relied mainly on domestic sources, mainly construction and other assorted enterprises.  If any interests were sacrificed they belonged mainly to those dependent on those enterprises. 

The Ishihara article was widely noted. The stock market fell heavily for a day or so. In the national newspapers some speculated how Tanaka would react.

But everyone knew that Bungei Shunju had its own conservative and rightwing agenda, especially over China. It had its reasons for wanting to print the Ishihara article. 

And they were not necessarily the reasons of Japan.

And there was also the question of nawabari – territorial turf. 

If a particular newspaper or TV station digs up a scandal, it becomes their ‘property’, for them to follow up and exploit. 

Often it was only when a foreign medium decided to pick a story up and run with it that the Japanese media would collectively decide to be involved.

If that happened an otherwise less than momentous scandal could become the center of national attention.

But if published in Japan it could easily be buried by rival media.

3. Foreign Media Power – The Fate of Uno Sosuke 

A good example of this strange phenomenon at work was the undoing of Uno Sosuke, prime minister of Japan for only two months, from July 1989 to August 1989.

Uno’s scandal was minor. His girlfriend was a rather pleasant lady in her early forties who was running a small bar and eating place in Kagurazaka near central Tokyo. 

(I happened to have visited the place a few times.  And it is true that the rather mature madam did have a kind of subdued sexiness.) 

Uno’s crime was to treat her too casually, and to forget to pay her what she thought was her worth. 

Mainichi’s weekly magazine published the lady’s story at length, dwelling in particular on Mr Uno’s alleged stinginess. 

The story initially had made little impact; it was taken for granted that most LDP politicians would have bar-side girlfriends.

And maybe Mainichi just had some personal grudge against Uno.

But when a Washington Post correspondent picked up the Mainichi story and ran with it, the unfortunate Uno came under the search lights. 

Before the WP story few correspondents would have realised what was going on.

But not after the WP story.

Interviewers descended on the bar, and the lady.  Foreign media delighted in the salaciousness of it all.

Uno was forced to resign soon after.

He was to become one of Japan’s Least Known Prime Ministers as a result.

Sato Eisaku Also

A less-than-fatal victim of Japan’s sensitivity to the Western media had been Sato Eisaku. 

In 1968, Bungei Shunju had run an in-depth article about him in which he had said what many other conservative and chauvinistic Japanese males would say, namely that occasionally he felt he had reason to slap his wife. 

The statement was totally ignored in Japan. But a bright UPI reporter, Ted Shimizu, picked it up and put it on the wire.

Overnight Sato became known around the world, and then in Japan, as a wife-beater. 

It took him years to live the reputation down.

Tanaka too was soon to become a victim of this strange sensitivity to what we foreigners had to say about their leaders.  But not because of the Ishihara article. 

4. Tanaka – Under Attack

The Tanaka-destroying article was in Japanese, and published in a magazine, Bungei Shimbun, which few foreigners have the time, inclination or ability to read. So its existence remained unknown in the West. 

(Actually it was not entirely unknown.  I had run an article in my newspaper, and the Far Eastern Economic Review, about it. 

(I knew Ishihara well, and was interested in his iconoclastic ideas.)

The waves caused by the Ishihara article in Japan quickly died. The stock-market soon recovered. Japan went about its business, unfazed.

But not Bungei Shunju.  It was determined to see Tanaka unseated. 

After several months of silence it seems to have decided to make another anti-Tanaka jab. This time the blow was to be delivered by an investigative reporter, Tachibana Takashi. 

He was subsidised to write a long, well-researched article outlining alleged money-raising wrong-doings by Tanaka’s staff. 

There was also mention of a dubious public works land deal in Tanaka’s native Niigata prefecture. 

Once again Japan took due note. 

Tanaka was questioned about the article at his regular press conference for that week.  But he was able to deflect criticisms. 

In short, the Tachibana story also seemed set to follow the fate of the Ishihara story. And it would have, but for one very accidental event. 

5. The Foreign Correspondents

The Newsweek correspondent in Tokyo at the time was one Bernard Krisher. 

Krisher did not read Japanese, but he had an able assistant who brought the Tachibana article to his notice. 

The result was a small item in the Newsweek of early October 1974, noting that Tanaka had been accused of land deal corruption. 

Even that item would have done little to stir much excitement in Japan, but for an accidentally-timed event — a scheduled luncheon for Tanaka at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ) on October 22, 1974, just two weeks after the Newsweek article.

It had been a Club tradition to invite the current prime minister at least once during his term for a luncheon, followed by a brief speech and some polite questioning. 

It was done mainly as a mark of respect for the current Japanese leadership, and not for news-gathering 

But with Tanaka there was to be little respect. 

An army of Japanese newspeople and cameras had been allowed to take their places at the end of the dining room. 

Even the foreign newspeople, seeing that army of Japanese newspeople in the room, were beginning to realise that something was underway – that the mood in Japan was turning against Tanaka. 

In a biting introduction for Tanaka, the Club acting chairman went out of his way to mention the Newsweek article. 

That in turn unleashed a wave of antagonistic questions at what was supposed to have been a polite after-lunch discussion. 

Tanaka behaved quite well under the circumstances. 

He said his private affairs, such as the Niigata land deal, were separate from public affairs, and appealed for policy-related questions, of which there were none. 

With Italian corespondent Pio D’Emili

6. The Kikakke Strikes

In Japanese it is called the kikkake.  It is the defining moment when a situation can change.

Before that FCCJ lunch, the situation around Tanaka had not evolved to the stage where there could be an open move against him. 

But thanks to that lunch – the questions, the TV cameras whirring in the background, and most of all the fact that foreigner correspondents were critically questioning their prime minister – the kikkake had been provided.

I knew already what the main TV news item would be that night, and the main topic in the newspapers the next morning.  

I bet a colleague that by the end of the year Tanaka would not be prime minister. I won that bet, with more than one month to spare.

But few of the foreign journalists present that day seemed to know the background to what was going on. Later I found that none of them had read either of the two Bungei Shunju articles. All that they had to go on was the Newsweek piece by Krisher. 

Even fewer, it seemed, realised how their behavior was crucial to creating the kikkake for a Japanese mass media move against Tanaka. 

But the Japanese media had no doubt.  

7. Foreign Media Self-Congratulation

When Tanaka was forced by the Japanese media storm to resign in November, 1974, the Club hierarchy indulged in a welter of self-congratulation.

They told themselves, and the rest of the world, how they, the foreign journalists, had done what the Japanese media were afraid to do.

They alone had had the courage to confront a corrupt prime minister in his den, and force him to be replaced. 

Not one of them seemed to know that Japanese journalists had been following the Tanaka story all along, and had been questioning him about the articles much earlier.

But they needed the foreigner presence before the TV cameras to create the kikkake for anti-Tanaka mood they alone could not create. 

During this bragging, a small group of Club members (headed by a Frenchman who also knew little about Japan but who was imbued with Gallic courtesy) got together to apologise to Tanaka for the luncheon impoliteness.  I was one of the group.

We were soon branded as traitors to our profession and to the Club, unwilling to join our colleagues in educating Japan about the press freedom and investigative values we, the Western media, were bringing to Japan.

(Unfortunately those values did not include an obligation to read the local newspapers and magazines to keep abreast of developments in Japan.)


Tanaka has since come to be seen as one of Japan’s better and more dynamic prime ministers. 

Yet the correspondents responsible for his downfall have long boasted about their role in having him deposed.

Later they were to complain about the Japanese Foreign Ministry decision to refuse all invitations for prime ministers to attend future FCCJ events.

Reportedly the Ministry was also furious about the rudeness imposed on Tanaka. 

Incidentally, many Japan-watchers still like to say Tanaka lost his job because of the Lockheed corruption affair – a rather ugly bribery affair that broke several months after the confrontation with the journalists and in which Tanaka was also involved. 

In fact Tanaka’s fall had come earlier. Many Tokyo Correspondents mistakenly include the Lockheed scandal among their reasons for toppling Tanaka.

8. Economic Upheavals

Meanwhile my daily grind of political and economic reporting continued. 

Japan was starting to be a big story in the West, and not just because of Tanaka

Every foible and failing of this exotic society was news. A US Japan-watcher, Ezra Vogel, had described Japan ‘as Number One’ and whose economy was soon about to overtake that of the US.

The ‘Nixon shock’ forcing the Japanese yen to go from 360 to the US dollar up to 240 yen sent Japan Inc. into a predictable panic.  

I recall doing an interview for the London Financial Times in which I said Japan would survive the upvaluation

The yen had long been under-valued. It would still be competitive even at 200 to the dollar. 

Some years later it was to go to 80 to the US dollar. But Japan’s trade surpluses with the US still continued as the US continued to de-industrialise. 


Almost daily we were reporting on trade disputes, first textiles and then more important things like cars and TVs. 

9. Political Upheavals

Meanwhile the political scene in Japan began to shift violently, with the clean and somewhat progressive Miki Takeo being chosen to replace Tanaka, and then being overthrown in an LDP palace coup by the waiting and vengeful Fukuda Takeo. 

As a background to all this we had the Red Army scares (secret camps in the hills outside Tokyo), plane hijackings, occasional bombings. 

Japan’s horrified reaction to each event — the Yodo-go JAL plane hijacking to North Korea especially — gave me yet another look into Japan’s tribally-collective psyche.

The entire nation would remain glued to the TV screens for days, following every detail as if it was happening to each and everyone of them personally. 

But there was never any hint of wanting to know why these young people were prepared to endure such hardships in their futile battle against what they saw as the evil in the society around them.