Kakuei Tanaka

Tanaka Kakuei (1918-1993) was the most controversial of the post-World War II prime ministers of Japan. As the leader of the largest faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) he dominated Japanese politics for many years.

Although Tanaka Kakuei served as prime minister for only two years, he was instrumental in bringing three successor prime ministers to office and ensuring that his predecessor stayed in office longer than any other prime minister. The only prime minister since World War I not to have attended a university, he served with distinction as the minister in three of the all-important economic ministries and may come to be seen as the author of the body of communication law which permitted Japan to slide so readily into the information age. He is pictured in the press as the ultimate corrupter, using money to manipulate rather than ideals to inspire Japanese politics. He was twice charged with accepting bribes, once acquitted, the second time convicted (with the sentence continually deferred, as it remained under appellate review up until his death in 1993). Nevertheless he was routinely re-elected to a Diet seat in every election after 1948, winning more votes than ever before after his bribery conviction.

Tanaka Kakuei was born on May 4, 1918, in the village of Futada of Niigata prefecture, known for its deep snows and utter poverty. He was the eldest son of a cattle dealer, Kakuji, and his wife, Fume. Childhood was difficult. Before reaching two years of age Tanaka had come close to death from diphtheria. Buried under snow sliding from an over-burdened roof, he had been saved from suffocation by his grandmother, who discovered him when a twig in her broom caught his lip, causing it to bleed, staining the snow and revealing his whereabouts. At the age of 16, after graduating from grammar school, he went to Tokyo to work at construction during the day and to study it at night at the Central Technical High School. He graduated and started his own construction business, but at the age of 20 he was drafted and sent to Manchuria as a cavalryman. He became ill with pleurisy and was returned to the home islands. The illness deepened and was re-diagnosed as tuberculosis, and for several months Tanaka was expected to die. Eventually, though, he recovered, was discharged from the army, and returned to construction work. Business flourished. By 1943 Tanaka's company was ranked among the nation's top 50 construction firms.

Tanaka married Sakamoto Hana, the daughter of a medium size construction company owner, with whom he had two children: a son, Masanori, born in 1942, and a daughter, Makiko, born in 1944. The son died at the age of six, but the daughter lived to become a member of the Diet.


Tanaka Enters Politics—Successfully

Tanaka's business success was predicated partly on working closely with government agencies. Early on he had been encouraged to fund one of the emerging political parties. He wrote of the immense task of reconstruction the Japanese nation faced after World War II. Tanaka, then, took only a short step when he decided to stand for election as a representative of the third district of Niigata. Tanaka lost in the 1946 election. He won in the 1947 election when he was 28 years of age. He won every subsequent election, serving until 1990.

His first post of significance came in 1948, when he was appointed parliamentary vice minister for the Justice Ministry under the second Yoshida cabinet. In 1952 he became head of the board of directors as well as dean of the Central Technical School where he had studied construction when he first came to Tokyo. He was 34 years old.

At age 36 he became the chairman of the standing committee on commerce in the House of Representatives. In 1957 he became the minister for posts and telecommunications in the first Kishi cabinet. He early recognized that the gathering and transmission of information was to be a key to future social organization. His interest in posts and telecommunications was to remain with him. He served as the finance minister under the second and third Ikeda cabinets and under the first Sato cabinet. He headed the Ministry for International Trade and Industry (MITI) under the third Sato cabinet. While MITI minister he put forward his plan for remodeling the Japanese archipelago, a far-reaching plan for raising standards of living in the rural areas, doing away with blight in the old cities, and establishing new industries in new cities and creating the transportation system to supply them. He authored, A proposal for remodeling the Japanese Archipelago.

The ability to command a ministry was just one of the talents Tanaka had to demonstrate. Another was to be able to persuade other politicians to accept his leadership. In 1955 the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) became the ruling party. While it was the ruling party its Dietmen served as the ministers and vice ministers; its party president served as the prime minister. Men who wished to become prime minister created factions. The maneuvering of these faction leaders—the building up and taking over of a faction, the making and breaking of factional alliances, the bargaining over posts, the collection and disbursement of political funds— constituted the heart of Japanese politics. In all these activities Tanaka excelled. Critics claim money generated his power. Historians will add two other sources: imagination and hard work.


A Master at the Game of Politics

Initially, Tanaka had been a member of the Japan Democratic Party. In 1948 he switched parties to become a member of the Japan Liberal Party, then under the leadership of Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru, the maker of the still-enduring American alliance and the architect of the postwar recovery strategy. When Yoshida retired, Tanaka aligned himself with Sato Eisaku, a Yoshida lieutenant, quelling anti-Sato revolts within the LDP by serving as secretary general of the LDP during four of Sato's seven cabinets, allowing Sato to serve as prime minister for seven years eight months, the longest tenure for any prime minister. Tanaka also looked out for his own interests. He took over enough of the Sato faction so that he was able to succeed Sato as prime minister, though Sato favored another man.

When Tanaka became prime minister in 1972, he received the highest rating that any prime minister has ever received in the public opinion polls: 61 percent of the respondents supported his cabinet. Within two years, however, this public enthusiasm had gone: only 12 percent of the respondents then said they supported him. Investigative reporters had set forth the jumble of companies and their activities through which Tanaka had supported his political activities. It looked corrupt. It was called corrupt, though no prosecutor chose to bring charges. Men serving in Tanaka's cabinet, one who was a long-time ally, threatened resignation. Tanaka resigned instead, though he continued to build his faction. Within four years it had become so large that no man could become party president without Tanaka's assent. No longer king, Tanaka had become king-maker.

In February 1976 A. Carl Kotchian, the president of the Lockheed Corporation, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he had given $2 million to Tanaka and other sums to seven other Japanese politicians to secure their cooperation in having the Japanese government purchase 21 L-1011 Tristar airplanes for All Nippon Airways, Japan's number two airline. Kotchian's Senate testimony led to the indictment of Tanaka, who, after a lengthy trial, was convicted on October 12, 1983. Tanaka appealed his conviction, thereby prolonging the sentence such that it was never served.

Tanaka was still defended vigorously by writers from the political and intellectual communities. That money had changed hands was proved to most writers' satisfaction. Questioned, though, was the court's decision that this money was a bribe, not a legitimate political contribution; a second question was that Tanaka had the authority to issue, and did indeed issue, orders that the Tristar airplanes be purchased. Also questioned was whether a higher degree of accountability was demanded of Tanaka than was expected of other politicians.

On February 27, 1985, Tanaka suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. His daughter, Makiko, took care of him, first at the hospital, later at his home. She allowed no one to see him. How seriously had Tanaka been affected? No one knew until January 1987, when he celebrated the New Year. He met with four politicians and turned another politician—the politician who had claimed his political mantle—away from his door. He shook hands with his left hand, his speech was slurred, but he was back in political business (maintaining his seat until 1990). He died on December 16, 1993.

Why was Tanaka willing to persevere at politics? In an autobiography he wrote for children, he discussed why he first ran for office. He recalled his many illnesses, his brushes with death, the blood on the snow which saved him from suffocation. He concluded, "Hadn't I heard the voice of heaven? Perhaps the reason I had not died was that I was put on earth to do something." Corruption, then—if what Tanaka did was corrupt—had been subordinated to high purpose.


Further Reading on Kakuei Tanaka

More information about contemporary Japan and its government may be found in Hayes, Louis D., ed., Introduction to Japanese Politics (1992); and Sakaiya, Taichi (translation by Steven Karpa, What Is Japan? (Kodansha International, 1993). Another general but insightful explanation of Japanese government and politics is Gerald L. Curtis, The Japanese Way of Politics (1988). A sympathetic interpretation of Tanaka and his brand of politics is Chalmers Johnson, "Tanaka Kakuei, Structural Corruption, and the Advent of Machine Politics in Japan, " in Journal of Japanese Politics 12 (January 1986).