Nobusuke Kishi

Nobusuke Kishi (1896-1987) was a Japanese statesman who was imprisoned as a war criminal but released by the Allied Occupation authorities after World War II. His term as prime minister was marked by turbulent opposition to the U.S.-Japan security treaty signed in 1960.

The career of Nobusuke Kishi symbolizes the reversal of Japan's international relations in the 20th century. A cosigner of the declaration of war against the United States in 1941, he became the leader of America's most important Pacific ally in the 1950s.

A Political Family Background

Born Sato Nobusuke, on Nov. 13, 1896, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, southwestern Japan, Kishi was the second son of Hidesuke and Moyo Sato. His father, orginally born into the Kishi family, had been adopted by the Satos to preserve their family line and name. Similarly, Nobusuke was adopted by his father's elder brother and took the family name of Kishi.

The Sato and Kishi families were of samurai descent from an area formerly known as Choshu. Both of these facts were important to Kishi's future career. Samurai from Choshu, among them Kishi's great-grandfather, were leaders in the movement, culminating in 1868, to overthrow the old regime and establish a new national government. During the 19th century, more prime ministers came from Yamaguchi than any other prefecture. Kishi thus grew up in a concerned political environment. His older brother, Ichiro Sato, became a rear admiral; his younger brother, Eisaku Sato, became prime minister in 1965; and an uncle by marriage, Yosuke Matsuoka, was Japan's foreign minister during 1940-1941.

Kishi's education at Japan's most prestigious schools prepared the way for his rapid rise in the bureaucratic elite. After graduating with honors from Tokyo First Higher School, he entered Tokyo Imperial University in 1917, where he studied under Shinkichi Uesugi, well known for his conservative, nationalist interpretation of constitutional law. In the early 1920s, Kishi was greatly influenced by the writings of Ikki Kita, the nationalist thinker who sought a radical reordering of Japanese society.


Career in the Bureaucracy

After graduating with top honors in 1920, Kishi entered the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce as a clerk, quickly proving himself an able and ambitious worker. In 1936 he was appointed to the second-highest civilian post, responsible for the industrial development of Manchuria, Japan's newly acquired colony. In this post, he worked closely with Hideki Tojo, chief of staff of Japan's Kwantung army.

When Tojo became prime minister in October 1941, he asked Kishi to join his cabinet as minister of commerce and industry. Thus, Kishi was part of the Japanese leadership at the time of Pearl Harbor and America's entrance into World War II.

During the war years, Kishi played a leading part in trying to manage military procurement and a sagging Japanese economy. By 1944, Kishi was increasingly against continuing the war at all costs, and his opposition helped to topple the Tojo government that year.


Arrest and Return to Power

With the Allied victory in World War II, Allied Occupation forces arrested Kishi and held him for more than three years as a war criminal. During his detention in Sugamo prison until his release without trial in 1948, Kishi spent time reading and reflecting on Western liberalism. Although perhaps more favorably disposed to democratic theory than before, he was dismayed by many of the reforms of the occupation forces. Whatever his sympathies, however, Kishi plunged into the postwar order with the same energy and ambition that he had brought to the prewar system.

In 1952 he began a new political career and a remarkable comeback that, in five years, took him from war criminal to prime minister. His rise should be understood as an indication of the powerful personal ties he still retained with the Japanese political and business elite and his own skill in manipulating these ties. Beyond this, Kishi has been described as a master of machiai seiji—that is, behind-the-scenes politics (literally, geisha house politics).

Favored as well by the confused and fluid nature of postwar Japanese politics and by the death and retirement of older leaders, Kishi built himself a personal following among party politicians that soon became a real force in the factional struggles that followed. In 1954 he joined with other factions to help Ichiro Hatoyama overthrow Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. The following year, the two conservative parties united to form the Liberal-Democratic party, of which Kishi became secretary general. As an important link between the party's two warring sides, the Hatoyama faction, which he had aided, and the Yoshida faction, led by his younger brother, Kishi became a dominant figure in the party.

In the Ishibashi cabinet, formed in 1956, Kishi served as deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. When ill health forced Ishibashi into retirement in early 1957, Kishi succeeded him.

For all his service, Kishi was not a popular figure with articulate elements of the Japanese public. In fact, his public image plagued him throughout his term as prime minister and ultimately helped to bring down his government. His membership in the Tojo cabinet and his designation as a top war criminal made him a symbol of a past era that many Japanese wanted to forget. To students, Socialists, intellectuals, and many other elements of society, he seemed to be an unreconstructed fascist. They were suspicious of his every action, but particularly of his intention to revise the constitution, rearm, and extend the security treaty with the United States.


Security Treaty Crisis

Japan's relations with the United States overshadowed all other issues in Kishi's three-year term, from 1957 to the summer of 1960. The key was the security treaty, signed by the two countries in September 1951, during the last months of the Allied occupation. The treaty embodied Japan's reliance on American armed forces to preserve its security, providing the right to station troops in Japan to be used not only "to deter armed attack upon Japan" but also, if necessary, "to put down large-scale internal riots and disturbances." By the time Kishi took office, Japanese opposition to the treaty, growing out of a newly found self-confidence, was widespread. The treaty was criticized as an infringement on national sovereignty that involved Japan, without regard to its own will, in the Cold War politics of eastern Asia. Dissatisfaction was general, but proposed remedies ran the political gamut. Among the Socialists, neutralist sentiment, favoring abrogation of the treaty, was strong. Among the conservatives, there was support for a continuation of the relationship but on a more restricted basis that would enhance Japan's political standing in the world.

Seeking to profit from this national mood, Kishi made a much-heralded trip to Washington, DC, in June 1957. He won an American promise to withdraw all ground combat forces within a year. Thereafter, he also gained American assent to negotiate a new treaty of mutual defense. Meetings between diplomats of the two countries began in the fall of 1958 and proceeded through the following year. In January 1960, Kishi once again flew to Washington for the treaty signing ceremony. By eliminating some of the offensive parts of the old treaty (including the clause permitting intervention of American forces in Japanese internal disturbances) and stressing mutual consultation and obligation, the new treaty gave the appearance of placing relations on an equilateral basis.

Kishi clearly saw the treaty as a major diplomatic triumph that might consolidate his power in the Liberal-Democratic party. The result, however, was quite the opposite. When the debate over ratification began in the National Diet, conflict intensified and gradually eroded his strength. Outside of the Diet, student groups, Socialists, Communists, labor leaders, and intellectuals, always distrustful of Kishi, joined in opposition and created the greatest political disturbances the nation had experienced since prewar days.

In a tumultuous late-night session in mid-May 1960 after police had entered the Diet to remove Socialist party members who had staged a sitdown protest, Kishi forced a vote of approval through the lower house. His high-handed maneuver further inflamed public antipathy toward him and the treaty. The Diet and the prime minister's official residence became scenes of swelling popular demonstrations. A planned visit of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower had to be canceled. With no other choice, on June 23, 1960, Kishi announced his resignation. Shortly after, while attending a party for his successor, Ikeda Hayato, Kishi was stabbed by a rightist fanatic. The wound was not serious, however, and Kishi in the aftermath continued to exercise power from behind the scenes.

For some years after his resignation, Kishi remained an active member of the Liberal-Democratic party in Japan. He lived in Tokyo with his family. When a young man, he had married his cousin, Yoshiko Kishi, daughter of his adopted parents. They had two children, a son, Nobukazu, and a daughter, Yoko. After a lifetime of service to his country, Nobusuke Kishi died in Tokyo on August 7, 1987.


Further Reading on Nobusuke Kishi

The most reliable, scholarly treatment of Kishi's career is in George R. Packard, III, Protest in Tokyo: The Security Treaty Crisis of 1960 (1966). A journalist's rendering of Kishi's life is Dan Kurzman, Kishi and Japan: The Search for the Sun (1960). Recommended for the background of Japanese politics and its relation to foreign policy is Donald C. Hellmann, Japanese Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy (1969). For a general treatment of the Security Treaty crisis and its relation to Japanese parties see Robert A. Scalapino and Junnosuke Masumi, Parties and Politics in Contemporary Japan (1962).