Nakasone Yasuhiro (born 1918) was a Japanese politician who helped rebuild pride in the nation and in Japan's world role. He was active in the Liberal Democratic Party for over 30 years before becoming prime minister in 1982. He served an unprecedented five years, retiring in 1987.
During the American occupation of Japan after World War II, the young politician Nakasone Yasuhiro warned that American idealism had a dark side. Yes, the Americans wanted to create a new Japan, a democratic Japan. But in return, they expected subservience, and subservience was not an attitude from which the Japanese could draw the strength necessary to rebuilding their nation. Many critics saw in Nakasone's warning an attempt to resurrect a power-oriented world, an attempt to reassert the pre-war values that had plunged Japan into war and brought defeat, values that had been discredited. In short, Nakasone made enemies, more enemies than friends. Yet it was Nakasone who became prime minister during the delicate period when Japan was re-asserting its ability to self-govern and the United States was re-thinking its involvement with Japan a reordering that continued into the late 1980s.
Early Entrance into Politics
Nakasone Yasuhiro was born on May 27, 1918, the second son of a lumber merchant in Takasaki, a city on the northwestern approach to Tokyo. He attended the prestigious Shizuoka High School, then went on to Tokyo University, where he studied political science in the law division. In 1941 he passed the higher civil service examination and became an official in the Ministry of the Interior. Later in the same year he joined the navy, from which he was discharged in 1945 as a lieutenant commander. In February 1945 he married Tsutako, the third daughter of Kobayashi Giichiro; in November, they had their first son, Hirofumi, who became a councillor in the Diet, the national assembly. In 1947 they had their first daughter, Michiko, and in 1949 they had their second daughter, Mieko.
After he was demobilized, Nakasone returned to the Interior Ministry. Under Japan's first constitution, the emperor assigned the right to rule to his appointed officials. In December 1946 Japan's new constitution proclaimed "that sovereign power resides with the people." In Nakasone's words, "This made me realize that I was wasting my time in Tokyo…. I resigned from the ministry and returned home…. I decided to run for a seat in the House of Representatives."
That opportunity came in April 1947. The election was hard-fought. "The communists came with their red flags held high. I went bearing the Japanese flag, even though the Occupation authorities had forbidden its display. In their eyes, that made me a rightist." He won. He was 28 years of age.
He joined the Japan Democratic Party, a conservative opposition party. In 1955 that party allied with the Japan Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democratic Party, which became the majority party with the power to choose the prime minister, who then could choose a cabinet. The LDP held this power to form a government through the mid-1980s. Political battles between the parties became less important than the political battles between the factions within the LDP, as the faction leaders contested the right to be prime minister. Nakasone joined the faction of Kono Ichiro, who died in 1965 after losing a battle with Sato Eisaku for the prime minister's seat. Several Kono lieutenants stepped forward to claim the Kono mantle: Nakasone was one of them. Three years were to pass before Nakasone prevailed and the Kono faction became the Nakasone faction.
In theory, Nakasone was now in position to vie for the prime minister's chair. But Nakasone had lost faction members during the succession struggle. He had no money to support the faction. Finally, he had not demonstrated the ability to rule. To correct these deficiencies, he allied himself with Sato Eisaku, still prime minister. To the charge that he was a political weathercock, he answered, "A weathercock stays set but moves his body. That's the essence of politics." Under Sato's aegis, Nakasone served as transportation minister, director general of the defense agency, chairman of the LDP executive council, and minister of international trade and industry (MITI). When Sato stepped down, Nakasone allied with Tanaka Eisaku, who then became the prime minister. This alliance brought him the MITI post again. Under the next prime minister, Nakasone became the secretary general of the LDP, a post which all prime ministers had held before they became prime ministers. Finally, in 1982, Nakasone became the prime minister.
A Prime Minister Becomes a World Leader
Japan had 44 prime ministers from the time when the post was created in the late 19th century until the mid-1980s. The average length of time in office has been a little over two years. Nakasone is one of only several prime ministers who have served more than five years. That fact alone distinguishes him.
What accounts for Nakasone's extended tenure? There are several reasons for his success, including favorable economic conditions during his tenure and his ability to pass his domestic program through the Diet. But, unlike his predecessors who had often assumed office with only 30 percent approval from the public because the prime minister is chosen by his peers rather than by popular vote Nakasone cultivated his popularity with the people. In the early 1960s Nakasone argued that the prime minister should be popularly elected. That reform did not get enacted, but Nakasone never considered a political move without preparing his public. Other politicians criticized Nakasone for playing to the grandstand, but their voices were stilled by the immense popularity of Nakasone's party and cabinet popularity so great that in the 1986 elections the party won more seats in the Diet than it had ever won before.
Nakasone's greatest contribution was in foreign affairs. The quickest to industrialize in spite of the fact that it began its technological development later than most industrialized nations, Japan had great troubles accommodating itself to the international order. Before World War II, it was perceived as being too aggressive; after World War II, this opinion was reversed and Japan was seen as being too passive. Other nations have looked at Japan's business activity and concluded that Japan is an economic animal, though these same nations have said they hope to emulate Japan in building a prosperous and stable nation.
Nakasone is seen as having changed these circumstances. He brought Japan into the colloquy of nations and was responsible for propagating a better understanding of Japan among the nations. Most of all, Nakasone instilled a national pride in the Japanese people in their new-found world identity.
In 1947, to help win his first election, Nakasone created the Purple Cloud Society (Seiun Juku) among the young men in his Gumma electoral district. In its charter are listed these three goals: to restore pride and independence to Japan; to foster Asian democracy; to change for the better the world and Japan's position in it. Those goals still form a sturdy tripod on which to base an understanding of Nakasone.
By the mid-1980s Japan had developed a strong balance of trade in its favor (money from its exports far exceeded the money spent on imports). This strained relations with the United States, which was suffering an unfavorable trade balance, in large measure because Japanese goods found a ready market in the United States while far fewer U.S. goods were sold in Japan. Nakasone, who had become a personal friend of President Ronald Reagan, worked hard to avoid a serious trade war between the two nations. (The media dubbed the two leader's friendly meetings "The Ron and Yasu show.")
Sales Tax Trouble
While Nakasone was known as a charismatic leader, even he couldn't avoid political trouble. In what he termed his "last and greatest reform," Nakasone called for a comprehensive reform of Japan's tax system in 1986. Time magazine called this "a supreme test of Nakasone's political will, skill and power," as Nakasone introduced a plan to drastically cut income tax. In addition, he proposed to add a "value added" or sales tax. This would pay for the income tax cut, and Nakasone hoped, it would also help correct the trade imbalance with the United States. (The sales tax would not apply to imported goods, making them more attractive.) It was this last provision that proved unpopular, especially since Nakasone had made a campaign promise not to introduce "a large scale levy (tax)."
Party rules required that Nakasone step down from office in 1987. He became the only postwar prime minister to name his successor, Takeshita Noboru. Nakasone took his place in the Diet, but his political career was far from over.
For the next several years, scandal rocked the Japanese political system, and Nakasone was caught up in the storm. In 1989 Nakasone fell under suspicion in what became known as the Recruit Cosmos Share Scandal. Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru resigned as a result. The scandal was very complicated, but basically amounted to accusations that the Liberal Democratic Party accepted shares and other kinds of bribes in exchange for political favors.
At first, Nakasone refused to testify under oath. He also refused to leave his position in the Diet. He later relented, and agreed to testify. He also agreed to vacate his leadership position of his faction, but not to leave the Diet. Nakasone was never charged officially with any crime, but he left the party and active politics as a result of the scandal.
Return to Plitics
In the early 1990s, Nakasone quietly returned to politics. He became head of the Takeshita faction, replacing Shin Kanemaru, who left in disgrace. Nakasone's political influence again grew stronger when he was named as one of the senior advisers to the LDP in 1991. Despite his alleged connection in the Recruit scandal, Nakasone will be remembered as a good leader for Japan. In 1987 Time Magazine said "Nakasone put Japan on the world map and the rest of the world on Japan's map."
Further Reading on Yasuhiro Nakasone
There is not as yet a biography of Nakasone. An insightful description of Japanese politics can be found in Gerald L. Curtis', The Japanese Way of Politics (scheduled for 1998 publication). A broad description of the Japanese and their nation can be found in Edwin O. Reischauer's, The Japanese (1977). Nakasone is also profiled and interviewed in numerous periodicals.