Kakuei Tanaka - Man of Tangible Power

By Lamont-Brown, Raymond | Contemporary Review, December 1994 | Go to article overview

Kakuei Tanaka - Man of Tangible Power


Lamont-Brown, Raymond, Contemporary Review


KAKUEI Tanaka, Japan's best known political kingmaker, served as Japan's Sori-Daijin (Prime Minister) during 1972-74. He was the youngest of Japan's postwar politicians to serve as premier and remains in contemporary politics as the country's most dominant, persuasive and influential leader since the end of the American Occupation.

Most political commentators remember Tanaka as a brilliant manager of politics and people. He was a man who rose to personify the years in which he held sway; an unusual trait in any Japanese era. The phrase Tanaka no seiji (Tanaka politics) had to be invented to represent his style and philosophy.

In simple summary, Tanaka had a genius for understanding how money works as the blood in the arteries of Japanese society. He had a rare comprehension too, of how Japanese social intercourse and politics function. Money was to be his downfall, though, for his name was traduced because of his involvement in the Lockheed bribery scandal of 1976. Nevertheless he was to survive at the centre of Japan's policy-making machine until he was incapacitated by a stroke. In a preliminary eulogy to the press on the announcement of Tanaka's death on 16 December 1993, the erstwhile Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa -- himself a 'Tanaka man' -- described him as a politician of very rare character. And in accord with a Japanese sentiment Tanaka is currently described as a jitsuryoku sha, a 'person of tangible power'.

Tanaka was born on 4 May in the Sixth Year of the Reign of Emperor Taisho (1918) by the old reckoning. He was the only son amongst seven children of Kakuji Tanaka an impoverished horse trader and fish farmer in the Hokuriku area, then an underdeveloped and distant coastal region of the prefecture of Niigata, western Honshu. When he was two years of age he contracted diptheria leaving him with a speech defect which he overcame in future years. In 1933 his father's ventures failed and Tanaka was forced to leave high school after only four years. He worked as a labourer for the Inoue Kogyo construction company and in 1934 left Niigata for Tokyo. Employed in the capital first as a clerk, then as a reporter for a small business magazine, Tanaka commenced evening classes to enhance his education. Biographical works about him never fail to emphasise his rise to high office in business and politics without a formal education.

By 1936 Tanaka had set up his own small business, the Kyoei Construction Office, which he ran until he was conscripted in 1939 into the Imperial Nipponese Army to serve in the Japanese puppet kingdom of Manchuquo (Manchuria) in the kihei (cavalry). Tanaka contacted croupous pneumonia and was transferred to Japan to be discharged in 1941.

Returning to his construction firm -- now called Tanaka Construction Industries Co Ltd -- in 1942, Tanaka married Hanako Sakamoto, the daughter of a boarding-house keeper. The firm expanded enormously and by 1945 he had built up one of Japan's leading construction groups.

In 1946 Tanaka made an unsuccessful attempt to run for election to the National Diet (Japan's parliament) as a candidate of the 1882 (but now defunct) Rikken Kaishin-to (Constitutional Progressive Party -- later renamed the Democratic Party). In 1947 he did enter the Diet as a representative of the Jiyuto (Liberal Party) under the leadership of Shigeru Yoshida (1878-1967). By 1948 Tanaka was Vice-Minister for Justice. During 1955 the new Liberal Democratic Party was formed out of the old Liberal and Democratic parties and Tanaka built up an influential network of supporters.

Kakuei Tanaka joined the Cabinet of Nobusuke Kishi (three cabinets 1957-60) as Minister for Postal Services in 1957, and was appointed Minister for Finance under Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda (three cabinets 1960-64). Tanaka stayed on when Ikeda was replaced by Eisaku Sato in 1964; and in 1965 Tanaka became Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party. …

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