Ailing, Hurt by Scandal, Japan’s Tanaka Faces a New Struggle in Party

Times Staff Writer

Ordinarily, a lecture on “Earth, Science and Hometowns” would not attract a great deal of attention in Japan. But the lecture was a sort of smoke screen. The subject was actually politics, and the turnout was substantial.

At issue was the political future of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who continues to be a political power--he is known as the “Shadow Shogun"--despite a 1983 conviction for accepting a bribe of $1.8 million from Lockheed Corp., the American aircraft builder.

Finance Minister Noboru Takeshita called the meeting, ostensibly as a gathering of his so-called study group, the Creative Policy Society. He has been a ranking member of the powerful Tanaka faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and is now widely believed to be establishing a separate Takeshita faction.


Forty-nine of the Tanaka faction’s 121 members--all members of Parliament--turned out for the lecture meeting. This is six more than were present for the first meeting, which took place on Feb. 7 over Tanaka’s objections, and only one fewer than is needed to recommend a candidate for party president. The president of the party in power is prime minister--and the Liberal Democrats have been in power for decades.

Tanaka in Hospital

Tanaka, 67, was sentenced to four years in prison but is free on bond pending an appeal. He was felled by a stroke on Feb. 27, and has been hospitalized ever since. It is the uncertainty about his future that has brought on the current round of activity, and it involves not just Takeshita. Another senior party member, Susumu Nikaido, is laying the groundwork for a campaign to take over.

Ironically, the rivalry between Takeshita and Nikaido, who is a party vice president and titular chairman of the Tanaka faction, is giving Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone a freer hand to make policy than at any time since he took office in 1982.

Before Tanaka was hospitalized, he was quoted by the newspaper Asahi as boasting that “Nakasone may be a first-class geisha capable of dancing on an international stage, but I am the one who molds the clay of his administration.”

Now, with Tanaka hospitalized and his followers dissipating their strength in an intraparty struggle, Nakasone, whose faction ranks fourth among the party’s five factions, no longer need fear an assault on his position.

The split in Tanaka’s strong faction, a rival politician remarked, has turned “one giant and four weaklings” into “six weaklings.”

Paralysis Suspected

What Tanaka himself makes of the storm within his faction is not known. No one except medical personnel and members of his immediate family are known to have seen him since he secretly entered the hospital in February. This has reinforced suspicion that Tanaka’s stroke caused some paralysis and speech impairment, and has encouraged Takeshita and Nikaido in their efforts to take over.

Takeshita called the second meeting of his study group last month ostensibly to hear Hitoshi Takeuchi, a professor emeritus at Tokyo University, lecture on “Earth, Science, and Hometowns,” but the main business of the meeting was the appointment of officers. Many in the party saw this as confirmation that the study group had become something quite different.

According to one Tanaka follower, the attendance of 49 members guarantees that Takeshita will eventually take over as head of the Tanaka faction. It is this that Tanaka has feared, for he reportedly believes that he must cling to leadership of his faction--almost a third of the strength needed to elect the party president--if he is to avoid going to prison. He has had much to say about who becomes party president and thus prime minister, and the prime minister holds the ultimate power to grant pardons.

Nikaido, who threatened to challenge Nakasone last October, when Nakasone won a second two-year term as party president, has responded to Takeshita’s takeover move by making it clear that his ambition is undiminished. He said not long ago on television that “with a little luck” he could succeed Nakasone.

Faction Badly Split

Also, he has started courting former Prime Minister Takeo Miki, who in 1976 gave the go-ahead to arrest Tanaka on the bribery charge. And he has scheduled a massive fund-raising party for June 20.

The Takeshita and Nikaido elements have become so openly hostile that restoration of the Tanaka faction’s unity seems increasingly unlikely.

Shin Kanemaru, secretary general of the ruling party and one of the chief leaders of the Tanaka faction, said recently that “no prime minister in his 70s or 80s could respond to the desires of the people,” and this was seen as a slap at Nikaido, who will be 76 in October. Takeshita is 61.

Kanemaru referred to Takeshita’s Creative Policy Society as the wave of the future.

Ganri Yamashita, another of the Tanaka faction’s leaders, has publicly endorsed Nikaido.

Nakasone Popularity High

Nakasone, meanwhile, finds himself with an unprecedented level of public support. A poll last month by the newspaper Yomiuri showed that support for the Nakasone government has reached 55.9%, higher than for any Japanese prime minister in the third year of his term. Support usually diminishes with time.

Owing at least in part to Nakasone’s popularity, support for the Liberal Democratic Party has also increased. According to the Yomiuri poll, it was at the highest level (53.7%) since the party was formed in 1955.

Liberal Democratic officials have started talking about revising the party rules that limit the president’s term to four years, and although an extension of Nakasone’s term is only a remote possibility, the talk itself helps him because it tends to blur his lame-duck image.

The rift in the Tanaka faction has also generated speculation that Nakasone will stay in office beyond the expiration of his term in October, 1986.

Disintegration of the Tanaka faction would deprive all the contenders for power--Takeshita and Nikaido as well as others--of the kind of support Tanaka has been able to rally behind leaders he favors. In the past, the party has tried to avoid open dogfights that offer no prospect for a clear-cut winner.