Kakuei Tanaka; Leader of Japanese Political Machine


Kakuei Tanaka, the legendary political shogun who was hailed for his dynamic leadership but despised as the architect of Japan’s corrupt machine politics, died of pneumonia Thursday. He was 75.

Tanaka’s fortunes rose and fell from being a poor farm boy to prime minister in 1972, to a felon snared in the Lockheed bribery scandal four years later. He had all but retired from politics since suffering a stroke in 1985.

His single most important legacy--skillfully using money to control the iron triangle of bureaucrats, politicians and industry--continued to dominate Japan’s political culture until this year. After prosecutors began unearthing one bribery scheme after another involving his proteges and construction cronies, voters in July threw out the Liberal Democratic Party he dominated for 13 years.

“His death symbolizes the end of money politics,” said Tatou Takahama, senior fellow at the Yomiuri Research Institute. “Japanese people are fed up with it and want politicians to change the whole system.”

As politicians and supporters thronged to pay condolences at Tanaka’s Tokyo home, Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa--a onetime Tanaka follower--said the late politician left a mixed legacy. “He had a unique character and unique talent,” Hosokawa said. “Some will admire his work and others regret his sins, but my impression is that his accomplishments were substantial.”


Despite his corrupt legacy, Tanaka was regarded as being brilliant and visionary. He was a plain-spoken populist easily moved to laughter and tears. His charisma and force mesmerized women; he was famous for his dalliances. But his biggest conquest may have been the nation’s stern bureaucrats.

In what UC San Diego professor Chalmers Johnson calls one of Tanaka’s most important contributions, the former prime minister was the first politician to master the bureaucrats and bring a measure of policy-making power back to elected representatives.

Tanaka never went to high school and was the only modern prime minister to not have a university degree. But his agile mind and grasp of public finance and taxation earned him the nickname “the computerized bulldozer” and won him respect and affection from the elite bureaucrats schooled at Tokyo University.

According to Johnson, the “Tanaka school” of political education, which taught proteges how to heel the bureaucracy, produced the party’s single largest source of policy specialists. His students included former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, fallen political kingpin Shin Kanemaru, Japan Renewal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa and Hosokawa, who cut ties with Tanaka after the Lockheed scandal. (Tanaka also steered prime ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone, Masayoshi Ohira and Zenko Suzuki to power.)

“As a result of his influence and that of his machine, a genuine democratization began to occur within the Japanese government,” Johnson wrote in a 1986 study of Tanaka.

Shortly after rising to prime minister, Tanaka announced in his distinctive raspy voice: “We should avoid a discrepancy between politics and the people. Democracy belongs to the people.”

For Japan of 1972, it was a startling proposition.

Tanaka also reopened relations with China, his most prominent foreign policy achievement. Domestically, he spread infrastructure development throughout the nation--particularly his impoverished rural hometown in Japan’s northern snow country of Niigata.

Long neglected by Tokyo’s central bureaucrats, Niigata won a bullet train extension, power plant, superhighways, a new rail station and other goodies thanks to Tanaka. In return, his voters reelected him 16 times--including a landslide victory in December, 1983, two months after he was convicted of taking a $2-million bribe from Lockheed Corp.

The development was part of his famous “plan to remodel the Japanese archipelago” by spreading public works outside Tokyo.

But as Tanaka ushered in massive new public spending for bridges and dams, roads and rail lines, he set off runaway inflation and a leap in land prices. He never completed his plan, but it laid the groundwork for the Tsukuba science city, Narita Airport, Seto Ohashi Bridge to Shikoku and the tunnels to Hokkaido.

Along the way, the public spending enriched his construction cronies, who showed their appreciation by feeding his massive political machine. Analysts estimate that Tanaka received half his contributions from the construction industry; he, in turn, used the money to secure his political base. He was once reported to have given the traditional summer ochugen gift of up to $45,000 to every single Parliament member, as well as key bureaucrats.

“In politics you need a majority, and in order to get a majority you need money,” said Tanaka.

He also once remarked that since parents die before you do, and dogs don’t survive forever, the only thing you can depend on is money.

But Tanaka’s impressive money machine was to be his undoing. In 1974, Bungei Shunju magazine published a two-part expose of Tanaka’s corrupt political tactics. The resulting furor forced him to resign. Two years later, the Lockheed scandal blew open. Although Tanaka was convicted, his appeal was still pending before the Supreme Court at the time of his death.

Tanaka was compared to former President Richard M. Nixon--for his brilliant strategic mind but corrupt character--and to 16th-Century warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who similarly rose from humble beginnings to rule the land.

Tanaka was born May 4, 1918, as the son of a cattle dealer. Too poor to continue his education beyond the age of 15, he traveled to Tokyo and began work as an apprentice to a building contractor. At 19, he established a construction firm, then took over his father-in-law’s firm after marrying Hana Sakamoto in 1942.

After reaping a windfall during World War II through a piston ring factory in Korea, Tanaka took his plunge into politics. In 1947, at 28, he was elected to Parliament and served as minister of telecommunications, finance and international trade before reaching the pinnacle of prime minister.

His eldest daughter, Makiko, followed in his political footsteps by winning election to the lower house this year. She and her husband, Naoko, were at his bedside when he died.