Japan's Cabinet Secretary Wields Power on His Own Terms


Japan's prime minister is Keizo Obuchi, but the shadow shogun truly running the world's second-largest economy, many insiders say, is the enigmatic and widely feared politician Hiromu Nonaka.

Though little known outside Japan beyond his role as government spokesman, the prime minister's chief Cabinet secretary wields enormous power here. Nonaka's shrewd political tactics are credited with keeping the Obuchi administration alive for more than nine months, far longer than many expected. His behind-the-scenes efforts also are largely responsible for boosting Obuchi's popularity rating from dismal to at least respectable.

"If Nonaka were to quit, the Obuchi Cabinet would be destroyed," said a senior bureaucrat close to the prime minister's office. Politicians turn to Nonaka to get things done, and his imprint is on virtually everything the administration does.

While a chief Cabinet secretary is often referred to as the "prime minister's wife," Nonaka is much more powerful than his predecessors. His masterminding and pride-swallowing earlier this year brought the small splinter party headed by archenemy Ichiro Ozawa--a man whom Nonaka had publicly branded a traitor and privately called a U.S. spy--back into the Liberal Democratic Party fold in a coalition government.

Nonaka also is said to have brought the nation's huge banks to heel, persuading them to accept a $500-billion bailout plan that many had resisted.

Fellow members of the prime minister's special ad hoc economic advisory panel--which includes the chiefs of some of Japan's best-known companies--take heed when the smart and well-studied Nonaka holds forth, as he often does. "Everyone listens very carefully when he speaks because he is so powerful," said a person close to the committee.

He is feared not only for vicious verbal attacks that have earned him the nickname "the Sniper" but also for his strong information network, which one political commentator brands the "CIA of Japan."

Behind-the-Scenes Wheeling and Dealing

The wily Nonaka, 73, is the consummate Japanese back-room politician, wheeling and dealing behind the scenes with party loyalists. At the same time, he is a maverick. He is blunt in a society that shrivels at confrontation, and he often defies the group-oriented culture in pursuit of his own agenda.

Nonaka's success is all the more surprising because he comes from the wrong side of the tracks.

He has had to overcome the superstitious taint of being from an area that is home to a caste, of sorts, widely discriminated against, a group so stigmatized that even mention of its name--burakumin--make Japanese cringe. In Nagatacho, Tokyo's Capitol Hill, Nonaka's background is whispered about. Some say it is why he has never aspired to become prime minister.

When he was a young man, similar gossip wounded Nonaka so deeply that he wept, quit his railroad job and ran for local office, motivated to eradicate prejudice, he later said.

Perhaps influenced by his own experiences, Nonaka champions the weak and handicapped in a society that generally is not tolerant of either.

"Nonaka has the rare qualities of compassion and intimidation," said a profile last year in the weekly newsmagazine Aera. He personally apologized to a man falsely accused by police of poisoning neighbors and was the first senior ruling party official to apologize to the Chinese for the "Rape of Nanking."

Nevertheless, Nonaka's usual take-no-prisoners style ruffles feathers at home and abroad. In the midst of Western airstrikes against Iraq in December, Nonaka committed what appeared to be a breach of security, informing reporters that the raids would last only four days.

His lifelong adversaries, members of the Communist Party in his home base of Kyoto, brand him a dictator. "People who are bullied by him are too afraid to speak up because of his possible revenge," said the editor of one Communist newspaper, who asked not to be identified.

Nonaka says he doesn't care about his political future--an attitude that liberates him to say and do what he sees fit without worrying about whether he will lose his seat in the House of Representatives. Instead, he is known to sacrifice himself for his leaders.

"I'm a day laborer," Nonaka said in Shokun magazine last June. "I never think of what I talk about today or how I want to appeal to the public. My judgment is only based on my animal-like instinct at each moment."

(Nonaka's office declined several requests for an interview with him and also declined to answer written questions.)

Nonaka's farm background and mere high school education fall short of the elite pedigrees held by many of the powerful bureaucrats in senior ministry posts. And his 15 years in national politics make him a relative political neophyte in that arena. Gaunt and just under 5 feet, 5 inches tall, Nonaka has no hobbies and doesn't drink, smoke, play golf or sing--all popular pastimes in Nagatacho.

Nonaka, who is married and has an adult daughter, grew up around the juvenile delinquents cared for by his father, a social worker, Shokun magazine wrote. One youth hit Nonaka with a piece of pipe, scarring his forehead. "He has had to overcome his scary face," friend and fellow LDP politician Shizuka Kamei joked.

Nonaka told the magazine that, during World War II, he felt guilty seeing the bad treatment of the children, many of whom were Koreans forced to work in nearby weapons factories. He has since made improving relations with North Korea--which he has visited--a priority and has advocated supplying food to the impoverished nation.

In 1973, as a member of the Kyoto prefectural council, Nonaka acknowledged that he was from an area known as a dowa, where people said to be buraku live.

Japan's ancient buraku superstition is a prejudice associated with alleged descendants of those who dealt with the slaughter of animals, an occupation once thought to be unclean in this homogenous Buddhist society (although meat is widely eaten now). Those who work with meat or leather or live in certain areas often are branded buraku, damned as much by the perception as by any actual lineage.

In his passionate 1973 speech, Nonaka told the prefecture council how he had been hired shortly after the war by the Japanese National Railroad's Osaka division, where he prospered amid a labor shortage. He hired several junior staffers, he said, let them stay at his dorm, cooked for them, sent them to night school and taught them their jobs. But one, apparently envious of his supervisor's success, whispered to others that "Nonaka is flying high in Osaka, but he's a man from the buraku when he goes to Sonobe," Nonaka's hometown near Kyoto.

"For a week, I cried and cried," Nonaka said, according to a transcript of his speech available in the National Parliament Library. "They are the ones I took care of. I am no different from them: I don't have three eyes, I don't have different color skin, I don't have two mouths, I don't have four ears. I have no intention to hide my background, but I also didn't want to tell others in Osaka. But in escaping from my own environment, I tried too hard to make myself look like a good kid."

Nonaka quit the job. But he begged his sympathetic boss to spare the rumormonger, Nonaka said in his speech, in hopes the man would regret the action and work to eliminate discrimination.

Though some "buraku liberation" groups have contributed to Nonaka's campaigns, he hasn't run on a human rights platform and appears never to have dwelt on the issue after 1973.

"If it were the case [that he is buraku], he never felt sad about it or regretted it," said Yoshihiro Nishida, a friend and fellow member of parliament. "He's just put more effort into creating a society based on his belief that all people are created equal."

Rather than being a human rights campaigner, however, Nonaka is better known as a powerful information broker.

From his three decades in local politics and close ties with police, Nonaka has developed strong information networks. He drops hints implying that he knows the alleged dirty deeds of his enemies. Privately, he told the political commentator who likened his information network to the CIA that Ozawa, the rival politician who defected from the Liberal Democratic Party in 1993, was a U.S. spy. How do you know? the commentator asked. "I know exactly how many times Ozawa has come out the back door of the U.S. Embassy," Nonaka replied, in a tart reference to views shared by some U.S. policymakers and Ozawa.

Ozawa and U.S. Embassy officials in Tokyo declined to comment.

Nonaka also makes some threats publicly. "There are facts I can't disclose about Ozawa to society because it will cause trouble to many other people," Nonaka wrote in "I Will Fight," his 1996 autobiography. "So I've written them down so they can be read after my death."

Such hints about damaging information are what two senior-level bureaucrats say compelled some of Japan's huge banks to accept the public bailout to ease a nationwide credit crunch in return for more government control over financial institutions. Nonaka made a rare outburst for a politician in poker-faced Japan, fulminating in October that "my gut is boiling over in anger at the lack of morality of the banks," which he implied were shoring up their own balance sheets with public funds rather than making loans to cash-starved businesses as intended.

Sensitivity to Any Form of Wrongdoing

Blunt on some topics, Nonaka shows unusual sensitivity on others. After serving as a Japan-based soldier for two years in World War II, Nonaka wrote, he nearly killed himself when his country surrendered. "I had lost my purpose in life after Japan's defeat," he wrote. But an admiral admonished him that if he had the courage to commit suicide, he "should turn it into courage to rebuild the country."

Nonaka has turned against militarism, suggesting in his book that he and his countrymen were brainwashed by Japanese leaders. He opposes sending even peacekeeping forces to embattled areas. Last spring, he laid flowers at a memorial in the Chinese city of Nanjing, once called Nanking, where Japanese soldiers in 1937 massacred hundreds of thousands of people. He apologized for the "unbearable pain" Japan had inflicted, in stark contrast to the continual denials by some LDP politicians of his generation that Japan committed wartime atrocities.

In 1995, Nonaka, who was then in the Cabinet presiding over the Home Affairs Ministry, which includes the police agency, made the rare gesture of personally apologizing to a suspect who had been falsely accused by local police of poisoning his wife and neighbors with sarin gas.

Now, Nonaka is devoting himself to holding together the fragile government of the mild-mannered Obuchi--who is known as a conciliator among his fellow politicians but who scores dismal public popularity ratings.

Nonaka revels in the power game but isn't jockeying to become prime minister himself. Whenever the time comes, he says, he'll be ready to devote his attention to a facility for the handicapped where he is chairman.

"If you have political ambition, you cannot speak out for justice" for fear of electoral defeat, Nonaka wrote in his autobiography. "Politicians have to dedicate themselves to the public by emptying their egos."

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