Former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, known as the last "shadow shogun" of Japanese politics, died early today in Tokyo, Japanese media reported. He was 76.
Takeshita, who had been hospitalized for more than a year, announced last month that he would not run in a general election scheduled June 25. His death was attributed to respiratory difficulties.
Takeshita was the last of the puppet masters who could control politics from behind the scenes. His retirement and now death mark the end of an era, setting the stage for a power struggle in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
The son of a sake brewer, Takeshita is said to have mastered two quintessentially Japanese arts: the knack of getting people to do exactly what he wants without giving orders, and a talent for getting information while giving almost nothing away.
Takeshita had served as prime minister for less than 18 months from 1987 to 1989 when he was forced to resign over a scandal in which he admitted accepting illicit stock and cash donations from Recruit Co., a marketing and information firm. The scandal involved much of Takeshita's Cabinet. He was never charged.
But his real power was exercised behind the scenes, where for nearly two decades he reigned over the largest faction of the Liberal Democratic Party. From that perch he collected and dispensed favors and advice, steered public works projects and anointed prime ministers. He handpicked and mentored Keizo Obuchi, who was prime minister from July 1998 until suffering a stroke in April. Obuchi died May 14.
Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who replaced Obuchi, also belongs to the Takeshita faction of the Liberal Democratic Party.
Though Takeshita's health and political clout had been ebbing, he remained a force to be reckoned with even from his hospital bed. He allowed few visitors, but was said to have masterminded the coalition between his party and the New Komeito party and even influenced Mori's selection by telephone. The coalition allowed the weakened Liberal Democratic Party to push through its economic reform legislation with minimal concessions.
Takeshita, whose political career spanned more than four decades and included a stint as finance minister, clawed his way to the top of the party's faction founded by Kakuei Tanaka, the father of modern Japanese pork-barrel politics.
Takeshita served as chief Cabinet secretary for Tanaka, who gained enormous political power despite his arrest and conviction on bribery charges involving the California aircraft manufacturer Lockheed in the early 1970s. In that scandal, 14 other Japanese politicians and businessmen were convicted of charges relating to the payment of more than $9 million in bribes by Lockheed. Tanaka and his cohorts were accused of promoting sales of Lockheed's TriStar jetliner to help offset Japan's coming trade surplus.
In international financial circles, Takeshita is probably best known for agreeing as finance minister to the Plaza Accord in September 1985, when a group of the world's wealthier nations agreed to push down the dollar and send the yen soaring.
That accord ushered in a series of Japanese interest rate cuts that gave rise to the nation's "bubble economy" of soaring land and share prices. When the bubble burst at the start of the 1990s, Japan entered a decade of stagnation that included its worst recession of the postwar era.
Among ordinary Japanese, Takeshita's most lasting legacy is likely to be the unpopular sales tax, forced through parliament in 1988 in the teeth of bitter popular opposition. Originally 3%, it was raised to 5% in 1997.
In 1988, when Takeshita was prime minister, he succeeded in defusing Japan's toughest foreign policy problem--trade friction with the United States--and helped Japan's image by boosting foreign aid and debt repayment assistance.
Born Feb. 26, 1924, in the farm village of Kakeya in western Japan, Takeshita served in the Japanese army during World War II as an instructor. After the war, he managed a high school judo team before taking up politics.
In 1951 he was elected to the local assembly in his home prefecture of Shimane on the Sea of Japan. Seven years later, at the age of 34, he won a seat in parliament.
Survivors include his wife, Naoko, three daughters and several grandchildren.