The defiant bulldog of Japanese politics

A former Japanese prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida, once described Kakuei Tanaka as a ''smart man walking on a prison wall with good balance.'' Last week, when the Tokyo District Court sentenced him to four years' imprisonment in the Lockheed bribery scandal, it seemed as if Tanaka was about to fall off the wall.

And yet many Japanese find this hard to believe: They look at a lifetime of public audacity, determination, and resilience, and they doubt the former premier will ever end up behind bars.

It would be fully in keeping with the gritty self-made millionaire politician's dramatic life. A school dropout who proved a moneymaking genius almost before he was out of his teens, Tanaka has already set a host of records, not least the speed in which he clawed his way up the political ladder in defiance of the Japanese tradition of respecting and equating age with wisdom.

A politician at 28, he was a Cabinet minister by 39. At 54 he was the nation's youngest-ever prime minister. Now he is the first prime minister to be convicted for accepting bribes.

But in true bulldog style, Tanaka has insisted he will fight to the end. He has pledged to appeal his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, a process that could take 10 years.

He is resisting massive pressure to accept responsibility by resigning from the Japanese Diet (parliament). Meanwhile, the political scene has become chaotic as factions within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party squabble among themselves. And the ruling party battles with the opposition over the basic issue of ''morality.''

Few Japanese are surprised by Tanaka's actions.

Tanaka was born in 1918 in a small farming village in Niigata Prefecture, isolated on the Japan Sea coast and buried under snow through long, harsh winters. His father was a horse and cattle dealer who went bankrupt, preventing the boy from continuing his education after finishing eight years of school at the age of 14. This childhood, say many Japanese, molded the tough, abrasive character Tanaka repeatedly demonstrated in later life.

In 1934, he came alone to Tokyo to study the construction business at night school while supporting himself with various jobs during the daytime. At the age of 19, he founded his own construction company, which quickly became immensely successful, providing Tanaka with the beginnings of the fortune that enabled him to buy power and influence in public life.

Entering politics, he won his first Cabinet post in 1957 as minister of post and communications, although almost as soon as he entered the Diet he managed to be appointed a vice-minister at the Ministry of Justice.

A colleague recalled that ''Tanaka always displayed guts and limitless energy , which had been fostered in his career in the rough-and-tumble of the construction business.''

But from the start he was tainted by scandal. And over the years, a string of dubious business deals kept surfacing, particularly in behind-the-scenes manipulations in which Tanaka was repeatedly accused of using inside knowledge to make a profit from the disposal of national property and from other real estate deals.

He weathered all the scandals, however, to emerge dramatically as prime minister in 1972. It was a bitter fight against his arch rival, Takeo Fukuda, who accused the victor of buying his way to victory with lavish spending to win the necessary votes.

The phrase ''money politics'' was born then, and it has dogged both Tanaka and the ruling party ever since. Critics complain that Tanaka's dominant political philosophy is that ''you can get anything you want with money''; a legacy, perhaps, of certain practices in the Japanese construction industry.

This attitude proved to be his downfall in 1974, when Tanaka was forced to quit over allegations of dubious land deals. Two years later, he also left the LDP to become an independent, after being indicted in the Lockheed case - accepting 500 million yen ($2 million) to use his personal influence to persuade a domestic airline to buy Lockheed aircraft.

But instead of disappearing from the scene, Tanaka boldly gained control of more than a third of the LDP Diet membership - described in the news media as his ''iron-clad army'' - and to become the party's kingmaker, able to dictate who would or would not become prime minister. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone owes his political ascendancy to Tanaka.

Factional loyalty so far shows little sign of weakening. Encouraged by this, Tanaka has issued defiant statements that ''I don't take the [court's] sentence seriously. . . . The new stage of the struggle begins today. . . . I will execute my task in the Diet as long as I live.''

Tanaka faction members regard themselves as one big family, praising their ''godfather'' boss for the way he looks after their interests, putting all his energy and financial resources into their reelection to the Diet and ensuring they obtain top government posts.

Latest public opinion polls show 91 percent of the people want Tanaka to quit political life. But what counts is his own constituency in Niigata, where he still commands overwhelming support.

One reason for his support at home is the benefits the prefecture has gained from the local boy made good.

Commentator Hideo Matsuoka points out that ''the amount of government public works spending per person in Niigata is the highest in Japan, and this is concentrated in [Tanaka's] third district.''

Referring to the vast amounts of government largesse that Tanaka has managed to divert to his home area, one critic, Prof. Masayoshi Sakai of Niigata University, says: ''What he has done is something like forcing sweets into the mouth of a child whether the tot likes it or not. Tanaka has tried to make Niigata people more and more dependent on him.

''Why does a village with only 300 households need a fine gymnasium accommodating 700 persons, for example?''

But as long as this local support, coupled with the loyalty of the ruling party's largest faction, remains, most commentators see no reason why Tanaka cannot go on haunting the Japanese political scene for a good deal longer.

The controversy over Tanaka's career and final conviction has raised important political and legal questions for Japan that could take a long time to resolve.

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