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The sparkle in Japan's hardworking new leader

By Takashi OkaStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 3, 1987



Matsue, Japan

Most people following events in Japan know that Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita is hardworking, that he is a consensus-builder, that his strength lies in domestic politics rather than international affairs. His first major policy speech in the Diet (parliament) last Friday confirmed this impression. How about sparkle? Can he kick up his heels once in a while, and tumble into unforeseen situations?

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``Let me tell you about the love-letter incident,'' says one of the new premier's best childhood friends, Uemon Takeuchi. A hearty, outspoken individual, Mr. Takeuchi was interviewed in the town of Kamo, outside Matsue, where he has been mayor for 22 years.

Takeuchi has known Mr. Takeshita since they were campers at the age of nine, but the incident he related took place in the castle town of Matsue, when the two were high-school classmates.

Takeshita and Takeuchi, it seems, were smitten by the same ``madonna'' - Takeuchi's word - who attended a girls' high school across the way.

One day a letter arrived at Takeuchi's lodgings, addressed to ``Mr. Noboru Takeuchi.'' This was prewar Japan, when girls and boys were strictly segregated. Takeuchi described the missive as a ``love letter,'' though it merely expressed a desire to meet the addressee. Gleefully, he flaunted the letter before his classmate.

But Takeshita scanned the envelope: ``That's funny. The address is [yours]. But the addressee is Mr. Noboru Takeuchi. She must have meant it for me.''

Takeuchi conceded only when an intermediary confirmed that it was indeed Noboru the girl wanted to see. In high spirits, Takeshita went off to his rendezvous, in a spiffy black uniform and cloak, of which he was inordinately proud.

A couple of hours later, back he came, his uniform soiled, his cloak totally bedraggled. Cradled in his arm was a beautiful potted cyclamen. Apparently Takeshita and the girl had been chatting on the verandah of her country house, where she thought she would be safe from prying eyes. The conversation was demure, quite proper. She had given him a cyclamen as a token of her friendship.

Then, disaster of disasters, the girl heard her father unexpectedly coming in. What to do? Quick as a flash, Takeshita scrambled under the verandah and lay there, hardly breathing, until the coast cleared. He was covered in mud, but managed to keep the flower intact.

The next morning, Takeshita put the cyclamen outside his window, where it could be seen from the girl's school. ``No, they didn't get married,'' said Takeuchi. ``But we are all good friends to this day.''

Takeuchi remembers another aspect of Takeshita's character - learning to control his temper. Growing up, said Takeuchi, Noboru got just as angry as anyone else. ``But he decided rather early to control himself.''

Later acquaintances testify that he was never seen to lose his temper. A close constituency adviser, Hideo Okuhara, remembers Takeshita saying, ``Every time I get angry, I feel uncomfortable and unhappy myself. So I decided, `Why do something that has such a negative effect on me?'''

Takeshita's hometown, Kakeai, is in the hills of western Japan, about an hour's drive from Matsue. It is a perfect spot in which to feel the concept of furusato (loosely translated as hometown or homeland) that Takeshita has made the centerpiece of his political program.

``Everyone has a furusato,'' says Takeshita. To the city-bred, it may be a street or a square. To the country-born, it's ``the hills where I used to catch rabbits.''