Sumo politics: Nakasone takes his mentor to the mat

A June 26 election will decide a critical question for Japan: Can Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone free himself from his powerful supporter, Kakuei Tanaka, and take Japan on a bolder course?

Although Nakasone is seen as a political puppet of the former prime minister, he is also known to be Machiavellian, acquiring the nickname seikai-kazamidori, or ''political weathervane.''

He achieved his long-held goal to become prime minister last year, despite the fact that his faction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is only the fourth largest of the five major groups. He did this by gaining the support of the largest faction, headed by Tanaka, and the third largest faction.

Nakasone's Cabinet is sometimes known as the ''Tanaka-sone'' Cabinet. The chief secretary is Tanaka's faithful colleague, Masaharu Gotoda. Furthermore, the secretary-general of the LDP is Susumu Nikaido, another of the Tanaka faithful.

Many Japanese were surprised therefore when Nakasone announced in early May his decision not to call a general election for the lower house of the Diet (parliament) on the same day as the upper house election to be held June 26. The decision not to hold what is known as ''double elections'' is a clear signal that Nakasone is struggling to gain independence from Tanaka, the longtime kingmaker of Japanese politics.

Tanaka has been insisting on double elections for the last two years. His trial in the Lockheed bribery scandal from the early 1970s is nearly over. A sentence is expected to be handed down this fall. The prosecution has recommended a five-year prison term.

Thus, Tanaka needs to strengthen his political position quickly in order to survive the expected increase in public criticism and the pressure to resign his seat in the Diet. A double election before his sentencing would have minimized damage to his supporters.

The Tanaka faction was frustrated with the decision not to hold a double election. Reportedly, many faction members insisted that Nikaido resign as party secretary general.

Nakasone knows very well that a part of his unpopularity is caused by his dependence on Tanaka. (A rumor that spread after he became prime minister was that Nakasone had kneeled down to Tanaka and implored for his support in gaining that office.)

But can Nakasone gain sufficient popularity to sustain an independent political career?

After his controversial statements in the United States last winter, such as saying Japan should become an ''unsinkable aircraft carrier,'' various polls showed that less than one-third of the public approved of him. But a recent poll indicates some increase in popular support. This recovery may be due to the prime minister's efforts recently to play down his hawkish defense position.

On the other hand, Nakasone's affirmations of Japan's shared defense interests with the West at the Williamsburg summit did spark renewed criticism in the somewhat-dovish Japanese press. This caused Japan's most prestigious newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, to take a highly unusual position against the LDP. The newspaper advocated that voters abandon the ruling party so it would lose sufficient seats in the election to make it equal in strength to other parties.

This month's election, therefore, is crucial to Nakasone as a test of public support for his policies and as a further step in his struggle to be free of Tanaka's influence.

What will happen if Nakasone overcomes Tanaka's influence?

Decisions in Japanese domestic policy as well as in foreign policy are arrived at by consensus within both the bureaucracy and the ruling party. Traditionally, shifts in policy have been gradual and factional politics have had little impact on policy outcomes.

Even so, a more politically independent Nakasone, with strengthened public support, would restore boldness to his policies, especially vis-a-vis the West. This could be a positive factor for US global interests.

Japanese political observers say that there are too many unknown factors to predict whether Nakasone will be successful. Tanaka's supporters are likely to gain more seats in the Diet than they presently have. Even so, Nakasone has probably calculated correctly that he has lessened Tanaka's gains by delaying the election for the upper house.

Some observers say Tanaka has carefully anticipated Nakasone's options and has prepared his own response. In the months ahead, Nakasone will need to take advantage of many more opportunities to outmaneuver the one politician who almost single-handedly put him in Japan's highest office.

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