Will real Nakasone please stand up? Japanese premier plays Western, Eastern personae with aplomb

When Yasuhiro Nakasone goes electioneering, he puts on an elegantly tailored Western suit, dons spotless white gloves, and adorns his chest with a huge white rose, symbol of the campaign speaker. When he engages in Zen meditation at a Buddhist temple, as he does quite frequently, he usually changes into a kimono and hakama (a long split skirt). He is equally at home in either garb -- or, for that matter, in a pair of holiday jeans.

He reveres the Emperor and is proud of Japan's 2,000-year-old civilization. At the same time, words like ``democracy,'' ``fundamental human rights,'' and ``internationalism'' come trippingly to his tongue. He values his personal friendship with Ronald Reagan and considers the security relationship with the United States as the bedrock of Japan's foreign policy.

In Kofu yesterday, where he gave a press conference and made a campaign speech, he emphasized the Western, internationalist aspect of his philosophy and character. At other whistlestops he may pay more attention to nationalism.

Which is the real Nakasone? The nationalist, yea the revanchist, his opponents -- especially the socialists -- cry? Not so, say his supporters, who maintain he is the most internationalist prime minister postwar Japan has produced.

A source who has known Mr. Nakasone closely for many years believes that he is both -- with a mindset that embodies traditional values as well as the sense of freedom and individual worth that came to Japan from the West.

Western leaders such as Mr. Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher have appreciated Nakasone's relative scrutability -- his eschewing of vague generalities. They feel they know where he stands to a far greater extent than with most of his predecessors.

Domestic opponents are much more skeptical. They think he wants to rearm Japan, to revive state-imposed Confucian ethics, and to turn the clock back on postwar democratic reforms. In short, they do not trust Nakasone's democratic good faith.

In Kofu, Nakasone addressed himself directly to one of his opponents' concerns: his alleged militarism. ``Do I have the face of a hawk?'' he asked amid the applause and laughter of his mostly middle-aged audience.

He went on to speak quite movingly of having lost a brother during the war (Nakasone himself served in the Navy). ``We don't want our children ever to have to go to war again,'' he said.

In the current campaign leading up to election day July 7, Nakasone has soft-peddled defense and urged the two superpowers toward a meaningful summit on reducing nuclear arms. But the 3-year record of his administration shows consistent annual increases of 6 percent to 7 percent in the defense budget even while health, social security, public works, and other items with high voter appeal were squeezed.

Does this indicate hawkishness, despite Nakasone's disclaimer? To some extent, yes. But it has also been argued that at a time of very high trade tension between the US and Japan, the prime minister has defused defense as another irritant in relations between the two Pacific allies.

Some US congressmen still sound off about the free ride Japan is enjoying on defense. But, as Ambassador Mike Mansfield never tires of pointing out, the US gets at least as much value out of its bases on Japanese territory as do the Japanese themselves.

In Kofu, Nakasone also spoke about the need to overcome ``chronic ailments'' in Japanese government going back to the 19th century: the tendency for authority to be centralized in Tokyo; the tendency for officials to look down on ordinary citizens; and the never-ending dispute over turf between ministries. He was pushing forward his drive for administrative reform in this context, he said. With the goal of achieving ``cheap government'' or ``small government,'' the telephone service had been privatized and the money-losing national railways were also to be privatized and split up.

In answer to a question from a Chinese correspondent about ``history distorting'' textbooks, Nakasone said his government would make every effort to achieve a revision satisfactory to China and other Asian neighbors.

He did not spell out, however, what specific changes might be required. As a matter of fact, Nakasone himself, as forthright as he is on other subjects, has tended to indirectness when referring to Japane's wartime actions, using such phrases as ``we caused a lot of trouble to our neighbors.''

Is this a case in which the prime minister's nationalism collides with his internationalism? It would be ironic if it turned out that the Chinese, rather than domestic opposition parties, caused a reluctant Nakasone to call a spade a spade and explicitly characterize Japan's wartime actions as ``aggression.''

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