The sparkle in Japan's hardworking new leader

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?

``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.''

(Furusato is a term Takeshita's aides have difficulty translating into English. Basically, Takeshita wants to broaden the sense of ``native place'' so that human beings may consider this planet their furusato. He says one needs a sense of nostalgia and a determination to make one's furusato a better place. Critics dismiss furusato as a romantic idea. Takeshita insists it is the driving force behind his political and economic programs.)

In feudal times, the Takeshitas were hereditary mayors of Kakeai, a town of some 5,000. As the largest local landlords, the Takeshitas had 40 or 50 tenants. Toyokazu Iwanari was the son of one. Noboru, he recalls, wasn't bossy and didn't give himself airs, but managed to attract a flock of playmates. They would play hide-and-seek or reenact samurai battles. Noboru was small then, and is barely 5 ft. 4 in. today.

Takeshita passed the Army pilots' training course toward the end of World War II. After Japan's defeat, he was demobilized and returned to his alma mater, Tokyo's Waseda University, graduating in 1947. Back home, he taught English at the local high school and ran a youth club.

``He was such a refreshing change from the strict older teachers we had till then,'' recalls one of his pupils.

Takeshita's early career contrasts significantly with that of his predecessor, Yasuhiro Nakasone.

Mr. Nakasone, six years older, was deeply chagrined by Japan's defeat in World War II and by the decline of patriotism among the nation's youth. He welcomed democracy and direct popular election of the prime minister, but opposed what he considered the high-handedness of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's Occupation headquarters, and organized a youth group to restore Confucian virtues.

Takeshita's first postwar action was to strongly support Occupation-sponsored land reform. Iwanari says Noboru persuaded his father to redistribute rice paddies, as well as forests and grasslands, which he was not legally obliged to do. ``I know he felt deeply at that time that landlordism was wrong,'' Iwanari says.

Like Nakasone, Takeshita headed a youth club. But one of its main activities was holding mock sessions of parliament. ``In those days there was no television,'' recalls Mayor Yoshio Ochiai of Kakeai. ``We were starved for entertainment. So we had a lot of fun playing various roles.''

Nakasone was elected to the Diet at the age of 28 and has been in national politics ever since. But Takeshita's first elected office was as a Shimane assemblyman, in 1951 when he was 27.

Octogenarian former Assemblyman Atsunosuke Suhama remembers he was startled to find himself sitting by a baby-faced legislator. But he soon found Takeshita had the basic ingredients for success in politics: a keen memory and the ability to attract and work well with others.

``Shimane was in bad shape because of the war and of floods,'' said Mr. Suhama. ``So we were all of a mind to work together to rebuild our homeland.''

Takeshita recalls that his political credo of furusato was born when he saw the wasted fields and hills of his native region. ``That was my incentive to go into politics,'' he has frequently said.

He is the only Japanese prime minister of who began his career as a local legislator. He became a Diet member after seven years in the assembly. Now Takeshita's friends and neighbors know they won't be able to see him frequently. Nor do they expect special benefits for their region.

``We expect a Diet member to work for his constituency,'' Okuhara says. ``But a prime minister has to work for all Japan, and for the international community, too. We know that he will do his best.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.