His Last Name Begins With ‘T’ 

Some political races feature candidates that break all of the previous and contemporary molds of politics. In the aftermath of an unpopular administration, a charismatic individual can sweep up a nation in parades of populism. Such an individual, an extremely wealthy man with a rags-to-riches story, can radicalize conservatives against opponents who are socialist and anti-capitalist. His campaign makes promises that seem impossible to accomplish. His speeches state that he is the people’s politician and that the establishment is oppressing the nation. This politician’s family name begins with the letter, ‘T.’ Move aside, Donald Trump, the politician being described is Kakuei Tanaka, who ruled Japan through deal-making and strategic spending for multiple decades of the 20th century.


A Politician Who Is Not A Politician

Tanaka was born in the snowy and mountainous prefecture of Niigata in 1918. His father was a horse trader with a gambling problem and his mother was a devoted housekeeper who kept the family from collapsing. Money troubles ended Tanaka’s education at the young age of fourteen, which led to him working as a manual laborer. At sixteen, Tanaka journeyed to Tokyo to build a better life for himself. He did not make a great first impression in the city. His peers often brushed him aside as a country bumpkin, but Tanaka was persistent in chasing his dreams. He enrolled in night classes to study architecture and engineering, eventually opening his own architectural firm when he was 19 years old.

Tanaka began laying the foundations for his economic empire during World War Two. He was drafted into the Japanese military in 1939 and served with the army in Manchuria, but he was discharged from service in 1941 after falling deathly ill. No longer a soldier, Tanaka devoted his life to his architecture firm. In 1942, at the age of 24, Tanaka married a 31-year-old construction company heiress, named Hana Sakamoto. Tanaka absorbed his wife’s construction company, which allowed him to gain access to profitable government contracts. Historian Jacob M. Schlesinger, writes in his book, Shadow Shogun: The Rise and Fall of Japan’s Postwar Political Machine, that the Japanese government paid Tanaka the equivalent of seventy million dollars to construct a factory in Korea, but the war ended before any construction was completed. Tanaka pocketed the money and returned to the Japanese mainland to find much of his nation bombed and burned—a scene perfect for a newly rich construction giant.

A Money-man of the People

World War II ended and Japan was introduced to democracy. Tanaka began involving himself in politics by lending money to political parties and candidates. The politicians Tanaka was funding later convinced him to run for office as a representative for his home prefecture of Niigata. Despite confessing, “I had not even read the constitution,” Tanaka roamed the Niigata countryside during his campaign preaching of populism, rebuilding a great Japan, and bringing about incredible amounts of ambitious pork- barrel spending for the Japanese people. Schlesinger’s, Shadow Shoguns, contains one of Tanaka’s unrealistic campaign promises: “Hey, everybody, let’s cut down the mountains at the border, then the winter winds from the Japan Sea will blow straight through to the Pacific and we’ll no longer have snow! We won’t have to suffer anymore!”

Tanaka used his wealth and rags-to-riches story as a main component of his campaign. Like many historical figures, Tanaka made sure that he controlled his own image. Therefore, most of what is recorded about his early life was written and released by him. He used his business success to awe and impress his constituents, while also playing up his childhood of manual labor and poverty to emphasize his claim of being a man of the people. Tanaka wrote an autobiography titled, My Personal History, which was a best-selling book. He would later write down his vision of an ideal Japan in his two-hundred-and-twenty paged book, New Japan: A Plan for Remodeling the Japanese Archipelago.

Tanaka was the kind of person that seemed to stand taller than his peers. He was charismatic, humorous, to the point, and spoke to crowds without jargon or censorship. He also obtained a reputation for drinking and coarse language. He was recorded as saying, “Unless I have two glasses of whiskey in my office every day, my blood pressure won’t go down… I expand my veins by using alcohol.” He addressed his colorful language with the statement, “You think my speech is vulgar because I say ‘asshole’ and ‘shit,’ right?...But that makes me closer to people.” Kakuei Tanaka constantly exaggerated his knowledge with statements such as, “I know the complete history of all 130 election districts” and that he had read, “the complete works of world literature—before I was sixteen.” Jacob Schlesinger describes Tanaka’s demeanor in Shadow Shoguns. “He walked fast, talked fast, and fidgeted constantly when forced to sit still. He greeted people by abruptly raising his right arm and quickly cut them off with grunts of ‘Yossha, yossha,’ an informal “Okay, okay.’”

In 1947, Tanaka succeeded in becoming a representative for Niigata. He quickly gained a reputation as a middleman, dealmaker, and problem solver. In 1955, he became a founding member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which was a business-oriented, conservative party that formed largely to counter the significant Socialist Party of Japan. Jacob Schlesinger writes that the LDP was given the moniker, “’Japan Inc.’ The term connoted a system that ran cleanly and efficiently, more like a corporation than an elected government.” Tanaka quickly climbed the hierarchy of the LDP. He was named the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications when he was thirty-nine. He later became the youngest Finance Minister of Japan and even became LDP’s chief strategist. Despite Tanaka’s quick and successful rise in the LDP, the “establishment” of Japan did not believe Kakuei Tanaka to be true leadership material.

Prime Minister Tanaka

Tanaka bided his time, solving problems and making deals in lower government until an opportunity emerged for him to make his final leap to the top. In 1972, the administration of Prime Minister Sato was coming to a close with an approval rating of only twenty percent. Jacob Schlesinger’s Shadow Shogun records Japanese media stating, “We are sick and tired of dull, safe-driving bureaucrats…Sato’s ‘politics of waiting’ are no good. A man of decision must replace him.” Kakuei Tanaka published his visionary, New Japan, the same year and announced that he was running for Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Sato and his chosen successor, Fukuda, did not give Tanaka due credit at first. They overlooked him and underestimated his appeal with the population. Tanaka was a smooth talker that could connect with the people while the “establishment” politicians were often stuffy and highbrow, from old established families. Tanaka was willing to wallow in the mud with the common people, while his opponents were wary to step off of their pedestals. Shadow Shoguns describes Tanaka’s campaign skills: “He was Japan’s acknowledged master of moving crowds, artfully playing the nostalgic raconteur, the cutting stand-up comic, the stern teacher…making his stump speeches spellbinding performances that induced nods, laughter, and tears.”

Sato and Fukuda finally realized that Tanaka was a threat, but the epiphany occurred too late. The LDP gathered to vote on who would be chosen as the next prime Minister. Four candidates vied for control, including Tanaka and Fukuda. To win, a candidate needed a majority vote of LDP members. Despite Prime Minister Sato personally calling LDP delegates and begging them to “vote for Fukuda, no matter what,” the election ended with Kakuei Tanaka winning 282 votes from the LDP and Fukuda winning only 190, making Tanaka the Prime Minister of Japan from 1972 until 1974.


How Did This Wealthy Populist Prime Minister Do in Office?

Was Kakuei Tanaka a decent Prime Minister? That question requires a discussion of government ethics. Tanaka and his followers preached economic growth and an abundance of public works. The LDP under Tanaka, without a doubt, brought this about. Kakuei Tanaka improved infrastructure by paving new roadways and laying new tracks for bullet trains. He could not “cut down the mountains” in Niigata, but he drilled through them, connecting his prefecture to Tokyo with highways and railways. His administration authorized numerous public works projects, such as schools and power plants. Even a law that required the government to clear the streets of snow for the people of Japan was ushered in during Tanaka’s administration. After all of these seemingly harmless benefits of the Tanaka government, why is an ethical discussion needed?

The answer is that Kakuei Tanaka never stopped being an entrepreneurial businessman. His administration built infrastructure and public works projects on land provided by Tanaka real estate companies. The land acquired by Tanaka’s companies was purchased cheaply and generated profit when public projects were announced that increased the value of the property. Tanaka bus companies dominated the new roadways built by the Tanaka administration. The new bullet trains rolled atop rails placed over Tanaka gravel. Even the snow that the government was required to remove from the roadways was removed using Tanaka road clearing services. Jacob Schlesinger states rightly in Shadow Shoguns, “Tanaka was a pragmatic politician, not a philanthropist.” Tanaka’s money funded his politics and his politics profited him greatly.

Worse was how Tanaka swayed the Japanese government to follow his political style and his vision of Japan. Tanaka’s favorite technique of persuasion was the carrot and stick approach; just replace the carrot with millions of yen. Concerning the 1972 election that won Tanaka his position as Prime Minister, Jacob Schlesinger states, “Tanaka was said to have shelled out up to $16 million, five times Fukuda’s war chest, in a race decided by five hundred electors—more than half of what Richard Nixon had spent on his entire national presidential bid in 1968.” Tanaka, himself, claimed, “I am called the governor of the private bank of Japan,” referring to his extravagant use of bribery and pay-offs.

Tanaka’s corruption did not go unnoticed. In the fifties and sixties, multiple acquaintances of Tanaka were arrested for embezzlement and illegal government contracts; however, these incidents never traced back to Tanaka. Even Tanaka’s geisha mistress was investigated for suspicious real estate purchases. By 1974, the Japanese press was very suspicious of Tanaka. The scholarly magazine, Bungei Shunju, released an investigative piece that totaled forty pages in length, titled, “A Study of Kakuei Tanaka: His Money & His Men.” The evidence of corruption that Tanaka had repeatedly brushed aside, finally stuck. Japan’s economy was struggling, and Tanaka’s enormous ill-gotten wealth was no longer easily forgiven or forgotten. Shadow Shoguns states, “His public support rating, once a record-high 62 percent, plunged to a record-low 12 percent,” which pressured Tanaka into resigning from his position as Prime Minister of Japan.

Resignation, however, did not end Tanaka’s political career. In fact, there was another low-point. In 1976, a Lockheed scandal brought Kakuei Tanaka back into the spotlight. A. Carl Kotchian, the president of Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, confessed to bribing Japanese officials to gain an advantage in attaining a government contract. Shadow Shoguns states, “if Tanaka could just make sure that All Nippon Airways (ANA) bought Lockheed planes, he’d get a cut of 500 million yen, worth $1.6 million at the time.” Tanaka accepted and was paid the money in four subtle cardboard boxes of yen. Tanaka’s trial began in 1977 and ended in 1983, where he was fined half a billion yen and was sentenced to five years of labor. Surely, after being publicly convicted of corruption and taking bribes, Tanaka would lose all of his influence, right? Wrong.

Tanaka and the Gundan

Tanaka spent his political career demonstrating that he could get pork-barrel spending passed and funded by any means necessary. His many years of bribery and deal making gave Tanaka powerful connections. Politicians knew that they could go to Tanaka to make their campaign promises become reality, and Tanaka knew that his resources and knowledge were coveted. Tanaka stated, “I know almost all of the situations, and I have a network of people all over Japan. I can run…elections just by using the telephone.” During Tanaka’s seven-year-long trial, and afterward, the people of Japan would flock to his home to hear his advice and benefit from his connections. Shadow Shoguns records one of Tanaka’s followers saying, “You could become a cabinet minister by visiting Tanaka. You could not become a cabinet minister if he disliked you.” The political disciples of Tanaka were called the Gundan and they grew to be a dominant block of the Japanese government.

Tanaka, even though he was convicted of bribery and corruption, became the kingmaker of Japan. Shadow Shogun states, “Masayoshi Ohira in 1978, Zenko Suzuki in 1980, and Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1982—owed their exalted position to the gundan’s patronage.” These three prime ministers were appointed during Tanaka’s trial. Tanaka even took the time to criticize the people he helped crown, evaluating them without restraint as if they were his bothersome employees. An interesting insult from Tanaka was when he called Prime Minister Nakasone “a first-class geisha dancing on the international stage.” Tanaka used his defeat in court to remove government ethics from the table. As he was already caught, he did not need to disguise his methods.

Some people resisted the resurgence of Tanaka’s influence, as with the “forty-day war” where dissident politicians occupied an LDP auditorium in an attempt to prevent the Tanaka-backed Prime Minister Ohira from forming a cabinet. Nevertheless, the incentives of Tanaka and the Gundan were too much for many politicians and civilians alike. During his trial, Tanaka was reelected as the representative of the Niigata prefecture in 1979 and 1980. Constituents loved Tanaka’s ability to cultivate pork-barrel spending, and politicians were drawn to the allure of money and the strength of the Gundan faction.

 Tanaka continued to rule Japan from the shadows until his death after a stroke in 1993. Even after the death of their leader, Tanaka’s lieutenants were wary of claiming leadership over the Gundan for themselves. Jacob Schlesinger writes in Shadow Shogun, “Yet, so awesome was the aura of Tanaka’s indestructibility that Takeshita and his partners still took more than two years to wrest control conclusively.” After Tanaka’s death, his Gundan continued to dominate Japanese politics until one of the Gundan leaders, named Ozawa, defected to a faction dedicated to reform in the late nineties.

Pieces to Ponder—Takeaways for Today

 Just as Tanaka’s first election as a representative of Niigata eventually led to the creation of a corrupt Japanese government cabal, Americans need to be cautious of who is given power. Before casting votes in local, state and federal elections, citizens should learn from the story of Kakuei Tanaka. The motivations of the candidates running for office ought to be evaluated to weed out the selfless from the selfish.  An official’s past and ethical philosophy needs to be determined so the population can decide if their future leaders will act with principle instead of Machiavellian pragmatism. Yet, modernity favors sound bite one-liners and bullet-point political platforms. Voters must peer through claims of populism and sycophantic rhetoric to illuminate the true character of the politicians running for office. In the upcoming political races where the population’s clarity of mind may be undermined by anger, fear, anxiety and frustration, voters must be vigilant that they not fall victim to wolves hiding among the sheep.

Feature image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore