Prime minister of Japan
from 1972 to 1974. Originally from Niigata
, he moved to Tokyo at the age of 15 and started his own construction firm in 1937. Ten years later, he used the money he had saved up during World War II
to make a successful run for the Diet
, and joined the dominant Liberal Democratic Party
. Around this time, he had a son named Tanaka Masanori
, who died at a young age, and a daughter named Tanaka Makiko
, who went on to marry dietman Suzuki Naoki
and become a major figure in Japanese politics herself.
Tanaka Kakuei went on to become Minister of Finance (1962), LDP Secretary General (1965), and Minister of International Trade and Industry (1971). As MITI minister, he became famous among American negotiators for waffling over minor points in trade deals until the Americans would have to relent just to get the hell out of the room. He gained his power by assisting in fundraising for the campaign of prime minister Sato Eisaku, so needless to say, that faction in the LDP loved him.
The 1972 election was the dirtiest in Japanese history, pitting Tanaka against economic genius Fukuda Takeo for the LDP's votes. Tanaka reportedly spent nearly $30 million, a ridiculous sum for any parliamentary campaign in Japan. He won the prime ministerial election at the age of 54, making him the youngest premier in Japanese history.
Tanaka was noted for pork-barrel politics. The worst example of this was the Joetsu Shinkansen railway line from Tokyo to Niigata, which was appropriated in 1971 and completed in 1982 at a final cost of $15.5 billion that included fourteen miles of tunnels. The Joetsu line went from Tokyo to Gumma Prefecture, home of several key LDP lawmakers, and then directly through the mountains to Tanaka's home turf in Niigata.
Tanaka's political crown jewel, however, was the normalization of Japan's relations with the People's Republic of China in 1972. In a sense, he was riding on the coattails of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, but in another sense, he was one of the first postwar leaders in Japan that hadn't been an active member of the Imperial government, so he had a negotiating power with the Chinese that few Japanese politicians at the time could muster.
His domestic policies were the first nails in his political coffin: specifically, his Conference for Rebuilding Japan. Among his lofty ideas, he wanted to build a national monorail system, develop new cities, and depopulate existing cities. (Oxymoron? Nope, doublespeak.) None of his plans ever made it past the drawing board stage: what they did do was start a trend of land speculation in Japan that drove real estate prices to absolutely ridiculous highs, to the point where Tokyo was worth about the same amount of money as the entire state of California. The plan weakened Tanaka's faction and forced him to give his old rival Fukuda a seat on the Cabinet, which put another nail in his coffin.
Then Tanaka had three children with a geisha named Tsuji Kazuko. As if that weren't bad enough, he then used her name to buy a parcel of land in Tokyo and sell it to the government that he was running at a huge profit. By 1973, the growing scandal surrounding his geisha, as well as the burgeoning oil crisis, pulled his popularity ratings to a rock-bottom level, so he performed a decidedly Clintonesque suicide maneuver: he sponsored a bill to officially sanction Yasukuni Shrine as a shrine to the war dead.
For most of this period, Tanaka was holding onto power through his grassroots organization, Etsukanzai. Villagers in secluded areas would each donate about $100 to Etsukanzai, and in turn Tanaka would sponsor new roads and tunnels in their villages to replace dilapidated war-era ones. Etsukanzai also brought two new nuclear reactors to Niigata. It was pork-barrel politics at its finest, and it kept Tanaka in power until 1974.
By that point, Japan hated Tanaka, so Tanaka did what any hated Japanese politician would do: he found a puppet to throw his votes at. That puppet was Miki Takeo, who had his own small following in the ranks of the LDP. While it took Tanaka out of formal power, it effectively meant that Tanaka was now being scrutinized through Miki.
This was when the Lockheed Scandal broke. At that time, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways were planning to purchase new fleets of widebody aircraft, and they solicited bids from Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and Lockheed. In 1976, Lockheed vice-chairman Archibald Carl Kotchian testified in front of a United States Senate subcommittee that his corporation had paid $1.8 million in bribes to Tanaka between 1973 and 1974, in an attempt to get the prime minister's support for ANA's procurement of Lockheed Tristar aircraft (ANA did purchase several). At first, Secretary of State Kissinger was reluctant to turn over evidence to Japanese investigators, out of fears that an investigation might have ruined the US-Japan security arrangement. When news broke in Japan, Miki was more or less forced to demand the release of the evidence directly from President Gerald Ford. On July 27, Tanaka was arrested for corruption and imprisoned: he was released 21 days later on a $2.5 million bond.
The Lockheed trial, in which Tanaka was represented by a ten-man legal team, dragged on for years and years. Hearings finally wrapped up in November of 1982, but the judge did not deliver his ruling until October 12, 1983, when he found Tanaka and his co-conspirators guilty on all counts and sentenced the former prime minister to four years in prison. Tanaka merely hired eight more lawyers and filed an appeal.
In the meantime, Tanaka had still been active in politics as a kingmaker, and had brought Nakasone Yasuhiro to power in 1983. With his principal benefactor now a convicted criminal, Nakasone found himself in a political pit: the opposition parties and factions were able to band together their votes and kill all of his legislation. Nakasone called a general election, gave Tanaka the political middle finger, and won in 1984 with his own LDP faction.
Tanaka's kingmaker days were now over. His political power continued, however, until his death from pneumonia in 1993, at the age of 75. While his faction was effectively hushed in the last years of his life, his presence remained a jading influence on Japanese politics in general.
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