Chapter 1: RIKYO

"To leave one's home place"

Since 645 A.D., Japanese history has been divided into 231 gengo a term marking the accession of an Emperor to the throne or some other auspicious event. Modern Japan has had four gengo: Meiji (1868-1912) the era of imperial restoration and assimilation of Western technology; Taisho (1912-1926) the era of concurrent parliamentary and totalitarian ascendancy; Showa (1926-1989) an era marked by imperial expansion, war and democratic reconstruction; and Heisei (1989-?) an era as yet undefined. In graduated order, each era has distanced itself from the 264 years of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868).

The Tokugawa period was one of the most unique in human history. During its lengthy tenure, Japan closed itself off from the rest of the world and brutally prescribed an internal ethic that crystallized almost every aspect of the Japanese character. It has been an exercise in modernity to temper the historical momentum of the harsh ethics established during Tokugawa. Tanaka's life is, as are the lives of all Japanese, a personal record of this process of adaptation and redefinition.

Kakuei Tanaka was born on May 4, 1918, in the Taisho era, an era characterized by direct conflict between the old ways of Tokugawa and the new ideals of Meiji. He grew up in the small rural hamlet of Futada, now Nishiyama, in the secluded Prefecture of Niigata. The family's two-acre farm accommodated three generations and a dichotomy of values. Kakuei's grandparents, Sutekichi and Kome, had been raised according to the stern ethics of Tokugawa; his parents, Kakuji and Fume, on the promise of Meiji. The difference in attitudes was amplified by their respective professions. Sutekichi was a respected craftsman of small, wooden Shinto shrines. Kakuji turned an inheritance of several farm horses into an erratic trading business supported by additional odd jobs and gambling. In a place where rice share-cropping was considered good, honest work, and where conformity and humility were supreme virtues, Kakuji was neither in the right occupation, nor was he conformist or humble. He consistently placed family security in jeopardy with farfetched, get-rich schemes.

Kakuji's misplaced entrepreneurship kept the family near poverty and severely damaged their reputation within the tight-knit Futada community. Lacking even a modicum of advantage, Kakuei's family background magnified the social barriers that were also his inheritance.

A significant feature of the Tanaka legend is his romanticized fable of "Fushicho," the Phoenix. Of all the obstacles he would face during his life, none would be more insurmountable than those left him at birth. To appreciate his phenomenal rise to power, it is necessary first to attempt a brief, albeit unjust, glimpse at the geographical, cultural and historical context in which it took place.

Ura Nihon - The Wrong Side of Japan

Tanaka's geographical crucible was the prefecture of Niigata. For the majority of its history, this area of Japan was called Echigo, a name that Tanaka would later revive in honor of his prefectural heritage.

Located along the coast of northwest Japan, Echigo was blessed with scenic beauty and productive land, but cursed with a harsh climate and isolation. Consequently, early settlers did not migrate to this region, and throughout Japan's history, Echigo was never more than an ancillary target of possession.

The richest land in Japan is between Tokyo and Osaka. Within this area there are many large alluvial plains. Japanese history has been defined almost exclusively by the lords of this region. Power, opportunity and privilege, over the course of time, centralized on the Pacific side of Japan. As a consequence of social and cultural hegemony, a deep-seated bias was formed. Japan was psychologically sliced in half. The population facing the Pacific Ocean enjoyed advantage; the population facing the Japan Sea did not. This prejudice has two names: Omote Nihon, the right side of Japan, and Ura Nihon, the wrong side or bottom of Japan.

Locked between sea and mountain, Echigo's narrow corridor of harvest is hampered annually by immense snowfalls. Its winters are some of the most severe in the world, with annual accumulations of snow that range from thirteen to sixteen feet. The massive expanse of the Mikuni Mountains not only contributes to inclement weather, but has further served as a principle retardant to the region's development.

Whereas people in the Pacific and southern areas endured and prospered from the totality of social machinations, the people of Echigo remained a step behind. Innovations in technology and culture were slow to traverse the Mikuni. The early aboriginal inhabitants, called Ezo, were easily subdued. Immigration was primarily a byproduct of conquest and exile, rather than of frontier spirit. As the nation matured from one political period to the next, Echigo was repeatedly reapportioned. Its land was given in booty to tertiary officers serving the interests of Omote (Right Side) rulers and its people were governed by rules superimposed from Omote capitals.


The first major implant was the Shinto religion, indigenous to the Nara area. It arrived during the 4th and 5th centuries. A simplistic outgrowth of curiosity over fertility and natural phenomenon, Shinto has played an essential role in the development of the Japanese character. As the perpetuation of the tribe was dependent on the fertility of people, animals and crops, an instinct for survival led people to venerate all matters of birth and growth. Being that fertility was subject to intervention by the forces of nature, people came to worship natural phenomenon. Literally millions of phenomenon qualified as objects of worship and were given the status of "kami," a concept that has had an important impact on the nation's sociology.Kami was defined as a spirit of something of superior origin a meaning similar, yet different from, the Western concept of God. Kami were believed to be present in certain trees, rivers, mountains and other objects of nature. The concept was not limited to nature, however; human behavior was indivisibly incorporated into the system. Each clan was given a inherent uniqueness and clan chieftains of special merit were elevated to the status of kami. In the nation's earliest records, reference is made to "Uji no kami" God of the clan.[1] The gods themselves were then defined as "Uji no gami." Just as seasonal changes became the subject of harvest rituals, clan leaders were venerated through rituals of obedience that over time developed into ceremonial ancestor worship. The worship of kami and gami in all its forms strengthened the community by imposing forms of ceremony. Shared rituals fostered clan loyalty, first as a cohesive instrument of the small group and later as justification for leadership over a large group.

The Kojiki

The Nara-based Yamato rulers were deeply influenced by Korean and Chinese migration. With them came a new cultural life and the premise for imperial authority. The Emperor Tenmu (673-686 A.D.), determined to embody tradition, commissioned the creation of the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon-Shoki (Chronicles of Japan). Modeled after Chinese chronicles, these biblical works reconstructed an entirely new genealogy, in Shinto form, defining the imperial family and the nation.

Shinto, while lacking a scriptural foundation, has at its core the ethical precept of purity. Unlike religions teaching that man is created by God and left on earth to struggle between the forces of good and evil, Shinto holds that the Japanese are descended from God, born in purity and harmony. While impurity is created through communal occurrences that offend the senses, Shinto ritual removes impurity through ceremonial cleansing. The ritual of misogi cleanses with water; the ritual of harae cleanses by the waving of a wand. The spiritual importance of these acts is as evident today as in ancient times. A victorious election of a corrupt politician is still referred to as misogi and new enterprises are launched with harae. The Kojiki and Nihon-Shoki, in a grand sense, functioned as instruments of national purification. For two centuries or so, the nation had been overrun by Korean and Chinese ideals. Buddhism had found great acceptance among members of the court. To preserve a sense of the uniqueness of Japan, Yamato aristocrats needed their own grand design an indigenous mandate capable of co-opting foreign influence and reinforcing imperial authority.

That design was the mythology born during the reign of Emperor Tenmu, then carried by Omote settlers to every region of Japan. It began with six generations of deities born to Takama ga Hara (the plains of heaven). In the seventh generation, a heavenly couple known as Izanagi and Izanami were sent to create the world.

Standing on the celestial bridge of Ame no Ukihashi, Izanagi dipped his spear into the murky liquid below. As he withdrew it, drops fell from the point and created an island called Onokoro. The couple descended and made their home on the island which became known as the Japanese archipelago. The rest of the world followed later. Izanami then gave birth to the elements of nature, each an individual god. While giving birth to the god of fire, she died. Izanagi, in grief, cut off the head of the newborn fire god and retreated to the land of shadows in search of his wife.

When Izanagi came upon his wife's decomposed body, he fled back to earth in horror. Wishing to purify himself, he bathed in the sea. The cleansing process produced twenty-six new gods one from each part of his body and clothing. The sun goddess, Amaterasu, was born from his left eye and received Japan as her dominion.

Ninigi, the grandson of the sun goddess, took human form. It was Ninigi's great-grandson, Jinmu,who was ordained Japan's first Emperor according to the biblical histories. Jinmu was given a mythical date of enthronement at around 660 B.C.[2] Chinese records first speak of Japan in the late third century A.D.; nonetheless, all Emperors to the present one claim Jinmu and Amaterasu as their ancestors. According to mythological accounts, forty-one descendants of Jinmu had occupied the throne by the eighth century.

The Shinto-inspired chronicles which promoted the myth, elevated the religion above the foreign imports of Buddhism and Confucianism. Shinto offered legitimacy to Omote aristocrats through dance and festivals for the common people. Buddhism offered the pageantry of organized religion, replete with a code of morals, the hope of salvation and the promise of enlightenment. Confucian doctrines focused directly on human relations and the self, not on the supernatural. The three religions complemented each other. The first provided national sanctity, the second self-enlightenment and the third social obedience and refined manners.

Armed with their own mythology, Yamato Emperors consolidated and settled all territories up to and beyond the northern reaches of Echigo, though aboriginal clans, known as Ezo, were not dislodged from the northern tips of the main island of Honshu. Sixty-eight political regions were carved out. A virtual reproduction of the T'ang central government was created and civil codes were administered.

Under the Chinese system, the Emperor was served by a Great Council that was presided over by a Head Chancellor (Daijo Daijin). Below him were two ministers: the Minister of the Left (Sadaijin), and the Minister of the Right (Udaijin). Below them were the eight divisions of government: Justice, Treasury, Education, Ceremony, Civil Affairs, Military Affairs, Imperial Household and Imperial Communications.

The Chinese system embodied the Analects of Confucius. The system's complex definition of individual responsibilities, not rights, was an interpretation of the schematic five elements as outlined in Confucian doctrine: one principle as the core of existence; two poles negative and positive/man and woman; three manifestations heaven, earth and man; four notions wood, fire, metal and water; and six kinships ruler to subject, father to child, and husband to wife.

The Kojiki and the Nihon-Shoki forced an alteration in the first element, which in turn modified the others. The Japanese were of heavenly descent, so for them, the original principle could not be a mandate from heaven as it was for the Chinese. Consequently, extraordinary attention had to be given to pedigree. Qualifications for authority became measured first by birth, then by character and finally by ability. The Kojiki and the Nihon-Shoki were taught as literal fact until 1945.


In 794 A.D., the Yamato capital was moved to Kyoto. The relocation was accompanied by a significant refinement of political institutions. As the central government became increasingly sophisticated, the power of court nobles grew. Among the royal families, the Fujiwara family gained the most power and came to dominate the Imperial Council. They created a labyrinth of etiquette and ritual that increasingly removed Emperors from an active role in policy making.

By the tenth century, the number of court princes grew at an alarming rate and became a heavy burden on the national treasury. As a solution, they were given a family name and control over provincial sectors. Two great families emerged: the Taira or Heishi, descendants of Emperor Kanmu (781-806), and the Minamoto or Genji, descendants of Emperor Seiwa (858-876). The families formed military castes in the service of Fujiwara regents. Each vied for court favor producing an intense rivalry. By the eleventh century, Taira forces controlled 235 districts and Minamoto forces controlled 224.[3] The ancient family of Jo controlled the province of Echigo. As descendants of Koremochi, they were Taira an unfortunate occurrence for local residents and their progeny. When war broke out between the Taira and the Minamoto in 1180, Echigo's warlords Sukenaga Jo, his younger brother Nagamochi Jo and Sukemori Jo, who was the nephew of Nakamochi, along with the entire Taira clan met with defeat. Echigo became a vassal province of the Minamoto and was given in booty to Kanto warriors. All members of the family of Jo were eliminated in 1200.

The clash between the Taira and the Minamoto firmly established the social dominance of the warrior class. Yoritomo Minamoto was declared Shogun (Military Commander and Chief) in 1192. For the inhabitants of Echigo, the ascendancy of Minamoto marked the beginning of seven centuries of benign neglect. For them, it was the legacy of a defeated Taira. In 1343, Echigo was given as a reward to the Uesugi clan by the newly established Ashikaga government.

It was around this time that Tanaka's ancestors first settled the Sakata area in Futada hamlet. They were one of eighteen families to arrive as farmers, and their descendants remained farmers until Tanaka himself sought a different profession some five hundred years later.

In 1568, Nobunaga Oda, a descendant of Taira, organized a ferocious military command that began unifying feudal estates. He was aided by the guns that had been introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders in 1543. Just short of total conquest in 1582, he was assassinated. Hideyoshi, a general in Nobunaga's forces, seized the moment and finished what Nobunaga had started.

Even though Hideyoshi became the undisputed military leader of Japan, the Emperor did not confer upon him the title of Shogun, but rather that of Kanpaku (principle regent). Hideyoshi lacked royal blood and therefore bore no family name. His father was an Ashigaru apart-time Samurai of the most inferior rank in the service of a feudal lord. It was only by imperial decree that Hideyoshi received the surname Toyotomi, an important first step in the process of passing power to his heirs.

Hideyoshi is historically considered one of Japan's most brilliant administrators, two of his policies had a profound impact on Echigo. The first was the confiscation of weapons from the peasants. The second was his great land survey, known as Taiko no Kenchi, that required sixteen years to complete (1582-1598). Motivated by fear that his government was being cheated on taxes, he ordered that every significant plot of soil be ranked according to fertility, quantity of yield and value of the type of crop produced, and decreed that the cultivator working the land be registered with the central authorities. As an addendum, Hideyoshi's surveyors assigned responsibility for production to the land registrant. Titles were made nontransferrable, productivity quotas were fixed, and each farmer was ranked in proportion to the size and productivity of his property.

The survey results were transcribed into law. For the first time in history, agricultural production came under the direct control of central authorities. As a result, feudal lords surrendered a portion of their autonomy, and the new peasant class, nearly 90% percent of the population, found their lives legislated by uniform code. Both lord and vassal were held strictly accountable for set tax rates based on the productivity quotas established by Hideyoshi's surveyors. The new system, accompanied by Hideyoshi's weapons confiscation policy, caused widespread rebellion and graft. On threat of public crucifixion for violators, the two initiatives were made successful.

Hideyoshi died in 1598, the same year that Kagekatsu Uesugi was allowed to trade Echigo for the more valuable province of Aizu. It was also the same year that Taiko no Kenchi was completed. As cruel and efficient as Hideyoshi's policies were, the magnitude of discipline required from each peasant subsequently rose exponentially under the rule of Tokugawa.

[ Chapter 1 is continued. The next section is Tokugawa. ]

© Steven Hunziker.