Chapter 1: RIKYO continued


(1868 1912)

Keiki's resignation was a valiant attempt at a smooth transfer of power. Not to the forces of the Choshu or Satsuma clans, but rather as a compromise restoration of imperial authority. Both the Baku-Han and the Sonno Joi alliance feared that a civil war would invite not only foreign interference, but possibly conquest. It was prudence, not capitulation, that motivated the Baku-Han to relinquish power. The restoration was, at best, a fragile stability.

The Shogun's capital of Edo was renamed Tokyo. In a symbolic procession, the royal court left Kyoto to take up its new residence in the Shogun's palace. The cavalcade arrived on November 23, 1868. Millions of spectators had lined the road and bowed in humbled silence as the Emperor's black lacquered palanquin passed by. The Emperor himself had arrived in Tokyo by other means, yet the message of historical continuity was clear to the peasantry and foreign emissaries.

The preeminent court nobles were Sanetomi Sanjo and Tomomi Iwakura. Both had strong ties to the Choshu and the Satsuma. As beneficiaries of Sonno Joi, the court nobles worked behind the scenes to remove all Tokugawa influence from the new government. Numerous intrigues were employed; the one that worked was engineered by the Satsuma leader, Takamori Saigo.

Saigo clandestinely hired a small army of thugs to harass Tokugawa retainers in Tokyo to provoke a war. Yoshinobu retaliated by attacking Satsuma forces stationed near Kyoto; it was a direct breach of a fragile peace agreement. Iwakura, by imperial order, had Yoshinobu placed under house arrest and confiscated the Tokugawa castle in Edo (Tokyo). The former Baku-Han naval commander fled with the navy to Hokkaido where he tried to establish an independent government. The loyal Tokugawa Samurai began a sporadic, disorganized campaign of guerrilla warfare throughout the country. Imperial support was given to the allied armies of Satsuma, Choshu, Hizen and Tosa. In little more than a year, Tokugawa opposition was liquidated and a form of government similar to the ancient imperial system replaced the institutional offices of the Baku-Han.

In Emperor Mutsuhito's minority, a Council of State ruled. The Council was composed of the five great heroes of the Meiji Restoration. Representing the court were Sanjo and Iwakura; from the Satsuma clan were Takamori Saigo and Toshimichi Okubo; and from the Choshu clan was Koin Kido.

Having gained power on the dual platform of Sonno Joi, the Council of State achieved the first half of their agenda restoration of the Emperor. Expelling the barbarians remained a perplexity. The bombardment of Shimonoseki in Choshu by Western warships had left a deep impression. Neither military confrontation nor appeasement were adequate solutions. In a brilliant resolve, Meiji leaders developed a policy of technological assimilation enveloped in a redefined purity of culture.

The Council of State launched a modernization program under the slogan of Fukoku Kyohei (Catch up to the West). To itself, the government assigned the responsibility of establishing a modern political state. The great merchant houses of Osaka were charged with the task of revolutionizing the economy. To the people, the government offered the opportunity for entrepreneurship and participation in the creation of an entirely new work force.

That workforce was embodied in the Charter Oath of five articles promulgated by Emperor Mutsuhito in the 1868:

  1. Public assemblies shall be created to deliberate state affairs.
  2. All classes shall be united.
  3. Common people shall be free to pursue any manner of employment.
  4. Evil customs of the past shall be abandoned and just laws shall be established.
  5. Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to invigorate the foundations of imperial rule.[18]

To underwrite its modernization plans, the government sought massive loans from merchants and foreign powers. It used that income to purchase experimental factories and recruit foreign educators. Shipyards, arsenals, foundries, machine shops and cotton mills, along with tile, beer, glass, cement and chemical industries, were all introduced through government initiative. Technical schools were created and staffed by foreigners, and advisors were invited to help in the mining fields and rural townships. The government also encouraged the setting up of experimental stations in animal husbandry.

As a prelude to an invasion of foreign technocrats, the ports of Tokyo and Niigata were opened completely to foreigners in 1870. The fief or han system was abolished and the nation was divided into political districts. Echigo was renamed Niigata. In 1871, Japan was divided into three metropolitan districts and 302 prefectures. That same year the number of prefectures was reduced to seventy-two. In 1876, the number was reduced to just thirty-five. In 1882, it was upped to forty and finally, in 1888, the modern system of three metropolitan districts and forty-three prefectures was established.

To realign the fiefs, two fundamental changes had to be enacted. The first required a legislative end to the Daimyo and Samurai retainers and the second required the creation of a national militia based on universal conscription.

A pension scheme was devised to literally buy off the Daimyo and the Samurai. To satisfy the Daimyo, they were given royal titles along with huge stipends and were guaranteed a voice in government as members of a newly created House of Peers. The Samurai were more troublesome. They were divided into just two classes, Shizoku (the Upper Half) and Sotsuzoku (the Lower Half), and were promised stipends. The combined estimated stipends of the Daimyo and the Samurai took up the lion's share of tax revenue. The government was threatened with enormous debts that would strangle the modernization program. Looking for an escape, once the Samurai submitted to pensions, the government canceled their stipends in favor of a one-time-only bond payment. It further eliminated the Sotsuzoku Samurai altogether. The bait-and-switch ended the Samurai class forever.

To create a strong central government, a national army was needed not just a force composed of a variety of old Daimyo loyalties, but soldiers with only one allegiance. That argument favored universal conscription of all males, regardless of class, who would be loyal only to the Emperor. The idea was promoted by the Choshu clan, but held in contempt by Satsuma clan leaders who favored an army of former Samurai. Despite Satsuma clan objections, a new army of conscripts was promulgated in 1873.

The Choshu clan's Koin Kido and Satsuma's Toshimichi Okubo had proven themselves superior to Satsuma's Saigo in the political arena. In 1877, frustrated by the treatment of the Shizoku class and the government's unwillingness to redress Korea's refusal to open its commercial markets to Japan, Saigo resigned from government and raised an army of his own followers and other disinherited Samurai, and began a march on Tokyo. Saigo's force of 42,000 men was no match for the Emperor's modern army of dirt farmers. Kido, and even Okubo, had turned against him. Saigo was killed in 1877, at the battle of Kagoshima. With him the last major opposition to the new government also died. Saigo's death did not diminish Satsuma influence. The clan, as represented by the more moderate Okubo, still had exceptional economic clout, as well as a vision more in tune with the goals of the Council of State. Militarily, Saigo's defeat meant that Choshu commanders would control the army. Satsuma commanders, as a consequence, were relegated to leadership of a fledgling navy.

The political rift between Choshu and Satsuma over military matters was not duplicated in the world of business. Both had strong ties to Osaka commodity brokers. Satsuma, for instance, had a complete monopoly over sugar during the Tokugawa era. Both clans viewed the merchant houses as a spearhead to modernization. To assist commerce in its financial development, the Meiji Council of State allowed the houses to collect taxes. The House of Mitsui, for example, made huge profits in its dual role as rice broker and tax-collector. It could manipulate its business by buying and selling rice turned in as tax at times when the market yielded the best returns.

This initial government tax subsidy was enhanced by the creation of a modern banking system and a uniform paper currency. The nation's transportation and communication systems were improved. Railway, postal and telegraph networks were launched. In 1880, after having paved the way for countless experimental enterprises, the government began to sell off its programs to private interests for a low rate. Whereas a family-run brokerage like Mitsui began the decade trading in simple commodities futures, it ended that timeframe as an immense financial, industrial and trading combine. It served its own interests and also the nation's as a government purchasing and sales agent. The conglomerates of Sumitomo and Mitsubishi also evolved into what would be called zaibatsu. No zaibatsu had exclusivity, yet each had a sphere of influence in commercial and trust banking, insurance, trading, shipping, warehousing, mining, machinery, oil, paper, chemical and real estate industries. Updating the military was a primary goal of Meiji leaders. As such, Mitsui, Sumitomo and Mitsubishi further became Japan's premier defense contractors, gaining an ever-increasing voice in government policy.

In 1881, the Meiji Council of State announced that it would develop a constitutional monarchy. The model chosen by elite policy makers was Prussian. As a balance of political forces, the new government had three overt branches: the imperial offices of the Emperor; the State Cabinet; and the House of Representatives (known as the Diet), that was made up of the Upper House and the Lower House.

Principle among these was the Cabinet. It contained the office of Prime Minister and department chiefs. Appointment to office was by imperial order. Any Japanese citizen could be Prime Minister, at least on paper. As a body, the Cabinet was held responsible for all events, foreseeable or otherwise. It was given the exclusive right to propose new laws and develop an annual budget. As a check to Cabinet power, new laws and financial plans required Diet approval.

The Upper House, or House of Peers, contained three hundred members. Half of those were noblemen whose legislative seat was a right of birth. The other half were selected by the Emperor based on public distinction or tax contributions. Originally, the Lower House had 300 members, elected from prefectural constituencies throughout Japan. Eligibility was determined by tax bracket. The initial pool of voters was only 1.13% of the adult male population. Representatives from both Houses had the authority to reject Cabinet proposals, withhold budget approval, force the Cabinet to resign by a vote of no confidence and send reports to the Emperor. While the Diet was not allowed to suggest legislation, it was given just enough power to inspire the formation of political parties.

The appeal of the Prussian framework for the oligarchy was its institutional aloofness from parochial constituencies. Only the Lower House represented the interests of the common man. Even at that, the common man was defined as landed gentry. The Lower House had a tendency to interpret its constitutional role in British terms. It sought to play an aggressive part in government. Cabinet frustration over Lower House obstinacy led to the creation of political parties by powerful oligarchies that tried to insure the passage of legislation by building factions of support within the Lower House. Japan's first parties were the Jiyuto or Liberal Party whose concerns were people's rights, and the Rikken Kaishinto or Constitutional Reform Party, a Choshu-Satsuma creation that was deeply conservative and business-oriented with a pro-parliamentary government appeal. The last of the original parties created was the Rikken Teiseito or Constitutional Imperial Party. It served as a pro-government, rubber stamp faction.

Superseding both Cabinet and House were two imperial offices Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal and the Privy Council. The former was the Emperor's closest advisor. Usually he was an ex-Prime Minister or high-ranking statesmen. Through him, the Emperor exercised his right to absolute veto. The latter was a group of twenty or so retired officials appointed for life as special advisors to the Emperor. A third office, that of the Imperial Household, was created within the Cabinet. Governed by a Lord Chamberlain, the office existed without portfolio so as to keep palace affairs separate from politics.

The most powerful organ in the new Meiji Government was never written into the Constitution of 1889. Known as the Genro, it was a distinguished second generation of seven Choshu and Satsuma chieftains. The Meiji heroes from both clans had perished. Kido died of illness, Saigo committed suicide and Okubo was assassinated by a discontented Samurai. Leadership of the Choshu clan was inherited by Hirobumi Ito, Aritomo Yamagata and Kaoru Inoue. The new leaders for Satsuma were Iwao Oyama, Kiyotaka Kuroda, Masayoshi Matsukata and Tsugumichi Saigo. As a non-governmental shadow council they acted as principle supporter of, as well as eclipse to, the Constitution. Of the seven, Ito and Yamagata predominated, forming two factions within the Genro. Ito's group was pro-parliamentary, while Yamagata's clique was authoritarian and pro-military.

The two men began their careers as classmates at the Shoka Sonjuku-Yoshida Shoin Academy. Ito went into the civil service. He journeyed to Europe and the United States with Prince Iwakura, Kido and Okubo in a vain attempt to renegotiate the unequal trade treaties. As a youth, Ito participated in the attack on the British legation in Shinagawa. As an adult, he was the architect of the Prussian-styled Meiji Constitution. He served as Prime Minister four times and was the first president of the Privy Council and the House of Peers.

In contrast, Yamagata sought a lower-key career in the military. He became the nation's first Army Minister and was accredited with having created the peasant army that defeated Saigo in 1877. Thereafter, he rose to Chief-of-Staff and Field Marshal. Characterized as the "Supreme Deity," Yamagata served briefly as Home Minister in 1883 and Prime Minister in 1889, before retiring to the Supreme Military Council. Like Ito, he was very adept at forming political coalitions. Unlike Ito, he preferred conquest to negotiated settlement and totalitarianism to republican ethos. Yamagata became the driving force behind the dangerous new militancy and nationalism that pervaded the Meiji Government after 1880. It was through Yamagata's influence that the Cabinet offices of Army and Navy gained extra-Constitutional authority which enabled them to advise the Emperor directly on strategic matters without Diet or Cabinet interference. They were given rights of supreme command that eventually led to a veto power over Cabinet initiatives.

As a soldier, Yamagata's ascendancy was much slower than Ito's. It was not until after the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 that the two were on equal par. From 1882 to 1892, Yamagata launched a vigorous military expansion program. During this same period, Japanese business interests in Korea grew at an alarming rate. Japanese interests cornered the rice market, sparking massive civil unrest in Korea and thereby inviting Chinese intervention.

To preempt that intervention, Japanese militia landed in Inchon, seized control of the Korean imperial palace, and formed a new indigenous government that called for the withdrawal of Chinese troops. War followed, and to the world's astonishment, Yamagata's First Army routed the Chinese from Korea and the Japanese Navy crushed the Chinese fleet in the Yellow Sea. From there, Japanese forces pressed onward into Southern Manchuria, the Liaotung Peninsula and Port Arthur.

In a nation swarming with foreign advisors as a constant reminder of its global inferiority, Japan's rapid victories over China were utterly intoxicating. Ito, then serving his second term as Prime Minister, had just completed a successful revision of the unequal treaties with the West and was at the very pinnacle of his power. Yamagata's army was poised for the conquest of Beijing. Ito, fearing that any further advance would invite European conflict, suddenly settled for the Treaty of Shimonoseki in early 1895. It was a limited victory that only recognized Korean independence, ceded the Liaotung Peninsula and the island of Formosa, and provided an indemnity payment from China. It was an unpopular peace that quickly turned sour when Russia, France and Germany united to coerce Japan into giving up the Liaotung Peninsula and recognizing Russian interests in Korea.

Ito's Cabinet was forced to resign. Removed from office, Ito attempted to regain his political authority by forming his own political party, the Rikken Seiyukai (Friends of the Constitution) in the Lower House of Representatives. This resulted in the first major political clash between the two leaders. Ito's move was a direct insult to the authority of the Genro and threatened to disrupt behind-the-scenes continuity. It took Yamagata a few years, but by 1903 he had convinced the Emperor to appoint Ito president of the Privy Council. This was done by imperial mandate and the position forced Ito to give up his presidency of the Seiyukai. Yamagata's stratagem left Ito furious. The father of the Meiji Constitution had finally met his political match.

Up to this point, Ito and his Friends of the Constitution had established a national momentum that promoted democratic reform, diplomacy by negotiation, and wide-open trade in commerce and ideas with the West. Yamagata and the militarists represented a backlash to all that.

In 1904, balance between the two men tipped in Yamagata's favor. His faction within the Genro came to believe that Czarist Russia had designs on Korea. Yamagata believed that the best way to protect Japanese interests would be through an alliance with England. Ito disagreed, preferring to negotiate a mutual sphere of influence pact with Russia. Japan would leave Russia alone in Manchuria if Russia would do the same for Japan in Korea. Russia balked at Ito's proposal and Yamagata's Faction pushed the alliance with England through over Ito's objections.

As Ito had feared, the Anglo-Japanese pact only added to tensions and eventually led to war. On February 9, 1904, the Japanese fleet conducted a surprise attack on the Russian warships harbored at Port Arthur on the tip of the Liaotung Peninsula. War was officially declared the following day. The Port Arthur raid crippled the Russian Navy and gave Japan control of the Yellow Sea. The Japanese Army won quick victories over Russian troops on the Korean-Manchurian border, gaining control over the rich timber fields in that region. After that, the war became a protracted struggle for the Liaotung Peninsula, in large part because the Russians introduced a heretofore unknown technology to the war. On May 26, in the city of Chinchou, Japanese soldiers encountered the machine gun for the first time.

Despite heavy loses, the military pressed forward, aided by Moscow's inability to replace troops rapidly by way of the Trans-Siberian and Southern Manchurian Railways. By May, the Japanese began their siege on Port Arthur. The Russian fortress held out for seven months. During the interim, the Czar dispatched his Baltic Fleet, hoping to end the siege.

The thirty-five ship armada arrived from its 18,000-mile journey four months too late. Destined for Vladivostok, Admiral Rozhdestvensky, in a show of European arrogance, chose not to bypass Japan by using the Pacific Ocean as a buffer. Rather he decided to sail through the narrow Strait of Tsushima that separates Korea and Japan. The Japanese imperial fleet was lying in wait. The ensuing naval battle lasted one day. Only four Russian ships survived to reach Vladivostok.

To the Japanese public, total victory had been secured. An Asian nation, at long last, had defeated a European power. The ancient truths of Kojiki were validated in the minds of numerous social leaders. Genro policy makers, however, faced a different reality. Victory was over Russian interests in Korea, not in Russia. The Japanese national economy was exhausted and 80,000 Japanese soldiers were dead. Tokyo as much as Moscow needed to sue for peace.

The two parties met at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for talks arranged by Teddy Roosevelt. Japan asked for territorial and financial concessions, but accepted leases without indemnity. Popular opinion in Japan was outraged. Violent riots became so widespread that the government was forced to impose martial law.

Cataloged as the Hibiya Incendiary Incident, the riots engulfed over three hundred communities and served as an organizational rallying point for a variety of liberal special interest groups determined to gain a voice in government. Principle among these was Ito's Seiyukai. After Ito was forced by Yamagata to relinquish the party presidency, leadership passed first to Kinmochi Saionji, and then to Takashi Hara, a commoner with no interest in protecting the oligarchy. The Seiyukai, under Hara, pressed for direct party government. Cabinet ministries, the Seiyukai argued, should be given to factional leaders as a consequence of party compromise, not as a result of imperial appointment. The Seiyukai, in opposition to Yamagata, further called for an end to Genro interference and Cabinet control over the military.

The Diet was small, but it was the only agency of government with a popular base. The Seiyukai, as only a fraction of the million-plus constituency, served as a beacon for the proliferation of political clubs whose sole tactic was mass demonstration. In this sense, the Hibiya riots were an embryonic reflection of discontent caused by the nation's emerging urbanization. The people had been led to believe that their war sacrifices would result in better times, but they saw no evidence. Consequently, industrial laborers who had hoped for measures to eliminate disease, poor wages, unsafe working conditions or overcrowded living conditions, had cause to protest. Small business groups abused by high taxes and zaibatsu monopolies suddenly had an excuse to march. Tenant farmers enslaved by greedy landlords found reason to organize. From those initial riots, unions were formed. Universal movements such as Communism and Socialism took root and the protest over the Portsmouth Treaty evolved into a cry for male suffrage.

Public passion believed that Japan's new role was as an equal among colonial powers a fact made evident by America's secret concession of Korea to Japan in 1905 and Russia's capitulation of southern Manchuria in 1907. The Meiji goal of raising Japan to its proper station in the world was accomplished in a single lifetime. Ito's vision of an imperial parliament had prevailed, but ironically the war had enabled Yamagata to surpass him in political prestige. He was demoted to Resident General of Korea and assassinated by a Korean nationalist in 1909. Yet through the Seiyukai, Ito in death was more problematic to Yamagata than he ever was in life.

The Meiji era ended in 1912 with the death of Emperor Mutsuhito. What had began as a superficial imitation of the West, finished as a hybrid restoration of Confucian moralism guided by the wants of bourgeois liberalism. The Genro, now controlled by Yamagata, had done its part by creating a strong central government and laying the foundation for a society ruled by law. Business produced a modern sector within the national economy, while the traditional agrarian economy developed at a pace capable of underwriting the entire modernization process. Ito's Meiji had encouraged involvement and ambition from all social classes. Yamagata's Meiji hung tenaciously onto the martial virtues. The new era of Taisho would set the stage for a showdown.


(1912 - 1926)

Symbolic of a new age, Emperor Yoshihito (1879-1926) succeeded his father, Mutsuhito, as the first imperial heir ever to have been educated publicly. He had studied Western subjects under European tutors at the Peer's School (now Gakushuin University). Despite his education, poor health afforded him little interest in political affairs.

Nonetheless, the Taisho era during which Yoshihito reigned was a dramatic period thriving in popular culture. Novels, magazines, newspapers, radio and motion pictures inundated society. Buses and bicycles expanded social mobility. A national electrification project lit up even the most remote villages.

A new cultural order was emerging as fathers and sons left the farm for factory work while mothers and daughters remained behind to till the soil. Industrial growth, sparked by a spectacular influx of capital generated by the outbreak of World War I, rose to 45 percent of the economy.

Allied with England, Japan profited handsomely from the supply needs of European and American forces in Asia. The zaibastu (conglomerate) industries in gas, armaments, transportation and power generating machines ballooned by virtue of government contracts. The naval budget quadrupled as a result of joint Anglo-Japanese forays against German positions. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 strengthened Japan's colonial grip in China as the value of exports with other colonial powers rose threefold.

The sudden windfall was a release of pent-up social pressure, but it was only temporary. Inflation quickly outstripped a rise in wages. The price of daily necessities became increasingly formidable for the urban sector. Crowded conditions and inadequate sanitation led to epidemics. The average male life expectancy was a mere forty-four years.

The Yamagata camp was painfully aware of the national undercurrent of rebellion. They had even joined with the United States in an ill-fated Siberian intervention to destroy the Russian Bolsheviks. To Yamagata, parliamentary government was an anathema, let alone the thought of Communism.

In 1918, riots over rice prices broke out in thirty-six cities. Something had to give or the nation would, to Yamagata's way of thinking, degenerate into a democracy. Yamagata controlled the Cabinet and the Upper House; Hara's Seiyukai controlled the Lower House. The riots forced Yamagata's Prime Ministerial Appointee General, Masatake Terauchi, to dissolve the Cabinet. In what appeared as a tremendous defeat for Yamagata and a victory for the people's rights movement, Yamagata acquiesced the office of Prime Minister to Hara. Government by political parties had become a reality.

Hara moved quickly to enact legislation on a national level by lowering the election poll tax and thereby increasing the electorate to three million. On a village and town level, he abolished a system of electoral seating, reserved for only the highest taxpayers. Although well short of establishing universal male suffrage, these moves eased the political situation. Total suffrage was something Yamagata and his Cabinet disciples would not permit.

The first round of Taisho reforms ostensibly belonged to the ghost of Hirobumi Ito. Throughout his career, Yamagata felt that the proper role of government was as a servant of the Emperor, not of the people. To that end, he maneuvered four monolithic reforms that insured instability for any future form of party government.

The first was the Peace Preservation Law of 1887, designed to restrict political activities and control agitation. The legislation limited the jurisdiction of local officials.

The second was the 1890 Imperial Rescript of Education. The law placed school curriculum under national control through textbook certification. Its enactment promoted Western science, love of the Emperor, martial spirit, filial piety and obedience to authority. Four years of education were made compulsory. By the Taisho era, school attendance reached 98 percent.

The third was the Public Order and Police Law of 1900. It served two important purposes. It allowed the police to suspend civil rights and to suppress media agitation. It further stipulated that only officers of the two top ranks could be appointed as Army and Navy Cabinet Ministers, effectively ending any possibility of civil control over the armed forces. In action rather than law, Yamagata's lifetime commitment to military expansion irretrievably intertwined military and business interests. By itself, that economic power assured the armed forces a predominant role in government.

The fourth and cleverest set of legislation was the Civil Service Laws of 1899. To prevent political parties from infiltrating the government bureaucracy, Yamagata sponsored a revision of civil service regulations designed to lock out political appointees. All bureaucratic posts, with the exception of ministry rank, were made contingent on examinations. This created an elite cadre of civil servants loyal to no one. In this fashion, Yamagata froze party politicians out of the bureaucracy and created institutions susceptible only to bribery a structural weakness that favored the oligarchy.

To be sure, Yamagata had to swallow his ideals to constrict popular unrest, but behind a lifetime of totalitarian reforms he was able to repress Hara's democratic reforms. In fact, contrary to the aspirations of the Seiyukai, the victory of party government forced the Yamagata camp to infiltrate party politics and promote ultranationalistic societies. Seiyukai resources could hardly rival the Yamagata-zaibatsu alliance. This was the world Kakuei Tanaka was born into on May 4, 1918.

Tanaka's Childhood

At the time of Kakuei Tanaka's birth in the spring of 1918, public sentiment was democratic, but the reforms implemented by Yamagata were totalitarian. Seiyukai had the difficult task of persuading the nation that parliamentary government was Japan's future, while Yamagata, not wanting to lose the Confucian order, sought to corrupt institutions and thereby undermine the Seiyukai. In farming communities, like Futada, where work was from sun-up to sun-down seven days a week, what did the Seiyukai have to offer? Its membership was too exclusive and its procedures chaotic. Forced public education deprived fathers of their sons' ability to help around the farm. Party peace treaties had robbed the nation of glory and the industrial revolution was being financed by a heavy tax burden placed on farmers. Further, what farmer would have questioned the heavenly mandate of the Emperor?

"In the midst of rice fields" is the literal translation of the surname Tanaka, a name selected by Kakuei's forefathers in the late 1880s. Within the rice fields of that time, fathers could not have harbored grandiose expectations for their sons. They believed in the very values that made such expectations impossible, Yamagata's values. There was little choice but to acquiesce to the millennial precepts of Shinto purity a notion that embraced the correctness of Confucian proper station in both language and manner. Yet on May 4, 1918, there was a distant glimmer of hope for a horse trader's son hope brought about by the incremental successes of Seiyukai, the new industrial age and the mandatory school system. From this point forward, it would be Kakuei's challenge to find the cracks in a system designed to prevent a farm boy from having ambition.

Kakuei's story begins with his mother, Fume. She not only raised seven children, but she also provided the family's only reliable income by farming a small two-acre rice paddy. Her husband shunned such manual labor and spent most of his time far from home, trading horses and gambling on plow horse racing. His contribution to the family was either negative or erratic. For Fume, life was sacrifice endured by courage and hard work.

She was born on August 15, 1891 and gave birth to Kakuei when she was twenty-seven. Technically, he was her fourth child, but only the third to survive. Kakuei would have been the second son, had his older brother not died shortly after birth. For a farm family in Japanese society, the importance of a son cannot be overstated. The loss of a first-born son was a major tragedy for the Tanaka family. For Kakuei it was both a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, it entitled him to princely treatment. On the negative side, by tradition, then as now, the eldest son must provide for his parents in their old age. It is a burdensome obligation that can enslave a son to his father's dictates for life. For Kakuei, it was one more crucible to add to an already imposing list.

The system of Japanese family obligations was a hardship for Fume as well. Her husband's older brother had died, so Fume became responsible for the care of her husband's parents. Her mother-in-law, Kome, was from landed gentry so it was beneath her to help around the house, other than to prepare special meals for Kakuei. Her father-in-law, Sutekichi, was a craftsman, not a farmer. With all other members of the family engaged in outside pursuits, there was just Fume to cook, clean, raise the vegetables and tend to the farm. Kakuei recalled of her, "My mother would get up while it was dark and work in the rice fields as well as care for the cows and horses. When I would wake up in the night, I would always find her working, so I wondered when she could find time to sleep."[19]

Kakuei's father, Kakuji, was a bit unusual for small town Futada, where the concept of family extended far beyond relatives to encompass the entire community. With a salesman's personality, he was in constant search of the one big deal that would fulfill the promise of Meiji. He never beat the odds. Horse trading never paid off, gambling was always a bust and even a bizarre plan to set up a carp fish farm bottomed out. Still one bad scheme lead to another. The most disastrous venture occurred during Kakuei's early childhood. His father decided to establish the first dairy farm in Niigata Prefecture.

At that time, Holstein cattle had to be imported. Wanting the best, Kakuji chose to order cows from Holland at a prewar yen cost of 15,000 yen ($160,000) each.[20] Determined to follow his dream, he amazingly convinced not only his parents, but friends and neighbors as well, to invest in the scheme. He wanted three cows at a cost of 45,000 yen ($480,000),[21] an enormous sum of money in those days. By selling off the family forest land and borrowing heavily, he raised the money. Through a contractual arrangement with a Dutch trading company, he placed the order, assuming complete liability.

After several months, the cows arrived. Two were dead and the last was close to a similar state. A dejected Kakuji carted the debilitated survivor back to Futada. Upon arrival, it too, died. The cow was taken behind the house and buried. A pine tree that still stands was planted over it, as an humiliating memorial to the awful price of failure.[22] Family and creditors converged upon Kakuei's home to face a bankrupt Kakuji. The council of humiliation lasted throughout the night. The experience brought lasting shame on the family and had a powerful impact on the young Kakuei.

In contrast to his father's excesses, Kakuei's grandfather, Sutekichi, stood as a towering figure of respectability. A steadfast craftsman of small, wooden Shinto shrines, he was a paragon of all that was behaviorally correct in Japanese society.

Concerning himself and his mother, Kakuei recounted a story that became the very hallmark of his entire life. The incident occurred soon after he entered primary school. As Kakuei recounts, "Returning home, my mother, with a harsh tone, yelled from behind the family shed, 'Kakuei come here.' She then said, 'You did something wrong, didn't you? If you did, I'm going to throw us across the railroad tracks [Echigo Railroad] and commit suicide. Did you steal money from your grandfather's purse?' I stood erect and proudly told her, 'I did nothing wrong. I never stole any money but I do recall seeing two half-yen pieces on the tea cabinet. It was there unprotected, so I thought it was community property and I bought a box of tangerines and passed them out to my friends. I never stole any money! But it was I who used it.' My mother just stood there with a perplexed look on her face. I was taken to my grandfather but he did not blame me, he just smiled and said, 'It's okay because it was you.' I still wonder why she was so upset or serious." Tanaka accounted for his mother's dramatics by writing, "I felt like she had no alternative but to atone for my crime with her life, if I, as the eldest son of the family, had told a lie or had stolen something from others."[23] Kakuei's cryptic logic would in time come to baffle not only his mother but the entire society as well.

Kakuei was only five years old when the great earthquake of 1923 struck the Kanto plain. Over 100,000 people perished. The quake caused landslides, tidal waves and fire. More than half-a-million homes were destroyed. In the ensuing hysteria, Koreans and left-wing radicals were accused of setting fires and looting. Vigilante groups formed and, supported by police, executed thousands of innocent people.

The entire catastrophe was personalized for those in Niigata by an influx of refugees. The industrial revolution had brought many people to Tokyo and Kanto in search of a better life. The earthquake sent them back to their resource-poor, rural homes. For many communities it was an unwelcome reverse migration that forced hardship on everyone. For a five-year-old boy, animosity and a sense of urgency were the only lessons from this disaster.

The cost of reconstruction was high. Japan's monetary system was weakened by government expenditures, creating an inflation that ravaged rural hamlets. Three decades of hope had ended. Life would get worse before it got better.

Two years after the quake, a shy and stuttering Kakuei Tanaka found his childhood abruptly ended. He entered the Futada Elementary School. It was the very first year that military officers had been assigned to all schools where military training became integrated into the daily schedule. Despite their presence, the mandatory, six-year education still had a liberal bias. It was only in Kakuei's senior year that the curriculum in math, Chinese characters and abacus was expanded to include absolute submission to authority and love of the Emperor. Loyalty to family and group were always topics for study, but in 1931 the Analects of Confucius took on a new meaning. The Kojiki was taught as authentic record. Books that Kakuei may have studied earlier were suddenly subject to censure. The teacher's role changed from educator to propagandist. The sudden shift to martial spirit could not have been lost on Kakuei. As a member of the school band, the music he practiced became the sound of military aggrandizement.

By Tanaka's own account, his family took education very seriously. A lack of effort bore a heavy price. In his autobiography for children, he recalled how one winter his father caught him skipping school. As punishment he was forced to strip and stand outside in the snow.[24]

The harsh discipline of his father was by no means peculiar to Kakuei's family life in those days. If there was something special that contributed to his childhood character development, it was the mixed signals he received from his family and his community. At one extreme, he was constantly doted on by his grandparents. In addition, as an only son, he was bestowed special privileges within the family hierarchy. At the other extreme, outside the shelter of home, he was the stuttering son of a disreputable father. In his own words, Tanaka pronounced, "As a child I was weak." To illustrate the point, in his autobiography he spotlights a schoolhood trauma in which he was brought to tears by girl classmates who had chased him with a broom.

Being unable to articulate his will with other children was a constant source of anguish. Where words failed, he substituted temper and violence. He quickly gained a reputation as an elementary school brawler.[25] In one of his most quoted childhood remembrances, he extols the virtues of temper. As the story is related, he was having a bad week in school. His teacher only recently had given him a bad grade for excessive use of quoted sentences in a paper for composition class. Two days after the plagiarism incident he was falsely accused of making a loud noise in calligraphy class. By the teacher's tone of voice, "Who is it? Is it Tanaka?!" he knew that he was in the dog house. Because of his stuttering, he was unable to respond in defense of his innocence. With the teacher hovering over him, he picked up his inkwell and flung it, splattering ink all over the floor. The uncharacteristic behavior shut the teacher up. Just to embellish the story, Tanaka goes on to add that he was supposed to pick up three light bulbs for his mother that day. He did, and smashed each one of them against a cedar tree on the way home.[26]

Another story that illustrates Tanaka's temper describes a fifth-grade incident that left him with a life-long obligation to Mitsuo Kanai, his homeroom teacher. As told, the local police received a complaint that Kanai had punished his students by nailing them in a sports closet at the school. When the police questioned Kakuei about the episode, he nonchalantly responded that the incident had occurred. The next day the story appeared in the newspaper. Realizing his thoughtlessness, Kakuei rushed to the police substation and explained that the newspaper story was false. Kanai had only scolded his students for not doing their homework assignments. Kakuei confessed that it was he who had nailed the closet door on the other students, and that they were confined for only ten minutes or so. The police told Kakuei it mattered not, and soon after, Kanai was transferred to a small school deep in the mountains. Kanai published a book about Kakuei in 1983 entitled The True Picture of Kakuei Tanaka as Told by His Teacher (Shi ga Kataru Tanaka Kakuei no Sugao). Kanai states, "Tanaka has never forgotten to give me a gift of money at Obon and at year's end ever since he became a Dietman."

At age twelve, Kakuei completed his compulsory education. The principle of Futada Elementary School tried to secure a middle school position for him, but in those days middle school was only for the elite and his family simply did not have the money it would cost for tuition. Merit was not enough in Japanese culture. It was a powerful lesson for one so young. Money and social status were essential properties outside his realm of existence.

As bleak as 1931 was shaping up to be, Kakuei found an alternative to working in the fields. He could get in two more years of education by attending upper elementary school. The education did not carry much social weight, yet it was better than ending a child's potential at age twelve. The education was not free and finding money for tuition could not have been easy in a year marred by global depression.


Rural Japan was hit particularly hard. The value of agricultural goods was cut in half while taxes remained high. Farm debt skyrocketed. The division between rich and poor became grotesque. Desperate independent farmers had little choice but to sell out and become tenants. Tenant farmers and others on the bottom before the crash turned to selling their daughters into prostitution, to infanticide and even to mass family suicide. In contrast, party politicians (many of whom were large landowners) and the handful of zaibatsu industrialists, grew wealthier.

Not surprisingly, the military emerged as the champion of the poor. Because of universal conscription, the lower ranks of the officer corps were filled with men from rural communities. Naturally, their loyalties were with the hamlets suffering from the depression. A collision between the military and the party bosses was inevitable. Together they had conspired to rid the nation of Socialist forces during the Red Scare of the 1920s. They were the only two strong social voices that remained and the depression now divided them.

The government's primary solutions to the effects of the worldwide depression on the country were three: increased trade, mass emigration to foreign lands, or territorial conquest. In the midst of a global depression, commerce was not going to improve. A mass exodus had been tried in the previous decade and had sparked bitter racial hatred toward the Japanese. In the United States, laws were passed making Japanese ineligible for citizenship; Brazil and Argentina as well had had enough emigrants from Japan. As a social release valve, exporting its people was something Tokyo could no longer do in 1931. Conquest, too, was a difficult proposition. China was the only immediate target of opportunity, but something new had happened. The Nationalist People's Party, which had been fathered by Sun Yat-sen, began to make a serious attempt to unify China. It was only a question of time before Japanese presence in Manchuria would no longer be politically viable.

Something had to give and in September of 1931 something did. Several Japanese officers in the Kwantung Army decided to take matters into their own hands. They staged an explosion of the South Manchurian Railroad in Mukden and blamed Chinese troops for the act. This event, known as the Manchurian Incident, was quickly followed by conquest of southern Manchuria and by what the military labeled as self-defense raids on Chinese bandits. The stage for an internal showdown with Democracy and an external showdown with the Chinese Army was set.

From Kakuei's classroom in Niigata, an ugly world looked heroic. The national education system was public. Its message was one of military triumph and glory. Kakuei saw his future. He would become the captain of a warship.[27] To accomplish that, he would need good grades to get into the naval academy.

During his two years in upper elementary he studied earnestly and finished at the top of his class. In addition, he concentrated on learning Buddhist sutras as a therapy for overcoming his lingering problems with stuttering. By graduation he had mastered his speech problem and was eager to put some distance between himself and a farmer's life.

His ambition to be a naval cadet or anything else in 1933 Japan required that he escape from Niigata not an easy task for an eldest son, let alone a fourteen-year-old boy with eight years of formal education.

With school over, he quickly discovered his ambition was no match for the harshness of reality. It was time to go to work. He found a part-time job with a community construction firm, serving as a railcar pusher. The job did not work out well. He expected to be paid 65 sen a day, 10 sen less than the men and 15 sen more than the women. He was paid the same as the women. Stating, "They don't appreciate how I work," he became angry and quit after a month. Through this he found deliverance from the confines of Futada. Accepting an apprenticeship at the local Doboku branch office construction works, he moved to the nearby city of Kashiwazaki. He started work in September as an office clerk. As the months passed, the difference between who he was and what he wanted to be, began to weigh heavily on his mind.

An acquaintance, feeding Kakuei's ambition, bragged of knowing the director of Riken Conglomerate, the Viscount Masatoshi Okochi. Grasping at straws, Kakuei secured a letter of introduction to the Viscount.

With a letter of dubious value in his pocket, after only six months on the job, Kakuei quit and returned home to collect his savings and inform his mother that he was off to Tokyo. Due to a cultural peculiarity, Fume was of lower family and social status than her son, so she was unable to stop him. Fume handed over the 85 yen ($1,200)[28] she had saved for him. With bravado, Kakuei journeyed to near by Takasaki, where his father was gambling on the horses, and gave him 50 yen ($710)[29]. From there he went to Kiryu to see his married sister and left her with 20 yen ($280).[30] With only the remaining 15 yen ($210)[31] he made his escape from Niigata in 1934.

2Riken would become an important part of Kakuei's life. Listed as Riken Konzern, it was established in 1917 and has provided the nation with several valuable inventions in science. In 1921, Masatoshi Okochi became the conglomerate's third president. He commercialized inventions by the group's research arm, Rikagaku Kenkyujo, an institute of physics and chemistry. Okochi formed Rikoh (Rikagaku Kogyo), supported by influential Tokyo and Yokohama businessmen. Riken and Rikoh came to number more than thirty enterprises. After World War II the group was dissolved by the American occupation forces. Today the group is a number of private companies such as Rikoh, Rikoh Watch, Riken Piston Kogyo and Riken Vitamin Oil. The research arm still exists.

[ Chapter 2: YOMEI is the next section. ]

© Steven Hunziker.