"I have nothing to regret." With those words, at age seventy-one, the political career of Kakuei Tanaka came to an end. It was a career that had lasted through sixteen terms in the House of Representatives, beginning in 1947 and ending in 1990.

After a virtual four-year disappearance from public life, Tanaka made the announcement from his political stronghold in the city of Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, on October 14, 1989. The moment had been expected ever since Tanaka was admitted to his private room on the ninth floor of the Tokyo Teishin (Postal) Hospital on Wednesday, February 27, 1985, at 8:30 p.m. He had collapsed with cerebral infarction, a partial paralysis that impaired his speech and paralyzed the right side of his body.

At the time of his stroke, Tanaka was officially listed as an Independent Dietman, just one of 512 legislators in the Lower House of Representatives. But on February 28, 1985, an estimated three hundred political and corporate leaders lined up in the Teishin Hospital foyer. For days, the news media spoke of little else and it was almost two weeks before the Japanese Diet (Parliament) resumed business. Internationally, the event went almost unnoticed. In Japan, one could sense the drama.

Influential Dietman Kozo Watanabe once said of Tanaka, "He is a genius born once in several hundred years. Is there anyone else but Tanaka who is so reliable and attractive in the political world? All politicians want to be a Tanaka, but none of them can be as successful as Tanaka."[1] This is high praise for the only Japanese Prime Minister in history to be convicted of bribery and sentenced to four years of hard labor.

Said famous journalist Takashi Tachibana, "Tanaka has established a dictatorial leadership faction within the ruling party that can replace a Prime Minister at its discretion. It is really extraordinary that criminal defendant Tanaka wishes to continue to be not only the kingmaker, but also the ruler who rules the Prime Minister of the time."[2] Tachibana's statement is a curious one, given the fact that Tanaka's official status was one of legislator without party or factional affiliation.

Career-long rival Takeo Fukuda said, "Tanaka's retirement would have no particular impact on the political world."[3]

Parliamentarian, historical aberration, kingmaker and criminal all are abbreviated truths that begin to describe a man about whom, it can be said, no Japanese holds a neutral opinion.

How incredible it is that in the West, amidst an explosion of interest in Japan, Tanaka has yet to rate more than a journalistic footnote, while in his own culture, he has inspired a literary industry onto itself, with over one hundred titles authored in Japanese.

The impact of individuals on institutions, perhaps for reasons of sociological bias, has become a default. Popular convention would have us view Japanese policy and politics in terms of collective will. To be sure, conformity, group harmony and acceptance of hierarchy exist within the culture, and the simplest proof is built into the linguistics of the nation. But it is an incomplete reality that ignores Japan's political affinity for thinly veiled, behind-the-scenes, power brokers.

The Hawk

Japanese political history is replete with examples of shadow lords. Every school child knows the saying "No aru taka wa tsume o kakusu," a hawk with true ability hides its talons. In the late nineteenth century, the word "Kuromaku "was coined to describe political hawks who hid their talons too well and corrupted this national virtue. Literally, "Kuromaku"means "black curtain." The bureaucratic meaning refers to a person who directs the actions of others from behind. For all practical purposes, to be a Kuromaku is to hold ultimate power in Japanese society. The man who attains the non-statutory title of Kuromaku is an individual in collective-minded Japan. More truthfully, the status of Kuromaku supports traditional sociology by shading responsibility from public view.

It is the predisposition of this chronicle that individuals in Japanese society play as important a role in the sweep of history as they do in American society. The form is slightly different, but the impact is equal in significance. Social institutions and tradition may indeed mold the individual, however, it is the individual, through conformity and dissent, who governs the direction of institutions.

It would be inconceivable to attempt an understanding of twentieth-century American politics and policy divorced from the names of Wilson, Roosevelt and Nixon. In like fashion, comprehension of the political history of twentieth-century Japan is futile if void of its Kuromaku.

A placid survey of this century's political history in Japan conjures up the names of Hirobumi Ito (1841-1909), father of the Meiji Constitution and champion of parliamentary government; Hideki Tojo (1884-1948), Prime Minister and Army General who went down in flames with his country at the end of World War II; and Shigeru Yoshida (1878-1967), the aristocratic Prime Minister who, in semi-disharmony with the MacArthur occupation, paved the way for Japan's dramatic post-war reconstruction.

Missing from this roster are the Kuromaku, Aritomo Yamagata and Yoshio Kodama. Aritomo Yamagata (1838-1922) was Ito's arch rival and principle defender of the oligarchy, totalitarian rule, military expansionism and superiority of the Japanese character. He was the primary road block to democratic development in post-feudal Japan. His nurturing of ultranationalistic elements in the army guided the nation toward war. Yoshio Kodama (1911-1984) was an ultranationalist, exponent of a capitalist Japan, financial founder and supporter of the Liberal Democratic Party, moneyman behind the majority of postwar Prime Ministers, black marketeer and extortionist.

Perhaps rightly, Tanaka's critics would argue that his is the final name to be added to this list of major league, shadowy, social movers. Others would argue that he was the hawk, with a couple of black feathers. What is true, within the sweep of modern Japanese history, is that Kakuei Tanaka was unexpected. Whether in the sun or in the shadows, as a single citizen, he was without peer.

Tanaka is the only self-made man in Japanese history to reach the pinnacle of power. Only two others were even close: Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1536-1598), defacto Shogun, and Takashi Hara (1856-1921), who in 1918 became Japan's first "commoner" Prime Minister. Both of these men overcame the nation's entrenched heredity-based caste system, yet neither came from as far down as Tanaka.

With Tanaka's rise to power came the fulfillment and expansion of the parliamentary process that Hirobumi Ito had promoted a century earlier. Tanaka tore down a number of hierarchical impediments to individualism, conquered the nation's elite bureaucracy and set the tone for Japanese-style politics. He is, in a very real sense, an assimilation of those who have gone before him, with one additional twist. Tanaka brought the concept of populism into the political process. In an exaggerated sense, with only perfidy as an ally, Tanaka led a peasant revolution of one, that reshaped party politics in Japan.

The Kingmaker and the Kingfish

T. Harry Williams wrote in his biography of Huey P. Long, the late Governor of Louisiana, "In striving to do good he was led on to grasp for more and more power, until finally he could not always distinguish between the method and the goal, the power and the good. His story is a reminder, if we need one, that a great politician may be a figure of tragedy."[4]

Although it is not the intent of this book to focus on a Long/Tanaka comparison, it is intriguing that Japan could produce a character so familiar to Americans, and for such similar reasons. As a point of cross-cultural understanding, several parallel circumstances are worthy of mention. Some are geographic and others are the style extracted from that geography.

Born twenty-five years and two worlds apart, both men grew up in severely repressed communities repressed not by design but by political neglect. Long's community was Winn Parish in northern Louisiana and Tanaka's was Nishiyama, in the central part of Niigata Prefecture on the northwest coast. They were both born too rural. Not only were their respective communities disenfranchised from the centers of state power, but their states were also disenfranchised from the centers of national power. The childhood they knew was one of hard work and very simple values. Long was born the seventh child, in what he liked to refer to as a log cabin, albeit a very large log cabin, situated on 329 acres of land. Tanaka was born as an only son on 327 fewer acres. Both families were just one rung above tenancy. Prior to migrating to the big city, Long to New Orleans and Tanaka to Tokyo, Long had eleven years of schooling, Tanaka had only eight. Both men realized immediately that to be competitive in urban society they needed more education. Long completed a three-year law degree in one year; Tanaka attended a night school course in drafting. The dichotomy between rural and city life left a very deep impression on both young men an impression perhaps best described as a "yokel pathology," a degenerative disease inflicted on backwoods country folk by unspecified urban elites who had no intention of sharing technological progress with Winn Parish or Niigata Prefecture. The weakness in the system of patronage that existed was the fact that money superseded pedigree.

Because Long and Tanaka were not welcomed into the system, any system, they were driven to create a new one a system that would embrace not only them, but their kinfolk and neighbors as well. As a world view, it was narrow but more practical than most. As a political agenda, it was simple and unstoppable.

It has been said that Huey P. Long built 100 million dollars worth of the best roads Louisiana ever saw and it only cost the taxpayers 150 million dollars. Tanaka's style was identical.

Among the great unanswered questions in American history are: What if the powerful Senator from Louisiana had not been assassinated at age forty-two? What if his plan to split the Democratic Party in 1936 had been successful? Through his political machine and Share the Wealth Clubs would he have taken the presidency in 1940? Would he have been, as some suggest, America's first dictator?

Tanaka's story, in its own way, provides a possible answer to the Huey P. Long question. Tanaka did not get shot and he did come to dominate the political life of his nation.


Fascination, by itself, is one reason for writing a book about Kakuei Tanaka. As mentioned earlier, neglect is yet another reason. A third reason is to interject an element of human personality into what often is described as the byzantine world of Japanese politics not just any personality, but one that is already familiar to American culture. A fourth and final reason is that the life of Kakuei Tanaka spans the entire breadth of modern Japan.

In treating this subject we have adopted a two-tier style of communication. The first tier is biographical narrative. The second is illustrated research. Atypical of conventional practice, we have combined these two forms in deference to Tanaka's Niigata constituency. Illustrated research is our attempt to revive Japan's tenth-century literary style of emaki (picture scrolls). Other than denoting Tanaka's historical stature, the emaki approach hopefully will enhance the reader's feel for the subject and for a culture different from his or her own.

Out of necessity, we have relied almost exclusively on Japanese materials for our research and have paid particular attention to data generated in Niigata-ken. Compilation and verification of our work was done entirely in that prefecture under the watchful guidance of countless individuals to whom we are greatly indebted. A slight bias in favor of Niigata-ken was probably unavoidable.

© Steven Hunziker.