Yasuhiro Nakasone was the conservative prime minister of Japan who lead Japan when it was at the peak of its economic might, with many regarding him as Japan's most effective leader since the end of World War II. He was a contemporary of other memorable conservative leaders: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. Nakasone lead Japan for five years, from November 1982 to November 1987, making him the forth longest serving prime minister in the post-war period. While serving as prime minister he was described as "witty," "shrewd," "cynical" and "prejudiced.”

Nakasone is remembered for deregulating the economy and bureaucracy, reforming the education system, breaking up the state railroad and telecommunications monopolies, and being a recognizable figure on the international scene. At home he acted under the slogans “casting off the negative legacies of postwar policies” and “challenging taboos.”

Today Nakasone is arguably Japan’s most revered elder statesman. Over his six-decade political career that began during the American-led postwar occupation of Japan, Nakasone was a confidant of President Ronald Reagan and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev. As a young lawmaker clashed with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the head of the Allied occupation forces after World War II. He told the New York Times he looked everyday at a poster-size photograph of himself and Reagan walking together through the woods of Camp David, smiling in identical windbreakers. Nakasone retired from politics in 2003 and turned 92 in 2011. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, January 29, 2010]

Martin Fackler wrote in New York Times: “Mr. Nakasone was a rarity in the nepotistic, insider-driven world of Japanese politics, a self-made man whose father was a lumber dealer in the poor mountainous prefecture of Gunma, north of Tokyo. As a paymaster in Japan’s Imperial Navy during World War II, Mr. Nakasone said, he developed an enormous pride in his country and an admiration for the strength and ideals of its former foe, the United States.” [Ibid]

In 2011 Nakasone told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “I experienced World War II and have looked at the world and my country after the catastrophe. We rose from the depths of a ruined country, but nowadays people's awareness of history is shallow probably because they started life atop "a hill of prosperity."

Nakasone in 1919

Good Websites and Sources: Essay on Contemporary Japan 1989 to Present aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Wikipedia article on Nakasone Wikipedia ; Nakasone on Hatoyama New York Times ; Book; The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics, Lessons from Japan’s Great Recession wiley.com/WileyCDA ; Bubble Burst and Recession ? 1990s grips.ac.jp/teacher/oono ; Post World-War-II Japan hartford-hwp.com Essay on Allied Occupation of Japan aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Essay on Postwar Japan 1952-1989 aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Takazawa Collection at the University of Hawaii on Social Japanese Social Movements takazawa.hawaii.edu ; Documents Related to Postwar Politics and International Relations ioc.u-tokyo.ac.jp ; Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp

RECOMMENDED BOOKS: “The Bubble Economy: Japan's Extraordinary Speculative Boom of the '80s And the Dramatic Bust of the '90s” by Christopher Wood Amazon.com; “Ashes to Awesome- Japan's 6,000-Day Economic Miracle” by Hiroshi Yoshikawa and Fred Uleman (2021) Amazon.com; “Inventing Japan: 1853-1964" by Ian Buruma (Modern Library, 2003) Amazon.com; “The Making of Modern Japan” by Marius B. Jansen Amazon.com;
“The Cambridge History of Japan, Vol. 6: The Twentieth Century” by Peter Duus Amazon.com; “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan” by Herbert P Bix Amazon.com; “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II” by John Dowser of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1999. Amazon.com;
“Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power” by Sheila A. Smith (2019) Amazon.com;
“Japan in Transformation, 1945–2020 by Jeff Kingston Amazon.com

Yasuhiro Nakasone’s Political Career

Nakasone in Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II

Nakasone graduated from Tokyo University and worked in the Home Affairs Ministry before World War II. He was elected as a lawmaker in 1947 when he was 28. He was re-elected 20 times and served in a number of cabinet positions before he became prime minister. In 1997 he celebrated his 50th year as a lawmaker. He was given a special award by the Emperor — the Grand Cordon of the Supreme order of the Chrysanthemum — the same year. In 2003, he retired from the lower house but remained active in politics and still shows up periodically on television.

Nakasone wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: After I was elected for the first time to the House of Representatives, I visited Soho Tokutomi (1863-1957), a fourth estate heavyweight, three or four times. I did this because I wanted to hear the opinions of someone who observed Japan since the Meiji era (1868-1912). He gave me a quote that read "Ambition is in the world." I was very much encouraged as I think he meant, "Aim to take the reins of government."

Fackler wrote: “Two years after the war’s end, he gave up a promising career in an elite government ministry to run for Parliament with the belief that in its postwar remorse, Japan was in danger of discarding its traditional values. As a freshman lawmaker in 1951, he delivered a 28-page letter to General MacArthur criticizing the occupation, a brazen move. The general angrily threw the letter in the wastebasket, Mr. Nakasone was later told. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, January 29, 2010]

“This established his credentials as a right-wing politician, and one of the rare Liberal Democratic leaders who escaped the taint of the party’s money-driven machine politics. Indeed, when asked about his career-long affiliation with the Liberal Democrats, he was quick to distance himself by proclaiming himself a lifelong member of what he once called Japan’s “conservative mainstream.” Before he became prime minister Nakasone was backed by the still-powerful Tanaka and Suzuki factions. He once served as director general of the Defense Agency.

Yasuhiro Nakasone as Prime Minister

Nakasone served as prime minister for five years after first assuming the post in November 1982. Touting the final settlement of postwar politics, he carried out the privatization of the national railways, and administrative and fiscal reforms. Nakasone, now 93, is also credited with strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Nakasone in the 1980s

Nakasone was regarded as an ultraconservative and criticized for his nationalist and prejudiced views. He angered minorities in Japan by referring to Japan as a “homogeneous nation” with “one ethnicity, one state and one language." He angered American and American minorities when said that the "intellectual level" of Americans was below that of Japanese because of "people like blacks, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans." In 1985, he made an "official" visit to the controversial Yasukina war shrine in Tokyo, the same shrine that Prime Minister Junichiro Kouizumi was criticized for visiting in the 2000s.

Nakasone was known as a fiery nationalist and admired for his oratorical skills which set him apart in a nation of colorless political leaders. He once proclaimed that Japan was an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” against the Soviet Union. Fackler wrote, “He cast aside the deferential pose of his predecessors and seized a high profile at multilateral summit meetings, speaking out in support of the Reagan administration’s hard line against the Soviet Union. This won him a personal friendship with Mr. Reagan, which put the two men on a first-name basis and won Japan more respect globally.” [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, January 29, 2010]

“When Nakasone was prime minister, in the mid-1980s, there were severe strains on the relationship between Japan and the United States over the undervalued yen and a string of trade disputes,” Fackler wrote. “There were that fears that Japan would buy up the American economy and criticism of Tokyo’s weak defense spending.” “In my days, we had trade imbalances, and criticism of Japan taking a ‘free ride’ in national security,” Nakasone later told the New York Times. “We don’t have those problems now. The relationship is much more normal. It is on a firmer footing.” [Ibid]

In November 1984, Nakasone was chosen for a second term as LDP president. His cabinet received an unusually high rating, a 50 percent favorable response in polling during his first term, while opposition parties reached a new low in popular support. As he moved into his second term, Nakasone thus held a strong position in the Diet and the nation. Despite being found guilty of bribery in 1983, Tanaka in the early to mid-1980s remained a power behind the scenes through his control of the party's informal apparatus, and he continued as an influential adviser to the more internationally minded Nakasone. The end of Nakasone's tenure as prime minister in October 1987 (his second two-year term had been extended for one year) was a momentous point in modern Japanese history.

Nakasone guided the LDP to a landslide victory in dual elections for the Diet's two chambers in July 1986 just fifteen months before his retirement. Te LDP unexpectedly had won its largest majority ever in the House of Representatives by securing 304 out of the 512 seats. Despite the solid conservative majority, the government was faced with growing crises. Land prices were rapidly increasing, inflation increased at the highest rate since 1975, unemployment reached a record high at 3.2 percent, bankruptcies were rife, and there was political rancor over LDP-proposed tax reform. In the summer of 1987, economic indicators showed signs of recovery, but on October 20, 1987, the same day Nakasone officially named his successor, Takeshita Noboru, the Tokyo Stock Market crashed. Japan's economy and its political system had reached a watershed in their postwar development that would continue to play out into the 1990s. [Source: Library of Congress]

Nakasone and the United States

Nakasone's more strident position on Japanese defense issues made him popular with some United States officials but not, generally, in Japan or among Asian neighbors. Although his characterization of Japan as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier," his noting the "common destiny" of Japan and the United States, and his calling for revisions to Article 9 of the Constitution (which renounced war as the sovereign right of the nation), among other prorearmament statements, produced negative reactions at home and abroad, a gradual acceptance emerged of the Self-Defense Forces and the mutual security treaty with the United States in the mid-1980s. [Source: Library of Congress]

Another serious problem was Japan's growing trade surplus, which reached record heights during Nakasone's first term. The United States pressured Japan to remedy the imbalance, demanding that Tokyo raise the value of the yen and open its markets further to facilitate more imports from the United States. Because the Japanese government aids and protects its key industries, it was accused of creating an unfair competitive advantage. Tokyo agreed to try to resolve these problems but generally defended its industrial policies and made concessions on its trade restrictions very reluctantly. [Ibid]

Nakasone and Reagan

Reagan and Nakasone in 1986

Several cordial visits between Nakasone and United States president Ronald Reagan were aimed at improving relations between their countries. Nakasone was keen on strengthening the security alliance between Japan and the United States. He and Ronald Reagan held high level meetings in 1983 and became close enough they referred to one another by the familiar versions of their names, calling each other Ron and Yasu. When Nakasone met with Reagan in the United States he used his own daughter as an interpreter.

“In the end, friendly relations between nations depend on the sense of trust between their leaders,” Nakasone said. He greatly valued his relationship with Reagan. Nakasone contributed a cherry tree to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., and attended the funeral of his old friend almost six years ago. He said he still corresponded with the former first lady, Nancy Reagan. [Fackler, Op Cit]

Nakasone wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “In January 1983, I visited the United States for the first time as prime minister. I got along with Reagan from the beginning. Leaders are able to size each other up by speaking for only 15 minutes or so. I talked with Reagan for 20 minutes before our official talks and when we began to walk through the White House, Reagan asked me if we could call each other Ron and Yasu. I said that would be fine and the "Ron-Yasu relationship" was born in the hallway. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 18, 2012]

Reagan was a very broad-minded person who looked at things from a wide perspective and was also friendly. In that regard, we had a lot in common. It is very important for a leader to be humane and charismatic.

In 1983, the Group of Seven summit was held in Williamsburg, Va. Then French President Francois Mitterrand did not want his country to kowtow to the United States and raised objections to a U.S. plan to deploy missiles in Europe. Despite being a summit rookie, I persuaded Mitterrand to accept the plan, eventually leading to the summit's success. Reagan praised me highly and my global recognition rose.

Nakasone on What It Takes to Be Prime Minister

Nakasone wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: Requirements to be prime minister include a strong belief to develop the country and a sense of responsibility for the country's history and its future citizens. I always told new prime ministers who visited me to keep two things in mind: One is to find, as soon as possible, people who are on the same side and are willing to die with you. In other words, find people who share a common destiny. In my case, those people were then Chief Cabinet Secretary Masaharu Gotoda and then Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Shin Kanemaru. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 18, 2012]

The other thing is to find leaders who will cooperate in summits and other international meetings to realize mutual cooperation, for example, by engaging in correspondence. Diplomacy is like waging a war without weapons and concluding in peace. At that time, I attended international meetings with the same sense of urgency as if I were a soldier sent overseas.

The prime minister, in reality, is engaged in a war of politics, not administrative politics. Therefore, choosing allies within a cabinet is the most important thing.

Since the late 1950s, I wrote down the things I would do if I became prime minister in notebooks. I had 30 such notebooks just before I became prime minister. A day before I assumed the post, I chose about 10 things from those notebooks.

Prime Ministers in Japan After Nakasone

After Nakasone stepped down Japan was ruled by a series unmemorable prime ministers, none of whom were in office more than three years: 1) Noboru Takeshita (1987-89); 2) Sosuke Uno (1989); 3) Toshiki Kaifu (1989-91); 4) Kichi Miyazawa (1991-93); Morihiro Hosokawa (August 1993 to April 1994); Tsutomu Hata (April to June 1994); Tomilichi Murayama (1994-96). All of the prime ministers were LDP members except for Murayama, who was Socialist and the only non-LDP politician to serve as prime minister since the 1940s.

Prime minister Noboru Takeshita served for one year and seven months in 1987 to 1989. He introduced wide-raging tax reform, including a consumption tax, and was brought down by the Recruits scandal. The scandals and the unpopular tax led to massive defeat of the LDP in the 1989 upper house elections.

Takeshita was an LDP insider. He led the largest LDP faction, the one formally led by Tanaka. After he resigned he became an LPD kingmaker and served in the administrations of most of the LPD prime ministers in the 1990s. The prime ministers that succeeded him’sosuke Uno and Toshiki Kaifu — were believed to have been handpicked by him. He was also a mentor for Keizo Obuchi. See Kingmaker, Politics

Recruits Scandal and Decline of the LDP

Takeshita was forced out of office in April 1989 after members of his party, the LDP, were implicated in the shares-for-favors Recruits scandal, the worst political crisis in Japan since the end of World War II. LDP leader Shin Kanemaru was among those forced to resign. One of Takeshita’s top aides committed suicide. Many thought he chose suicide to avoid revealing any wrongdoing about his boss.

In the Recruits scandal, LDP lawmakers accepted pre-flotation shares of Recruit Cosmos Co., a real estate subsidiary of the Recruits group, with the understanding the shares would soar in value when the they were listed on the Tokyo stock market. In return the lawmakers granted Recruit favors which helped it expand its business.

Some 70 politicians and insiders purchased stock before the company was listed. When it was listed people already holding stocks made a killing. After the deals became public in 1988, 11 Diet members were investigated on bribery charges but not indicted. The trial for the Recruit scandal lasted for 13 years and involved 322 hearings.

Recruit Co., a major information and staffing service company, was founded in 1960 by Hiromasa Ezoe, a University of Tokyo student at the time, and initially placed classified ads in university newspapers. The company grew rapidly until 1988, when the stock-for-favors scandal erupted. Ezoe was found guilty of granting unlisted shares in one of the firm's subsidiaries, Recruit Cosmos Co., to politicians, senior bureaucrats and business leaders. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 27, 2012]

Takeshita resigned as prime minister after taking full responsibility for the Recruits scandal but that wasn’t the only misdeed he was linked to. Later it was discovered that Takeshita's aides had asked the Japanese mafia for help to win an election. In 1993 his closest aid was indicted on tax evasion charges after millions of dollars of gold bullion and bearer bonds were found in his closet.

Sosuke Uno resigned after the LDP's resounding defeat in the upper house election in July 1989. He was embroiled in an extramarital affair scandal, which was revealed immediately after he became prime minister in June 1989. The LDP's defeat was also due to the Recruit stock-for-favors scandal and the introduction of the consumption tax in April that year.

In 1989 the LDP lost a large number of seats in an upper house election as a result of the Recruit scandal, the introduction of a consumption tax and a sex scandal involving Prime Minister Sosuke Uno. Making matters worse was comment that women “were unfit for handling political affairs” made by an LDP member when the sex scandal broke, This led to a backlash by women voters and was a boost to Japan Socialist Party headed by Chairwoman Takako Doi.

Kaifu and Miyazawa

Toshiki Kaifu was prime minister from 1989 to 1991. He was forced to resign in October 1991 after three powerful LDP factions united against him and some members of the LDP broke away to form the New Frontier Party. Kaifu, who was from the LDP's Obuchi faction and had a weak political base in the party, planned to run in the LDP's leadership race in October 1991. But he finally gave up because many LDP members strongly opposed him over political reforms.

Kichi Miyazawa was prime minister from November1991 to August 1993 and finance minister before and after he was prime minister. A bureaucrat turned politician and an expert in economic and financial affairs, he steered the economy under a policy of aggressive budget expansion and was forced to resign in July 1993 after a series of scandals and his inability to pass political reforms. The LDP then failed to secure a majority in lower house elections and Miyazawa was succeeded by the first in-LDP government.

Miyazawa was steadfast in his belief that Japan should remain lightly armed and seek economic prosperity. He worked hard as foreign minister and prime minister to restore good relations with Japan’s Asian neighbors. In 1992 he was the first Japanese prime minister to acknowledge that Japan forced Asian women to serve as sex slaves.

Many Americans know Miyazawa as the man whom U.S. President George Herbert Bush threw up at a state dinner when Bush came down with the flu on a trip to Japan in 1992. Afterwards, Miyazawa told the embarrassed U.S. president that felt he "sympathy" for America because "there are homeless people; there is the problem of AIDS and so on. Education is not as high as the past. And U.S. industries are not as competitive as in the past, for various reason." On another occasion, Miyazawa criticized American workers as "too lazy."

Clinton responded to the sympathy comment in his nomination speech as the Democratic candidate: "Our country has fallen so far, so fast that just a few months ago the Japanese prime minister actually said he felt sympathy for America. Sympathy! When I am your president, the rest of the world will not look down on us with pity, but up to us with respect again."

In 1951, Miyazawa attended the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty. As finance minister in the 1990s Miyazawa helped steer Japan through bursting of the bubble economy and Asian financial crisis in 1997 but hesitated in tackling big problems like Japan’s bad loans, prolonging the Japanese recession in the 1990s and 2000s. He died in 2007.

Miyazawa resigned after a no-confidence motion against his Cabinet passed the Diet.In June 1993, a no-confidence motion submitted by opposition parties passed the Diet with some LDP lawmakers supporting it, and Miyazawa dissolved the lower house. Although the LDP maintained its position as the largest party in the lower house, they lost their majority in the July lower house election and a non-LDP coalition government under Japan New Party leader Morihiro Hosokawa was established.

Image Sources: Toyota; Kantei office of Japanese Prime Minister;

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2016

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