29 JANUARY 1983, Page 9

Yasu and Ron and pinch me

Murray Sayle


Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when we go on and off the record! Only a

Week ago, Japan had a brand-new, energetic Prime Minister, promising, in a series of mighty bounds, to pacify the Americans, butter up Europe, balance the budget, revive the home economy and make friends with Japan's ever-suspicious neighbours.

Now, one disastrous Washington press Conference later, we see an oriental quick- escape artist desperately picking at the handcuffs, while the audience starts to boo: Did he say it? If he said it, did he mean it? Is he crazy? Or just stupid? Or slyer than we dare think?

Well, he certainly said it, or the

Washington Post's tape recorder isn't a S°nY. But, before we look deeper into the predicament of Yasuhiro Nakasone, a recap on how he came to be Prime Minister last October. Faithful readers will recall that ineffectual, bumbling (and, in my opi- nion, wise) Zenko Suzuki stepped down from the premiership. In his Washington Basco, Suzuki told reporters that Japan's defence posture was that of a 'proud Mouse', when he meant to say 'wise hedgehog', earning himself a scolding from the same ever-vigilant Washington Post. As Well, Suzuki got into a tangle about whether Americans are or are not allowed to store their nuclear weapons in Japan, failed to mute the growing chorus criticising Japan's exports, and borrowed heavily to finance his government.

Nothing unusual here, in the unenviable

lot of a Japanese Prime Minister. Suzuki departed, however, unexpectedly, much as an airline pilot might buckle on a parachute and jump, leaving the passengers engrossed in their inflight magazines and all the engines on fire. Japan is indeed ap- proaching just such a terminal crisis, much bawling to home than barking Americans or bawling Europeans, and coupled, as ever, With the name of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.

Tanaka, it will be recalled, was deposed

10 1974 and charged the following year with accepting a bribe of something over a million pounds from Lockheed, the generous American aircraft firm. The case has been Proceeding at its normal snail's pace, and

just about the time you read this the pro- secution is due to wind up its case with a de- mand for the sentence prescribed, but seldom enforced by Japanese law, five years at hard labour. Meanwhile, Teacher Tanaka, as his followers call him, has managed to extend his influence in Japanese politics and is now the undisputed Mister Big, controlling a full quarter of the votes in the Japanese parliament. His method can be summarised as money, lots of money.

Without wishing to prejudice his trial (do Japanese judges read the Spectator?) we can say that Tanaka-san's guilt, in the literal, western sense of did he trouser the cash or not, is not at issue. The boss is not, however, anxious to do his time, partly because Japanese prisons are depressing holes, partly because a stretch would delay his return to the prime ministership, which many Japanese feel is inevitable and should be got over and done with. However, just as many, possibly more, feel that taking bribes from foreigners is simply outside the pale, and deserves a suitably deterrent punish- ment. The issue has paralysed Japanese politics for close on a decade, and may well do so a decade more.

So, when Suzuki sagely abandoned his ship, four candidates presented themselves publicly for his job, all promising to work wonders. One, Yasuhiro Nakasone, was well known to be sympathetic to the methods, and probably the plight, of Boss Tanaka; the others, by name Abe, Nakagawa and Komoto, were all to varying degrees anti-Tanaka. The matter was put to a ballot of the million-plus paid-up members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, to which they all (except Tanaka, who has resigned) in principle belong. Nakasone, to everyone's astonishment, scored some 60 per cent of the vote, with the others trailing far behind. Why? No one has polled the party members, and, anyway, straight-out asking people what they think is considered bad manners by Japanese. In general, Japanese politics are only slightly about policy, more about personal loyalty, and mostly about money, priorities set by the voters' in- satiable thirst for free drinks, matrimonial advice, wedding presents and other costly tokens of esteem. However, it could be argued that Japanese actually prepared to join the Liberal Democratic Party, even if someone else paid their dues, might be ex- pected to take policy more seriously, just as Tory constituency party workers want to bring back the cat, the noose and the floral hat, while Labour militants demand free milk and compulsory abortions for all.

So, Nakasone's win might mean that Tanaka's influence, dearly bought, is active outside his own pampered constituency (a branch of the Bullet Train, hopelessly insol- vent, started running there over the new year) or it might signify that the party faithful share Nakasone's ideas. These have, in his 35 years in politics, covered most of the spectrum, and he is consequent- ly nicknamed 'The Weathervane'. However, he once said that Japan should possess its own nuclear weapons, and he has frequent- ly asserted that the present Japanese con- stitution, which forbids arms and armies, was dictated by the victorious Americans, is a badge of tutelage, and ought to be revised.

Naturally, Nakasone claimed that he was the people's choice, and the Tanaka- dominated Diet duly voted him into the hot seat. Interest at this point focuses on the new man's cabinet, the names being a useful guide to which of Japan's many fac- tional bosses is His Master's Voice. A prime minister trying to show that he is his own man strives for 'factional balance'; Nakasone produced a list bristling with the names of Tanaka cronies and henchmen, leading the newspapers here to salute the `Tanakasone administration'. In particular, the new Justice Minister, Akira Hatano, came in for some close biographical research.

Justice ministers are, of course, in charge of Japanese trials, or at least the prosecu- tion side of them (on the other set of tea- swilling islands, the Director of Public Pro- secutions is in business precisely to take the delicate task out of the hands of politi- cians). Hatano, a former policeman who graduated by night study from a minor university, is one of those self-improving conservatives all the more passionate in the Tory faith because they have crossed class lines to reach the Promised Land. In needle-sharp particular, he is on record as holding that the depositions of Lockheed executives that they paid off Tanaka are in- valid, because the Americans were promis- ed immunity from prosecution, a promise which, Hatano says, no Japanese official can lawfully make. If you scent the plot thickening here, so do 120 million Japanese.

To be blunt, has Nakasone made a deal in return for Tanaka support, and if so, on what terms? Time, of course, will tell, but we're impatient. Nakasone is certainly a consummate nuts-and-bolts politician, cossetting his constituency with such devices as a free telephone number anyone in Japan can dial to hear a three-minute recording by Nakasone on 'What I did for you today in Parliament'. He has, as we

shall see, a crash-through style in attacking apparently insoluble problems. There may, moreover, be some guidance in a sad sub- plot to the story of his elevation to the purple.

If anyone was responsible for the canvas of opinion within the Liberal Democratic Party, an organisation about as substantial as a summer snowflake, it was one of the defeated, lchiro Nakagawa, who publicly denounced the normal process of selection- by-negotiation (or highest bidder) and call- ed for an intra-party election. Nakagawa, a pushy, bossy type, had his own faction of a dozen faithful parliamentary retainers, and his own source of funds among the fishermen and cattle-ranchers of his home island, Hokkaido, the northernmost one nearest the Soviet Union. The beef business, put simply, is probably the most lucrative racket in Japan, as all imported meat has to pay a huge levy, which is sup- posed to go to the farmers (average herd, six beat-up beasts) but is in fact funnelled more or less directly into politics. Nakagawa, at 57, is considered a young hopeful, therefore had all the makings of a mini-Tanaka.

On 9 January it was announced that Nakagawa had suffered a fatal heart attack at a meeting of his constituency supporters, his wife tearfully supplying reporters with all the symptoms, sweaty palms, chest pain and so on straight from Merck's Physi- cians' Desk Reference. Four days later, after the deceased had been hastily cremated, the local police laconically disclosed that Nakagawa had hanged himself with the sash of his Japanese-style bathrobe, his doctor confessing that he had faked the death certificate to 'spare the family anguish'.

Why did Nakagawa do it? His associates offered 'depression and overwork' as ex- planations. Just before he died, it emerged, Nakagawa had been having acrimonious discussions with certain mysterious finan- cial backers, and it was said that his faction had spent more than a million pounds on his unsuccessful (and apparently hopeless) run for the premiership, and was deeply in debt. As it was, in theory, a simple postal vote, one wonders what the money was spent on, and what the others spent. Japanese politics is a game played for very high stakes, for both winners and losers.

The newly-installed premier, Nakasone, heard of the death of his rival in Seoul, capital of South Korea, where he was pay- ing an unexpected and momentous visit, the first by a Japanese prime minister in office since Korea was liberated from detested Japanese rule in 1945. Most Japanese think, in a vague way, that Japan and South Korea should be on better terms, as close neighbours and, historically speaking, cousins, but Japanese liberals object to their country being too cosy with a self- appointed military dictatorship, while Japanese conservatives view Koreans much as Tory ladies see West Indians, namely as smelling bad, fighting with knives, being too fond of drink and sex, and generally lowering the tone of East Asia.

Boldly plunging in to heal this ancient en- mity, or at least make a commendable start (and to do a deal?) Premier Nakasone arriv- ed in Seoul, dined with President, formerly General, Chun, and offered South Korea $4.5 billion in economic aid, which is less than the Koreans wanted but a lot better than a smack in the face with a raw fish. Chun (in return?) allowed dissident Kim Dae Jung to go to the United States, partly resolving a problem which has been fester- ing for years, ever since South Korean agents brazenly violated Japanese sovereignty and kidnapped Kim from a Tokyo hotel (at least, according to the Tokyo police, who found the fingerprints of a Korean diplomat on the scene of the snatch).

So, with a hastily-passed budget under his arm, Nakasone packed for a lightning New Year's trip to wintry Washington. America's demands on Japan have not changed in a quarter-century, namely less Japanese exports, more imports from the US, and a bigger Japanese contribution to 'the defence of the free world' as they say in the Pentagon. Nakasone's budget, drafted in record time, provides for a 6.5 per cent increase in defence spending and reduced tariffs on chocolate, cigarettes and 'cookies' (the latter the biscuit-like objects Ron's mommy used to boil for thanksgiv- ing).

These are, of course, purely cosmetic concessions; Japan would need to double the defence budget for at least ten years to become a minor naval and nuclear power like, say, Britain, and Japanese will be nib- bling an awful lot of biscuits to make a dent in their 1982 trade surplus with the US, which Americans put at $18 billion. On the areas where American demands have lately been loudest, beef and oranges, they collide with the interests of the aforementioned political beef barons and the mandarin orange lobby, the second most powerful in Japan behind the rice-growers' monolith. Nakasone prudently promised `no sur- 'I designed this house when I was only five.' render' on beef and oranges before he left, lest he be deposed in flight.

Matters of substance aside, there's still show business, and Nakasone (consid- ered the best-looking Japanese politician of his time) had a scene to play with Holly- wood's first President. 'I hear that Amer- icans like red-blooded men', he told report- ers here before he left, and for part of their talks the President and Prime Minister, defying Kipling's line about the twain never meeting, conferred together alone and in English — Nakasone being the first Japanese premier to be comfortable in our barbarous tongue since the days of the American occupation, and Reagan, of course, having no known Japanese.

How did the scene play? We cannot, un- fortunately, view the rushes, but according to Nakasone, 'He said "call me Ron" and I replied "call me Yasu". So, next time we meet it will be "Hi Ron" and "Hi Yasu"•' This red-blooded exchange did not, however, produce any breakthroughs in the issues so long in dispute, if we can believe the White House press spokesman.

Yasu did, however, tell his ole pard'ner Ron that Japan and the US are 'bound by a common destiny'. According to the liberal Asahi Shimbun, this sentiment 'may be paraphrased as "go and get killed together!" ' But the businessman's papers Yomiuri Shimbun, says 'The Tokyo- Washington relationship... has now been put on the right track again through the reconfirmation of the mutually indispens- able ties between the two countries.' Is all now merry as a wedding bell between the odd couple of the Pacific, or has Uncle Sap again mistaken words for deeds?

Leaving Ron at the big White Bunkhouse, Prime Minister Nakasone pro- ceeded to his next appointment, an inter- view with old Asia hand Don Oberdorffer of the Washington Post. This interview turned out to be a major scoop. The Japanese islands, said Nakasone, should be like 'an unsinkable aircraft carrier equipped with a tremendous bulwark of defence against the infiltration of the [Russian] Backfire bomber', and Japan should have 'complete and full control of four straits that go through the Japanese islands so that there should be no passage of Soviet sub- marines and other naval activities.'

Sweet music, at long last, for American military ears! This is exactly the scheme the Pentagon has been proposing for thirty years, and the Japanese have been just as stubbornly resisting. 'Previous Japanese administrations have been rather am- biguous on it. But my administration is quite clear on it. But we don't see any need to advertise it,' Nakasone went on, winn- ingly taking the readers of the Washington Post into his confidence. That was last Thursday. By Friday, alerted that there was an uproar at home, Nakasone saw even less reason to advertise his views, and in fact denied that he had us- ed such phrases as 'unsinkable aircraft car- rier' or had volunteered Japanese co- operation in the strait-blocking dodge, and claimed that he had built a 'personal rela- tionship of trust' with his buddy Ron. The Washington Post report, he told Japanese reporters, was 'erroneous'. Managing Editor Ben Bradlee, the part-time film star, said that he had total confidence in his reporter, and even more in Oberdorffer's tape recorder. The Washington paper then Published a transcript of the interview, less Parts that were, they said, 'off the record'. Nakasone then retracted his retraction, say- ing this time, 'When asked to confirm the newspaper report, I mistakenly thought the question was whether I had made the remarks to President Reagan, and so I denied it.' Informed that there are three straits, not four, that the Russians might use to pass through the Japanese islands, Nakasone added, 'I was so busy and tired that I got confused. I apologise to you for the errors.'

They were not, however, too busy or tired in Moscow to get off a nasty warning to Japan, via Tass, the Soviet News Agen- cy. Nakasone, said Tass, was trying to 'in- crease Japan's military role in the Far East to drag it into American plans for aggres- sion.' Japan, the agency added, could find itself the victim of a retaliation that would he worse than the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 'It could mean for Japan an even worse national tragedy than the one it suffered 37 years ago'.

he mere allusion to the martyred cities sent a shudder through Japan, not helped by a Washington counter-cnarge that the Soviets were using 'alarmist language' to in- timidate Japan from pursuing its 'legitimate defence requirements'. This, in verbal form, is exactly what Japanese policy has sought to avoid ever since 1945, namely the superpowers conducting their quarrel in or near the Japanese islands, whose crowded industrial cities still present the juiciest nuclear targets in the world. Yasu may well have promised Ron that we'll all go together, Japanese first, but he is not known to have the assent of his cabinet for this Plan, and he certainly does not have the approval of the Japanese people in offering their country as Uncle Sam's first line of defence.

I can't quarrel with the assessment of the Asahi Shimbun: 'The inconsistency of Prime Minister Nakasone's remarks about the Washington Post indicates that he had intended to play words to suit the people of both Japan and the United States.' They said it, not me, and we might add that with no nuclear weapons, no civil defence, no Exocets or equivalents and only 40 'mine warfare vessels' as they delicately put it (rig- ged for sweeping, not laying) the Japanese " pointedly made no preparations for blocking any of their straits, or giving the nuclear and rocket-based Russians just over the water any avoidable provocation. The whole thing, in short, has been talk. Successful talk? Nakasone's indiscretions have Put the Americans in the position of not being able to criticise him, for the mo-

ment, without playing into the hands of a parcel of Japanese leftists, pacifists and Asahi Shimbun readers. In this sense, his claim that he has resolved Japan's American problem may be temporarily valid, although he has not exactly burnish- ed his own reputation for reliability, and the underlying conflicts on trade and defence remain, like well-placed mines, ready to detonate.

Even more menacing is the Tanaka minefield, and here Nakasone is clearly ap- proaching a perilous strait indeed. If he lets justice take its course, the Boss is likely to get the expected five years this coming autumn, and his enraged followers will do their best to turn Nakasone out (Tanaka can delay going to jail, by appeals and legal stalling, for a further five years, so this story will run and run). Nakasone's only chance would be to build up his own public following to the point where the rest of the party regards him as Mister Indispensable, and here, clearly, we have one explanation for his fly-in-bottle energy, mostly verbal, since he took office.

But the corruption of Japanese politics works against him here. When just about every section of Japanese society is paying off politicians, it is impossible to yield to American, much less European, pressures without infuriating parties in Japan who have been paying handsomely for protec- tion over the years. Most Japanese, of course, prefer this state of affairs to the return of the honest fanatics who led them to disaster in 1945, and so should we, so reform movements have little future.

Nakasone could, legally at any rate, allow his Justice Minister to withdraw the case against Tanaka, on the technical grounds already outlined. There would be a mightly uproar, Nakasone would be out, and Tanaka, without any other stain on his character, probably has the numbers in parliament to return to the premiership. Nakasone could also try leaning on the judges, but (with the precedent, for in- stance, of the police who refused to cover up his rival Nakagawa's suicide) it is doubt- ful that they would obey.

A more subtle ploy may already be in the making. Tanaka's lawyers are due to wind up their case in June, and an election for the Japanese upper house is due the same month. Nakasone could make it a general election (thought by Tanakamen to be good for the ruling party) and then, claiming that the Boss had been 'exonerated by the people', give him some sort of pardon. But then, look what happened to ex-President Gerry Ford ...

Whichever way it goes, Nakasone needs- to show results as fast as possible, and his Washington jaunt has not exactly been a box-office smash. So what will happen, when Premier and President meet again?

Will it be 'Hi, Ron', 'Hi, Yasu, baby, how's tricks'? or 'Hullo, Mr Reagan'. 'Hullo, Mr Tanaka. Nice to see you back. Whatever happened to my ole buddy what was his name'?