Makiko Tanaka, Japan’s ‘Iron Lady’ is a straight talker

Opinions - May 18th, 2001
Henry Scott Stokes

by Henry Scott Stoke

I am trying to recall when it was that I first encountered Kakuei Tanaka—the person who dominated public life here in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and whose daughter Makiko, 57, now stands before us as foreign minister.

Exercising my trade as a reporter down the years, I met suc­cessive prime ministers of Japan. They were in office, mostly, for only a short period of time, and then they were gone. One of these people, however, stood head and shoulders above the rest. He was the one I real­ly liked—the one so many people warmed to. I refer to the late, notori­ous “Kaku-san,” the son of a horse-dealer from the other side of the mountains in Niigata, facing the Japan Sea. He was a construction company boss. He was the one, my Japanese friends explained to me long ago, who laid down the princi­ple that Japanese politics consisted of cash.

They exaggerated no doubt. In this country politics have always been about money, as Taro Aso, one of the new generation, remarked at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club the other night, when presenting himself as a possible future premier. There is apparently nothing new in the smoky-backroom approach to the nation’s affairs.

“Scandals happen in politics here,” he blurted out.

That surprised me—that frank­ness and openness of Aso-san’s. His remark served as a reminder, howev­er, that everything’s changed in Japan, all of a sudden. As of late April we have a new ballgame, as they say.

I like it. I don’t know about you, but I had had enough of the Japan that Kaku-san made—and that then ground to a halt in the ’90s after the construction industry had run out of beaches to ruin and valleys to kill.

I thought the Japanese and their countryside deserved better of the nation’s politicians… I thought they stank, these monstrous men in their dark suits, with the big white posies in their lapels at election time.

Or am I speaking too soon?

Possibly the person who is the best guide to this nation’s future— this is what many Japanese believe— is Makiko Tanaka. How so? She learned politics on her father’s knee. She knows everything. She knows what makes human beings tick. Yes, money is part of it. But the essential is to charm them. If you are in pub­lic life, especially, you have to be able to lay it on.

She can do that. She has people rooting for her in this country simply because she calls a spade a spade. I loved that remark of hers the other day a propos the strongest rival to the candidate she favored for the pre­miership in April, namely Junichiro (“Junchan”) Koizumi. Of that rival—his name escapes me, let him perish in obscurity—she remarked that “he had best be taken out in space, and cut loose to circle the earth at a decent distance and forever.”

Or words to that effect. Ah, you could hear the intake of breath, all around the archipelago, that her father came so damned close to ruining ecologically forever. Ah, that Makiko. Her mouth…

Yes, she has a big one. It’s true. Just like her Dad, they say. She opens up, and they fall away on all sides. They cannot compete. She even spoke ill—at LDP election time in the spring—of a former premier who had “kicked the bucket” (we are mincing no words here) and, prior to that, had let the nation’s finances deteriorate, without lifting a finger to remedy the situation.

Again, there was that audible intake of breath around the nation. How could she say these things? “What do you mean?” she struck back at the reporters following her. “Are you telling me that I am wrong?”

That shut ’em up nicely.

The question they are all asking, of course, is whether she is the Iron Lady of Japan. I have a simple answer to that. Yes. That is exactly what she is. And the proof thereof will arrive in July, when there are elections here.

If I am wrong, so be it. But just watch the way things go. The way her father operated is well under­stood. He knew the people and he knew the prefectures. He knew who stood for office where and why and what chances they had of re-election. His great weapon was his memory. Names, places, amounts of dough— he remembered the lot. He had a photo-perfect memory. Ms. Tanaka—she uses her maiden name—is exactly the same. Otosan sokkuri, they say in Japanese.

“Exactly like her Dad,” that means.

Except that she doesn’t do it with money. Times have changed. What counts hereabouts today is to let them do so and firstly to let the facts hang out. Which means what in these climes?

The policy her father was best known for was a policy of rap­prochement with the mainland, with China. As is well remembered, he used his post—as newly elected premier in 1972—to follow instantly in the steps of Henry Kissinger and hasten over to the Middle Kingdom to pay his respects, whatever, sotto voce, the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.

That took courage. And I will tell you something that hardly any­one knows in this country, some­how. The price Kaku-san paid was this. Ever thereafter—following his trip to China in 1972—he was dogged by the fear of assassination. That man was the best protected individual in all of Japan, the emper­or not excluded. He ensured that he had the best cops on duty from the metropolitan police, 24 hours a day at his place at Mejiro in Tokyo. They have an outer gate there, and an inner gate. And a police box, full of stalwarts, as I say, night and day, oh for more than 20 years until Kaku-san finally died.

That’s the Right in this country, for you. But they could not get to him. The assassin’s knife never reached its target.

So this, essentially, is where this particular Iron Lady is coming from: a policy of Asia First. As a young woman, she experienced education in America. She went to a Quaker school there. She knows the U.S., and she knows some of the best ele­ments in that society, I would say. But, look, this is Japan, not California, not a 51st state. The first priority is relations with China.

If, as and when, the Bush Administration puts its foot in it on China policy—I am optimistic, but you never know—this lady will let them have it in Washington. I think that’s healthy. I think she’s good for Japan.

It’s time that there was someone in office here who speaks to America without flinching all the time for Pete’s sake. I rather think the Bush/Cheney team will like her, don’t you? Not that she’s PM yet. The thing of it is that she doesn’t need to be, though. I am not trying to be clever here. She is her father’s daughter. And when you’ve under­stood that, you’ve got it all.

henryss@gol.col