Yasuhiro Nakasone, who has died at the age of 101, was one of the most distinctive Japanese prime ministers of the second half of the 20th century. He was an internationalist from a nation more accustomed to insularity and yet, simultaneously, a staunch believer in older, quintessentially Japanese values so long as they were suitably modified for a changing world.
During his term in office, from 1982 to 1987, he made his presence felt on the world scene as none of his postwar predecessors had, with the arguable exception of Shigeru Yoshida in the very different climate of the 1950s. Unlike Mr Yoshida, he was able to do so from a position of relative strength, for the Japanese economy was at that time motoring ahead on all cylinders, any intimations of its subsequent problems but dim clouds on the horizon.
On the external front, he was fortunate that his prime ministership coincided with the ascendancy of generally like-minded conservatives in the west, notably Ronald Reagan in the United States, with whom he enjoyed a “Ron-Yasu” relationship. An early commitment to make Japan an unsinkable battleship in the military alliance with the US went down very well in Washington and gave Nakasone political cover at the highest level, which proved very useful as Japan’s trade surpluses and restricted internal markets came in for mounting criticism.
At home, if not a natural reformer, he pushed policies that, as seen both at the time and with the benefit of hindsight, undercut some of the influence of the Japanese establishment — that closed triangle of big business, powerful bureaucrats and complaisant politicians which had served the country so effectively in the decades of postwar reconstruction and development.
Among them were the privatisation of state monopolies, including telecoms, tobacco and salt, and a surprisingly full-frontal assault on the great bastion of traditionalism, an education system that Nakasone perceived as too rigid and too tailored to the needs of industry. He even commissioned a major study by Haruo Maekawa, a former Bank of Japan governor, designed to examine all aspects of Japanese society, political, economic and cultural.
But it would be wrong to assume that he became prime minister because of the force of his personality and ideas. If anything, during his long apprenticeship in the ruling Liberal Democratic party, he was considered a little too outspoken for a politician and a touch too nationalistic for comfort. Yet he could temper his dogmatism, as witnessed by his notorious nickname, the Weathervane, for the apparent swivelling of his positions to meet each available opportunity.
Born in Gunma prefecture in 1918, the son of a prosperous lumber dealer, Nakasone graduated from what was then the Tokyo Imperial University and served as a naval lieutenant in the second world war. First elected to the lower house of the Diet in 1947, he had his share of top jobs, including head of the defence agency and minister for international trade and industry, which demonstrated that he knew how to play the political game.
But the bureaucratic mandarins, used to figurehead political ministers, disliked him because he had the distressing tendency of trying to master whatever brief he was given. Their misgivings were to prove well-founded when, as prime minister, he put together a kitchen cabinet of external advisers.
His critics also saw darker elements in his background. They cited his wartime service in the imperial Japanese navy, the uniform of which he would occasionally wear later in public; his letters to Douglas MacArthur critical of the wholesale reforms instituted by the US occupation, not least Article Nine of the Constitution renouncing war; and his murky relationship with the author Yukio Mishima, whose literary talent coexisted with a nationalistic fervour that led, inexorably, to his spectacular public suicide in 1970.
But these considerations meant little to the eminently practical godfather of modern Japanese politics, Kakuei Tanaka, the former prime minister. After a succession of labyrinthine factional wars inside the LDP, resulting in six prime ministers between 1972-82, Tanaka threw his decisive weight behind the apparently weak candidacy of Nakasone, then head of only the fourth largest party faction.
Although subsequently publicly disgraced by his conviction for accepting bribes from Lockheed while himself prime minister, Tanaka continued behind the scenes to frustrate party challengers to Nakasone, most notably his own factional heir apparent, Noboru Takeshita, then finance minister. Only his incapacity after a stroke made it possible for the LDP to remove Nakasone from its leadership, barely a year after a smashing general election victory in 1986.
The Japanese public was always ambivalent about Nakasone. They quite liked his ability, after so many almost faceless prime ministers, to cut a dash on the world stage, but also thought he revelled too much in being known as the foreign prime minister, wearing Italian ties and, on one trip to Europe, spending as much time at Monet’s home in Giverny as he did on trade talks with French officials. It constituted a certain cosmopolitan flashiness that did not always sit well at home.
On the other hand, his foreign counterparts rated him highly because, as Margaret Thatcher said of Mikhail Gorbachev, he was somebody with whom one could do business — even when Japan appeared dilatory in implementing the structural reforms urged upon it.
His greatest contribution was to nudge his country in the right and irrevocable direction, looking outwards as a legitimate player in the world at least as often as inwards on the national navel. A long recession, economic and financial restructuring and political turmoil and scandal did not make life easy for Japan for years after he left office, but there has been no serious departure from the path laid out by Yasuhiro Nakasone.