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January 19, 2020

Nakasone and Nakamura -- Part - I


January 19, 2020

Two of the prominent Japanese personalities who died in 2019 were Nakasone and Nakamura. Both of them came to prominence in the 1980s: Nakasone as prime minister of Japan and Nakamura as a renowned social worker who started his work in this region from Pakistan and then moved to Afghanistan and benefitted millions of people there by his outstanding work.

A look at their lives will give as an understanding of the political and social history of their times. Yasuhiro Nakasone died in November 2019 at the grand old age of 101. He was not only leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for seven years from 1982 to 1989, but also was prime minster of Japan from 1982 to 1987. He was one of the seasoned leaders of the capitalist world in the 1980s along with the likes of Ronald Reagan – president of America, who was first elected in 1980 and retained his post for two terms till 1989.

The second pillar of this leadership was Margret Thatcher – the British prime minister from 1979 to 1990. The third was Helmut Kohl – chancellor of Germany for 16 years, first of West Germany for eight years from 1982 to 1990, and then – after German unification – chancellor of Germany for another eight years till 1998. The fourth was François Mitterrand – president of France for 14 years from 1981 to 1995. In comparison with Reagan who lived for 93 years (1911-2004), Thatcher who lived for 88 years (1925-2013), Kohl who lived for 87 years (1930-2017), and Mitterrand who lived for 80 years (1916-1996), Nakasone lived the longest but held the leadership of Japan for just five years.

Nakasone was more like Brian Mulroney of Canada who was prime minister of Canada for nine years from 1984 to 1993, but remained relatively outside of the mainstream politics of Europe of the 1980s that witnessed a thaw in the cold war and then ultimately the collapse of the USSR. While Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, and Mitterrand were closer to the cold-war front in Europe, both Mulroney and Nakasone were not only conservative but also provided a kind of support to their allies who were playing more active roles to facilitate the demise of communism in Europe.

To understand Nakasone and his politics we need to have a look at the politics of Japan prior to Nakasone. Interestingly, from 1945 to 1982, in 36 years Japan had seen 18 prime ministers with an average tenure of just two years. But just two prime ministers stood out – Yoshida, PM for six years from 1948 to 1954; and Sato, PM for eight years from 1964 to 1972. Yoshida was instrumental in rebuilding of Japan and signing of peace agreements with the Allied Forces that had occupied Japan after the Japanese surrender in August 1945.

After the surrender, the occupying forces led by General MacArthur of the US army, who was also the governor of the occupied Japan, facilitated the formation of a new right-wing Liberal Party. Unlike in Germany where the allied forces had decided to abolish the old German state in May 1945, and created a new one; in Japan they decided to retain the old state albeit under the ultimate control of General MacArthur. Germany had been divided into the socialist East Germany occupied by the USSR and West Germany occupied by the capitalist powers led by the US.

Unlike Germany, in Japan a certain level of partnership was established between the occupied and the occupiers, who ruled Japan via the emperor and most of the Japanese elite. In Germany there was no living god, but in Japan there was one in the shape of an emperor who was retained in his position by the Americans. They declared the emperor as an innocent who was hijacked by the militarists waging the war; and the emperor had no responsibility – or so they said – for the war crimes committed by the Japanese military for 15 years from 1930 to 1945.

When Yoshida became prime minister in 1948 he re-established the Japanese economy on the capitalist path and within six years, till 1954, achieved a lot. Then there was a period of ten years with four prime ministers before Sato took over and ruled for eight years from 1964 to 1972. During that period he oversaw a rapid expansion of economy and also brought Japan into the Nuclear-Nonproliferation Treaty, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize. After Sato there was another 10 year period with five prime ministers, before Nakasone took over in 1982.

Nakasone had a long history of parliamentary politics as he was first elected to the lower house of the Diet (parliament) in 1947. During his presence in the Diet, he held various cabinet positions holding the ministries of transport, defence, and trade and industry. Throughout the 1970s there was political chaos in Japan with prime ministers coming and going in quick succession. Interestingly, the ruling party was the same – the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – but no prime minister could give Japan the stability it had enjoyed during the eight-year rule of Sato before 1972.

Finally, Nakasone took over as prime minister in 1982 and thus began a new era of relative stability – albeit of a conservative and right-wing orientation. As discussed earlier, the 1980s was a period of a conservative and right-wing resurgence in many countries around the world, as is happening now after 40 years. Though Nakasone led a coalition government after the elections in 1983, he managed to remain prime minister for five years and established closer ties with the US by increasing Japan’s contribution to its own defence. Nakasone also lowered Japanese trade barriers to American goods.

Nakasone was not only a conservative and right-wing politician, he was also overly patriotic and openly tried to enhance Japan’s reputation as one of the world’s leading economic powers. His efforts to increase defence spending raised controversy but he was in line with the dominant trend of his times followed by his friends such as Ronald Reagan. Though the LDP remained in power, the party did not grant him another term as prime minister in 1987. Again after his removal by the party itself, Japan saw 11 prime ministers in 14 years till 2001.

In 2001, once again a relatively calmer period started with prime minister Koizumi who ruled for five years till 2006. Afterwards in the ensuing six years, another six prime ministers filed in and out in quick succession, before the present PM Shinzo Abe assumed power in 2012. Abe has already become the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history. Nakasone continued to serve in the Diet until he was persuaded to quit by Koizumi in 2003; at that time Nakasone was already 85 years old and still wanted to continue.

All this brief history of Japan tells us at least two things: A democratic system is more important than personalities. Yoshida managed to establish a good and functioning democratic system in the 1950s resulting in a strong democracy that has seen periods of political stability under the likes of Yoshida, Sato, and Nakasone in the 20th century, interrupted by a quick succession of prime ministers. But nobody called it a failure of democracy and no one invited any internal institutional intervention.

The second lesson is that even under conservative governments a country can progress and prosper economically, though its impact on society at large remains debatable.

In the final part of this column, we will discuss Dr Tetsu Nakamura who was killed in Afghanistan in December 2019.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]