Ryutaro Hashimoto, aged 68, was one of Japan’s political titans who grew up under the tutelage of Japan’s master kingpin politician, Kakuei Tanaka. I knew Hashimoto and met him first in January 1985 at a time when other of the key lieutenants of the Tanaka faction were running Japan.
On one of the other occasions I spent time with Hashimoto in 1993, he and Ichiro Ozawa — who later broke apart from the governing Liberal Democratic Party — were squaring off regarding who would be the flag-bearer for a new and different Japan and for power of the largest political faction of the LDP. Ozawa became the renegade — breaking up his faction and helping to launch a more viable opposition to LDP power. Hashimoto remained loyal to his bosses and ultimately became Prime Minister.
One of the greatest controversies Hashimoto had to deal with was the rape of a 12-year old girl by three American servicemen in Okinawa, Japan. The rape incident triggered the largest public protests of U.S. military bases in Japan since 1960 and highlighted the heavy burden of the bases hosted in Okinawa, the poorest of Japan’s prefectures which hosted more than 80% of America’s Japan-based forces on the island.
I thought of Hashimoto last night when I reviewed the guest list for the White House State Dinner last night for Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. One of the guests at that dinner was the well-known Yoichi Funabashi, former DC Bureau Chief and now senior editorial writer for the Asahi Shimbun.
Funabashi once recounted that he sat in a room next to Hashimoto as the then Prime Minister took a phone call from then Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale. Mondale and Hashimoto had decided to jump-start the realignment of U.S. bases and activities in Japan that would shrink the footprint of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa.
The first step was going to be the consolidation of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station into the larger Kadena Air Base.
Though this deal was outlined and agreed to in 1996, nothing happened for years. More than a decade of inaction by the U.S. government on Futenma, the Department of Defense finally announced that the base, which lies in the middle of a phenomenally congested urban area, would be moved. But even now, the controversy still rages.
Hashimoto was one of Japan’s more colorful prime ministers and represented the last of a line of “shadow shoguns” (even though Hashimoto loved operating in the limelight) who ran Japan’s government through back room deals and boss driven machines.
Some of that old order still exists — but as Koizumi vacates his role in September, it’s clear that the Japanese political system today has finally moved beyond the easy manipulation of a Kakuei Tanaka, Shin Kanemaru, Nikaido, Gotoda, Takeshita, Ozawa, or Hashimoto — all products of the once titanic Tanaka political faction.
Condolences to his family.
— Steve Clemons