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Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2007


Politicians who took a stand

We often hear nowadays that politicians in Japan are "smaller" than they used to be. The reference, of course, is not to physique but rather to the capacity of today's politicians to demonstrate broad-mindedness and magnanimity as their predecessors did.

Two politicians of the past can be singled out as magnanimous yet hard-core, or simply "big men." One is the late Saburo Eda, who led the former Japan Socialist Party as acting chairman (he is the father of incumbent Upper House president Satsuki Eda); the other is the late Masayoshi Ito of the Liberal Democratic Party, still remembered for refusing to become prime minister.

In June 1956, in a question session before an Upper House plenary session in connection with a no-confidence motion the JSP had pushed against the Upper House secretary general, the elder Eda called on Kiichi Miyazawa, then a newcomer to the chamber, three times to leave the ruling LDP and join the opposition Socialists.

House President Tsuruhei Matsuno ordered Eda ejected from the rostrum after the latter ignored repeated instructions to stop mentioning Miyazawa's name, throwing the session into turmoil.

In the eyes of Satsuki, however, his father acted gallantly as the incident took place during a full-blown confrontation between Japan's conservative and leftist forces at the time.

Four years later, Eda became acting chairman of the Socialist Party, following the assassination of chairman Inejiro Asanuma at the hands of an ultraright teenager on Oct. 12, 1960. In the general election that ensued, the party asked Eda to fill the shoes of Asanuma by running in the first constituency of Tokyo, the most prestigious in the whole country.

He declined, choosing instead to run from his native Okayama Prefecture in western Japan. He said a politician must not abandon the place where he was brought up. Had he run in the Tokyo constituency, he would have won easily, and his subsequent political career would have been very different.

This kind of unswerving attitude is hard to find among today's politicians. In the general elections two years ago, for example, many shifted their constituencies or sought candidacies at the last minute to ride the coattails of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who was pushing hard for privatizing the postal services. A number of Koizumi's "children" won legislative seats as a result. But today they simply wander around the Diet without knowing what to do or what's going on.

After the assassination of Asanuma, police authorities offered to provide an escort for Eda, but he refused. He didn't even allow a plainclothesman to ride with him in his car, saying he did not want to rely on police for protection.

Recently, a gathering commemorated the 30th anniversary of Eda's death and the centennial of his birth. In his day, there were a number of politicians as magnanimous and hard-core as he was, both among the governing conservatives and the opposition leftists.

The LDP's Ito was six years younger than Eda. In the summer of 1989, when Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita was forced to step down due to the Recruit incident, many within the party called on Ito to take the reins of government. Even Takeshita himself repeatedly asked Ito to succeed him.

Ito's final words were: "What's the use of changing the cover of the book? We have to change the content."

These words, still remembered in political circles, won him a reputation as a "politician of integrity," although this may be a slight exaggeration. Had he not been suffering from diabetes, he might well have become prime minister. Even so, he was a great politician, and many other episodes prove this point.

Ever since he was young, he had repeatedly declared three political goals: (1) to enable Masayoshi Ohira to become prime minister, (2) to restore normal diplomatic relations between Japan and mainland China and (3) to work for the good of his native Fukushima Prefecture.

When he was seeking a second term in the Lower House in January 1967, it was a common practice for candidates in each constituency to attend a "speech meeting" on their respective policies. Such meetings were often marred by hecklers.

Every time Ito appealed for establishing diplomatic relations with China, he was met with bitter catcalls, because in those days, few politicians in Japan, if any, dared to speak up for recognizing the People's Republic of China, which, of course, meant severing relations with the Nationalist Chinese government in Taiwan.

Before one such policy speech meeting, Fumiaki Saito, then Ito's secretary who would later be elected to the Lower House, asked him,"Sir, would you please refrain from talking about normalizing relations with China?"

"No," he replied. As he saw it, "Restoring ties with China is my political creed." He was the runnerup in that election and lost his seat in the Lower House.

After Ito's death in June 1994, Saito wrote: "I believe his unswerving political posture was rooted in his determination to serve the nation as he had no interest in gaining personal fame."

Looking back on what Eda and Ito did, one can see that both were hard-core professional politicians dedicated to serving the nation and its citizens. It is a matter of regret that such people no longer exist in the political arena. Some say the real politicians started disappearing during the reign of Takeshita.

This country has had 13 prime ministers during the past two decades — from Sosuke Uno to Yasuo Fukuda — but none has been a hard-core politician of a great caliber, with the possible exception of the oddball Junichiro Koizumi.

The lack of a resolute personality is also apparent among other politicians. Most of them are too easily influenced by others, and very few have the courage to pursue their convictions.

In a recent speech at Waseda University, his alma mater, Prime Minister Fukuda said, "I am not of great talents; I am of a type who matures somewhat late." It is hard to tell whether he was trying to be modest or boasting. At any rate, the nation is in danger unless more people of integrity and principle are willing to lead it.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the November issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine about Japan's political, social and economic landscape.

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