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Saturday, Nov. 17, 2007


'Nabe-tsune' don of fixers

Staff writer

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News photo
Yomiuri chairman Tsuneo Watanabe speaks at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan during a news conference in March 2006 in Tokyo. KYODO PHOTO

Although a plot to form a grand coalition between the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan has been shelved, news reports about the closed-door meeting between Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa suggest Tsuneo Watanabe, head of the Yomiuri media group, was the fixer of the failed pact.

Watanabe, known by his nickname, "Nabe-tsune," is chairman and chief editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun, which boasts a circulation of some 14 million copies — the most for any newspaper in the world, according to the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers. The 81-year-old is also in charge of the Yomiuri Giants, the hugely popular professional baseball team based in Tokyo.

The Rupert Murdoch-like media baron, who possesses the haughtiness of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, began gaining influence in politics in the late 1950s as a journalist covering the Diet.

Born in Tokyo, the head of the Yomiuri conglomerate graduated from the University of Tokyo with a degree in philosophy. While a student, he joined the Japanese Communist Party but was quickly expelled for clashes with its leaders.

He began writing for the Yomiuri in 1950, and was assigned to cover Banboku Ohno, an LDP heavyweight, in 1954. After gaining Ohno's trust, he reportedly conducted political negotiations on Ohno's behalf while also composing statements as a ghostwriter for many lawmakers.

After Ohno died in 1964, Watanabe built close ties with former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone — another powerhouse of the LDP and a mentor to many politicians, including Ichiro Ozawa.

Although Ozawa has not exposed the mediator of his meeting with Fukuda, DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama has revealed that the arbitrator "may have been" Watanabe.

Analysts, including Nagoya University's Fusao Ushiro, explain that Fukuda and Ozawa, who were teenagers when Watanabe began his journalism career, are likely to be submissive in front of the media tycoon.

"You can tell things by how Watanabe refers to Ozawa as Ozawa-kun," Ushiro said. "Even Prime Minister Fukuda is a youngster in Watanabe's eyes. That is why Watanabe probably felt the urge to arrange the talks between the two parties."

Ushiro claimed that Watanabe developed his influence on lawmakers by covering the LDP heavyweights, which in turn bolstered his reputation at the Yomiuri. The combination ultimately led to his overpowering status today, he said.

Watanabe has been a devoted advocate of an LDP-DPJ alliance, and reportedly promoted his idea to several lawmakers in order to break the stalemate in the divided Diet over the antiterrorism bill to continue Japan's maritime refueling mission in the Indian Ocean. The stalemate was created when the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc lost its control in the Upper House following a major defeat in the July election.

After the attempt at an alliance failed, however, the octogenarian appeared on TV programs and denied involvement in the grand coalition plot — only stating that he is in favor of an alliance that would make it possible for the Diet to pass vital laws.

Named the media person of the year in May by the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, Watanabe served as a member of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council for the Japan Sumo Association from 1991 to 2005. He is considered a conservative, but denounces prime ministerial visits to the contentious Yasukuni Shrine based on his experience of serving in the Imperial Japanese Army during the war.

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