Japan's Most Powerful Man

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DONALD MACINTYRE TokyoThough it's cozy and the coffee is always freshly ground, the Three Oceans Garden cafe near Route 9 outside Kyoto is hardly the kind of establishment where Japan's most powerful politician would hang out. Yet it's Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka's favorite spot. Wearing a casual sweater and sometimes his wife's sandals, he frequently wanders through the back door on weekends and makes his way from table to table, chatting with customers. He's a local himself, and this has been his way of unwinding since he first became a town councillor in the area more than two decades ago. Marvels Masako Kuroki, who runs the cafe with her husband: He hasn't changed at all.That down-home style worked magic for Nonaka during the long years he spent in local politics. Outspoken and blunt, he stuck out in a culture where direct personal attacks are seen as a breach of etiquette. But his brand of plain talk and small-town smarts has proven just as effective in Nagatacho, Tokyo's political power center. As the postwar generation of leaders fades from the scene, this farmer's son has emerged as the top playmaker in Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's government. Nicknamed the Shadow Control Tower, he is widely believed to have more clout in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party than the Prime Minister himself. He may also be the man to decide how long Obuchi keeps his job. Nonaka really is the key man in this administration, says Shigenori Okazaki, a political analyst at Warburg Dillon Read in Tokyo. What he says becomes fact.Nonaka downplays the idea that he is Japan's latest shadow shogun. I'm a day laborer, he recently told the monthly Shokun. I just say what is on my mind. But this Working Joe's pronouncements carry a lot of weight these days. He is a critical backer for several important pieces of legislation that are likely to be approved in parliament this year or early next. At the top of the agenda: tax cuts to revive consumer spending and new guidelines for United States-Japan security cooperation. But his rise to the top has also caused some concern. An unusually freewheeling LDP-opposition debate over Japan's banking crisis earlier this year had raised expectations among many Japanese that the country's one-sided political culture was opening up. Despite his candor, Nonaka has a penchant for old-fashioned backroom wheeling and dealing that looks like a retrograde step to many. The lack of transparency is increasing public distrust in politics, laments Yukio Hatoyama, an influential member of the opposition Democratic Party.Too bad, because Nonaka is in the saddle for now. The 73-year-old pol won his spurs as former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's top troubleshooter. Nonaka really started to show his stuff last summer, when the LDP locked horns with the opposition over a package of bills to repair Japan's wobbly banks. Popular opposition leader Naoto Kan, head of the Democratic Party, scored points with Japanese voters by accusing the government of coddling the banks. Lacking a majority in the upper house, the LDP was forced to bargain. The debate raged for weeks until Nonaka brokered a compromise and forced dissenters in the LDP's ranks to sign on. (Kan's popularity faded soon after when he was caught in a hotel room with an attractive female media adviser. He issued a Clintonesque denial, saying: There was no inappropriate behavior.)Nonaka clinched his reputation last month, when he talked the Liberal Party headed by Ichiro Ozawa into joining an LDP-led coalition. Ozawa had split from the LDP in 1993, pushing the party out of power for the first time in four decades. Nonaka and Ozawa have never gotten along. Nonaka once called the Liberal Party leader a devil and was still reviling him just months ago. But the Chief Cabinet Secretary, alarmed at the LDP's weakness during the banking debate, put his enmity aside and sat down in August with Ozawa in a Tokyo hotel room and started to negotiate.PAGE 1  |  
Critics called the move an unprincipled bit of realpolitik: with Ozawa and his 11 Liberals on board, the LDP needs to attract only 10 more lawmakers into the fold to secure a majority in the 252-seat upper house. Nonaka's admirers read things differently, arguing that the Chief Cabinet Secretary has set a trap for Ozawa. As soon as the agreement to form a coalition was announced, the LDP started ignoring his pet policy planks, such as cutting Japan's 5% consumption tax. But Ozawa probably can't bolt because young Liberal Party pols wouldn't go with him now that Nonaka has promised them support in the next election. Nonaka can be Machiavellian, says Muneyuki Shindo, a political scientist at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. He bows to anybody if necessary.Nonaka sharpened his political elbows in the rough-and-tumble world of small-town Japan. Starting as a town councillor in Sonobe (pop. 16,300) at the age of 25, he was running the town by the time he was 33. Later, as a member of Kyoto's prefectural assembly, he spent 12 years in opposition scrapping with the powerful communist governor of the region, Torazo Ninagawa. In one skirmish, Nonaka attacked Ninagawa for illegally allowing teachers and other civil servants to work as full-time union officials. For his efforts, Nonaka received threatening phone calls at home, and someone threw a dead cat onto his front yard. Suffering from stress-induced dizzy spells, he was hospitalized but continued to commute to the assembly, walking in with fellow members holding each arm. The governor eventually backed down, and the union apologized.Nonaka helped engineer an LDP victory in the 1978 governor's race and became vice governor himself. But as he climbed the ladder, he maintained a reputation as a plain-speaking politician who wasn't in it for the money. When Nonaka first went into politics, his mother asked his younger brother, a farmer, to give him a year's supply of rice so that he wouldn't be tempted to accept payoffs. As mayor of Sonobe, he declined the chauffeured car that went with the job, preferring to ride his scooter to work. He gave up liquor to discourage spending on lavish banquets: food and drink had accounted for 20% of the town's deficit.Today Nonaka lives in the comfortable but modest Japanese-style home he moved into in 1975, right behind the Three Oceans Garden coffee shop. In Tokyo, he stays in a dorm for members of parliament, where he does his own laundry. Unlike most of Japan's top pols, Nonaka has avoided getting caught up in the seemingly nonstop graft scandals that have engulfed the LDP in recent years. His district hasn't received the river of pork that usually flows once a hometown boy makes good in Nagatacho. Says rival Hatoyama: I don't think he acts for his own benefit.Nonaka is known for championing causes such as the rights of the disabled and improved relations with North Korea. His sometimes liberal views and simple life-style reflect childhood experiences growing up in wartime Japan, where he saw forced laborers from the Korean peninsula--then a Japanese colony--being whipped while toiling on construction projects. After World War II, his father took in several orphans.In Japan, powerbrokers tend to wield influence from behind the scenes until their health fails them. Nonaka's ambition is to become mayor of a small town once again, according to aides and acquaintances. He gets a kick out of having, say, a new bridge built, then seeing the result show up on the town's map. The Prime Minister of Japan has the least authority, he once told his brother Kazumi, now the mayor of Sonobe. Being mayor is the best job. Judging by Nonaka's popularity at the Three Oceans Garden cafe, he may one day get his wish.With reporting by Hiroko Tashiro/Sonobe  |  2