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Obituaries

Nakasone led Japan with strong hand in era of Reagan and Thatcher

Former prime minister leaves many legacies, from privatizations to a stronger US alliance

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, second from right, was a strong ally of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.   © AP

TOKYO -- A political chameleon-turned-influential statesman, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone played an instrumental role in shaping the postwar political environment here throughout his decades in public office.

He died Friday at 101 with his longtime goal of revising the constitution to enhance the role of the military unrealized. But his political legacy, including a stronger alliance with the U.S., continues to affect Japan.

Before becoming prime minister, Nakasone had a reputation as an opportunist. Critics likened him to wood shavings -- lightweight and flammable. But he turned his image around after taking the post.

Unlike past prime ministers, Nakasone took an active, more presidential approach to leadership. He left a rich legacy in both domestic politics and foreign policy through his passion and tireless efforts.

Nakasone began his professional life at the old Home Ministry after graduating from Tokyo Imperial University, now the University of Tokyo. Propelled by a strong commitment to rebuilding postwar Japan, he abandoned his career as an elite bureaucrat to run for office.

Nakasone immediately took the spotlight after his election through his dapper looks and articulate speech, and was part of the opposition during the long tenure of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida.

He was an early advocate of changing the constitution and traveled around the nation with a specially composed jingle to advance the cause, brushing off criticisms of his "right-wing" tendencies.

Once in the Liberal Democratic Party, Nakasone joined the faction led by major power broker Ichiro Kono. Many members stuck with Nakasone after Kono died.

But the climb to the top was fraught with challenges. As a smaller, more conservative bloc, the Nakasone faction struggled to find allies in the LDP. During this time, Nakasone earned a reputation for going where the wind blew. He also had problems raising money and was called to testify before the Diet as a witness over a corruption scandal.

Nakasone's dream of becoming prime minister finally came true in 1982 with the support of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who was first elected to parliament the same year as Nakasone. The new leader entered office with a notebook filled with ideas of what to do and how to act.

Fiscal reform without raising taxes was one policy highlight. The initiative, which blazed the way for neoliberalism along with reforms by then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, resulted in the privatization of the national railway company, Nippon Telegraph & Telephone and Japan Tobacco.

In the diplomatic arena, Nakasone formed a strong rapport with Reagan and significantly strengthened Tokyo's alliance with Washington. The leaders were on first-name terms, much like current counterparts Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe.

Nakasone also actively engaged with Asian leaders, forging personal relationships with Hu Yaobang, then general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and then-South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan.

His rapport with Hu came into play after he made an official visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where class-A war criminals are enshrined along with other war dead. The visit put the Japan-friendly Hu in a tough spot at home, and Nakasone decided not to visit the shrine again as prime minister. He left that position in 1987 while remaining in the parliament.

Nakasone left the LDP for a few years after the Recruit scandal of 1988 ensnared high-profile officials. But he quickly returned and stayed in the Diet until 2003.

Even after retiring from his 56-year career as a legislator, Nakasone remained heavily invested in politics. He often said he could not die until the constitution was amended, though he did not live to see that dream come true.

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