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Consummate policymaker never got chance to lead Japan

TOKYO -- His political career took him to the apex of the Liberal Democratic Party's biggest faction, only to be stymied by factionalism itself. Nobutaka Machimura never fulfilled his dream of becoming Japan's prime minister, though no one doubted he had the management and policy expertise for the job.

    The 12-term Japanese lower house member died of a stroke Monday at the age of 70.

    Machimura drew on his profound knowledge and experience every time he spoke. His ability to tie rhetorical opponents into knots with logic sometimes left him aloof.

    Fluent in English, he served twice as foreign minister, first under Junichiro Koizumi, then Shinzo Abe. Two episodes illustrate his brand of diplomacy. After anti-Japanese riots broke out in China in 2005, Machimura pressed the Chinese side for an apology and compensation for damage to Japanese businesses, overcoming reluctance among the foreign ministry establishment. On the other hand, he chided Koizumi for his repeated visits to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, a sore spot in relations with China, at a time when Japan was lobbying hard for permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council.

     The give and take of factional politics frustrated Machimura's ambition to lead the LDP. Though eager to run for party president in 2007 and 2008, he deferred to Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso, both of whom went on to become prime minister. In 2012, it seemed Machimura's time had come. But a stroke ruled out what would prove to be his final chance to reach the prime minister's office.

     His election last year as lower house speaker marked a return to the political limelight. Just as the house was readying to craft electoral reforms, another stroke felled him. He resigned from the post in April but was hoping to resume political activity as early as July.

     Keeping fit had been a point of pride for the former high school rugby player. Even as foreign minister, he regularly worked out at the gym. "If there's one thing I'm confident in, it's my strength," he was fond of saying.

     That his strength failed him in the end surely saddened no one more than Machimura himself.

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