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Professor Nathaniel B. Thayer
August 15, 2005
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RCA: Today is August 15, 2005. Dr. Nathaniel B. Thayer, Professor of Japanese Studies, at the School of Advanced International Studies, located in downtown Washington, DC, has joined us for a conversation about his career, his contributions to the study of Japan in English, and his assessments of recent changes in Japan’s domestic political situation.
Let's begin with what you consider your most important contribution, throughout your whole career. What would you say that is?
NT: I can give you the answer I give myself: that day is yet to come.
RCA: What do you mean by that?
NT: Whatever contribution I make, I will make in the future. My past behavior has been prelude to the future.
RCA: But when most American Japan scholars hear your name, they think of a book they had to memorize in either a graduate or undergraduate Japanese politics class: How the Conservatives Rule Japan. Wouldn't you say that was your most important effort?
NBT: Yes, perhaps. But my contribution to that was minimal. It took me two years, or three years, being in the embassy in Tokyo, talking daily with the newsmen, to realize that the Japanese government that they were working in was different from the Japanese government described formally in textbooks. It took me a long time to realize that we were talking about a real government, on the one hand, and a formal government, on the other.
RCA: And you wrote about the real government.
NBT: I became fascinated with the factions. They aren't mentioned in the Constitution, the Japanese constitution, at all. And yet, they were a real power. The power to rule was in the factions. And the factions had their own rules, their own rules system, the making of new rules. I found that it was a highly predictable system of government.
So, I took this discovery, went to Ambassador Reischauer, who told me he would be leaving shortly. (I knew that I too would be leaving shortly thereafter. Any ambassador wants his own people to deal with the press on his behalf.)
I said I wanted time to do a book describing the real government of Japan. He figured out some way… Washington didn't want to finance me sitting somewhere in the Japanese countryside writing a book. But Reischauer and John Emmerson, his DCM, figured out a way that I could do that. And so I spent a year talking in the afternoons and evenings with the politicians and the press, and spent the mornings writing down what they told me, and trying to figure out what part of the system they were describing. I give Jim Morley a lot of credit. He was my first reader. He encouraged me to work at it, but gave me the time to work at my own pace. [Return to Topics]
RCA: How did you first get involved with Japan?
NBT: The U.S. Army inculcated my initial interest in Japan. Think back to the summer of 1950. The Korean War was heating up, in full bloom. I was in New York, and recognized that if I didn't continue in the university, I was going to get drafted.
I wasn't doing well in the university. I had been at Cornell, starting out as pre-med, and then went on to be an English major. Then psychology … then sociology. In other words, I was totally screwed up and was studying no organized ideas.
Then, I left Cornell and went to the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown, where I proceeded to major in fine arts. I had just signed up for a course in architecture. I thought I wanted to be an architect.
I found myself a job for the summer in New York City. I also found a small apartment. It was on Horatio Street in Greenwich Village. One of my close friends came down from Ithaca; asked for a place to sleep; got it. He spent a week leaving the apartment early in the morning, then coming back late at night with no explanation. He rolled himself into a bundle and slept until the next morning, when he got up at some ungodly hour and left. This kept up for a week and I began to get very curious as to what was going on.
On the final day I asked him, "What in the world are you doing? What's taking up all your time?" He told me the Army had just opened up its Counterintelligence Corps for recruitment. He said, “I figured if I was going to go into the service I might as well do something that sounded interesting. So I've been over there trying to get them to enroll me in the Counterintelligence Corps."
The final day he told me, "They didn't accept me. So I'm off to become a naval aviator.”
Well, that piqued my curiosity. I thought, “If this outfit is good enough to flunk my roommate, I think I'll give it a try." So I gave it a try, and I got accepted.
So, I spent a year in training at Fort Holabird, within the city limits of Baltimore. So I learned there how to be an early "spook." Early, because the CIA was in existence, but wasn't doing very much except trying to recruit people. [Return to Topics]
RCA: Did you study Japanese language there?
NBT: The colonels who ran the school told us that the fellow who came out first in the class would get to choose wherever he wanted to go. No, that is what I was trying to explain. They told my class that the fellow who came out first in the class would get to choose wherever he wanted to go. That was a little incentive to make everybody do the readings. I took it seriously. I was in my architectural phase, and I wanted very much to go to Germany to study the Bauhaus movement. To see the Bauhaus buildings.
So, instead of drinking beer every night, although I didn't shirk that responsibility, I actually did the homework and whatever else they told me to do. Others apparently were as diligent as I. As graduation neared, I learned that I and three others had grades that classified them as first in the class. I didn’t think this would affect my assignment. I had told them that I wanted to go to Germany, and that was that. So I thought I would be getting instruction in the German language in preparation to go
I graduated on a Friday from my agent's course and was told to come back on Monday to start language school. On Monday I showed up bright and early, walked into the classroom and sat down, and was the only one there. No, there were a couple more fellows in the room. But not a full class. As I sat there, eight o’clock came and went. Finally, an Asian looking fellow came into the room, a lieutenant. He walked to the podium and shoved his name card into the slot on the front. His name was Suechika. Underneath his name he slid a piece of cardboard that said "Japanese" on it. I said, “Oh, I’m in the wrong room,” and got up and started for the door. Lt. Suechika stopped me and said, "Where you going?" And I said, "I'm in the wrong room." He said, "what’s your name?" I said, "My name is Thayer." He looked at his clipboard and said "Nathaniel B.?" I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Sit down.”
I protested to him and everyone else I could think of. They told me – “they,” being the colonels on the base -- that they had an important assignment for me which they couldn't divulge, but it involved learning Japanese. I didn’t realize I had just begun a lifetime venture.
RCA: So, the army started teaching you Japanese there.
NBT: Right. There was a Lieutenant Suechika and a Captain Tanaka. I won't give you first names on them. Tanaka was the only successful spy we had in Tokyo during the war. So I listened to him with great care. He was a Waseda graduate. But still, if he had not had a family living in Tokyo, he would not have made it through the war years. He was immensely valuable, because he could tell, after he'd been there for a while, what popular attitudes were. Was the war going well in the popular mind or wasn't it? Just by being there, he didn't have to have any deeper penetration than walking the streets and listening and observing.
They landed him in Japan on the Chiba Peninsula. And he had to get from there to the other side of Tokyo on his own. He was a young man with no uniform on. Why wasn't he stopped? He was afraid of being stopped. He couldn't even get on the tramcar. He didn't know how much a ticket cost. So he walked at night from Chiba to the other side of Tokyo, to where parts of his family lived. They gathered him in and took care of him during the wartime years.
RCA: Did his family know of his activities?
NBT: He was never clear on that.
RCA: But he was never caught.
NBT: He wasn’t caught.
RCA: How long were you in the school?
NBT: They had something in mind. I went through the agent's course and did well at it. Several of us came out with the same top grade. We learned all sorts of things, such as methods of breaking and entering. We took that as a course. We got visited by a Senator who didn't like young American boys being taught breaking and entering, and said he was prepared to make a stink about it. And one of the colonels who ran the outfit said, "Don’t you worry, Senator. We’ll do away with that course. So, the following week we had a course called "defense against methods of breaking and entering.” So I took a course in how to open a lock. I still can't get my door keys to work right. But I did take courses in that.
RCA: One of the things that early on impressed me about your spoken Japanese was that you sounded like a man when you spoke. Perhaps this explains why.
NBT: My instruction included listening in the morning to Tanaka and Suechika tell war stories. Suechika had been trained some place as a teacher. Tanaka had not. But between the two of them, they got me started on some Japanese textbooks, mostly verbal communication. They talked; I listened. I tried to ask questions back and they would correct me. We would spend the mornings in that sort of training. I did that for about six to eight months.
RCA: Did you do any reading? [Return to Topics]
NBT: None. And fortunately, they decided I could go to Japan. There was an argument over whether or not I was old enough to go to Japan. I was still only 21 years old. They did have something in mind for me, which I never did. They didn't like the idea of a 22 year old running some sort of a sensitive operation. So whatever they had dreamed up for me at the beginning didn't materialize. But it eventually did get me into working in counterespionage in Tokyo.
RCA: Do you remember the year? Was it in the early 1950s?
NBT: Yes. I went into the army in 1950. Then I took about a year's training in Baltimore, as well is taking the basic training that everybody gets. I did my basic training at Fort Dix, the New Jersey sandlot. I enjoyed basic training.
NBT: I was in the best physical shape I had ever been in.
RCA: Better than at Cornell, and Brown?
NBT: That was corrupt living.
RCA: So you first arrived in Japan just as MacArthur was leaving, or when Ridgeway …
NBT: Ridgeway was the fellow. Ridgeway was the man who for me was the unappreciated ruler of Japan. He wanted to be able to use Japan as a base, to regard Japan as a quasi ally. Yet, he didn't want it rearmed. A sophisticated policy for which he’s never been credited. His leadership in Korea has been recognized, I think. But his understanding, and leaving the Japanese pretty much to themselves to run their own show in certain areas, at certain times. There's room for a history of Ridgeway's era.
RCA: Are those papers pretty much open now?
NBT: Yes. But on the Japanese side, I think you'll have your problems. [Return to Topics]
There are a couple of incidents that I guess I should mention. I've not spoken of these things for many years. So, the pauses come from trying to get my thoughts in order.
I became involved in some interesting incidents. One of them was the discovery that the Koreans in Japan, or a small group of Koreans in Japan, knew of the projected landing in Inchon, before the Inchon Landing took place. We had a group -- I was the researcher in the group, which meant that I directed operations, for the most part, because I would take the reports from the Koreans, on the Koreans, and try to formulate a policy which we would use to go further. [U.S. Navy publication on the Inchon Landing.]
But one of the things that was discovered before I arrived was that the Koreans had the plans for the Inchon Landing. They were loading the ships in Kobe Harbor for the Landing, when we discovered that they knew all about the landing. There was a general disparagement of the Koreans in Japan. We, the occupation forces, had inherited the disparagement of the Koreans. But the Koreans were clever enough to obtain this, which was not such low-level intelligence. They were able to penetrate the American high command in Tokyo.
Somebody, one of my superiors, had to take the knowledge that…. The plans for Inchon relied on surprise, to come in across the mud flats and land at Inchon. If the Koreans could hold off the landing for three hours, then they would have troop ships stuck in the mud just off Inchon. They would be sitting ducks for whatever the Koreans chose to do. The landing was predicated on secrecy. Nobody should be landing at that particular spot. It was too dangerous. And that’s what led MacArthur to choose that spot. The element of surprise.
But now the Koreans knew it. And somebody had to take the knowledge that the Koreans knew it and deliver it to MacArthur, who was residing in what used to be the American Embassy. My boss, who was a colonel, took the information, got MacArthur out of bed, told him that the Koreans knew of the Inchon landing, and asked what he wanted to do. Call it off? Or go ahead? MacArthur sat in the small library in the American Embassy and thought for a moment, and said, “Go ahead with the landing.”
Then he did something that I have wondered about since that time. What did MacArthur do next? He went back upstairs and went to bed. That has the makings to me of high drama which is beyond my comprehension. How could he … His career rested on that decision. I’d still be chewing my nails.
RCA: He must've been confident that he had enough firepower to bring it in within that three hours. It was a tide problem, wasn't it?
NBT: The fact that he made the decision right away and he didn't call for any staff papers. I came out with a different interpretation. That was that every intelligence chief before every landing on any of the islands during the island hopping coming to Tokyo must've said the Japanese know about the landing. So that was not a new play for MacArthur. It was an old play he had been in before. That's the only interpretation I've been able to come up with that holds together.
RCA: He just didn’t believe it.
NBT: He didn't believe it. He thought it was intelligence doing what it does best: covering its ass.
RCA: But you knew it was true.
NBT: It was true.
RCA: Have you ever told anyone about it?
NBT: No. [Return to Topics]
RCA: What was the second thing you were going to mention?
NBT: The Korean War was coming to a pause, and the U.S., the North Koreans, and the Chinese agreed to exchange prisoners of war. There first was the little switch -- that was the name given to the program where American captives were brought to Panmunjom and exchanged with Korean captives which we had under our control.
We had been monitoring all of the radio broadcasts where American POWs were broadcasting for the Chinese and the North Koreans. But we really didn't know how those camps worked, or much about them, other than the monitoring of the radio broadcasts. In the first exchange of prisoners we found that the North Koreans or the Chinese -- it's hard to tell which -- were very clever and pulled out before we could learn patterns of behavior in the camps.
They put into the exchange men who had defected to North Korea. And so when they were interviewed, they came to the line first, the exchange lines, nobody could tell whether they were good, bad, or indifferent, or where their loyalties lay. There was very little that we knew about them, or got out of the interviews. There were case studies that were built up. You could find patterns of behavior, which meant that some of these fellows had cooperated more fully with their captives then they should have.
So after "Little Switch” came "Big Switch" when there was a big exchange of prisoners. By then, counterintelligence had figured out what it wanted to do. By then we had built up case studies on the various camps in North Korea. Prisoner of war camps. Some were run by the Chinese; some are run by the North Koreans themselves. With the North Koreans you got treated badly. The Chinese, however, treated their prisoners well.
What was more of concern to counterintelligence was that nobody ever escaped from any prison camp. The command in Washington wanted to know why there were no escapees? In Germany there had always been groups who were trying to free themselves, trying to get through France to the English Channel and get back. There were always attempts on the part of the European prisoners to get out of the prison camps. In the case of Korea and the Korean War none of our POWs ever escaped. The high command wanted to know why.
We had psychologists, psychiatrists, working on the problem. I came in at a much lower level. I was talking with the prisoners themselves. Interviewing them, to see what it was like in the prison camps, trying to answer that question. Why no escapees?
The psychiatrists came up with the “Manchurian Candidate” thesis. Their argument was that this was the first time most of these young prisoners had ever had any political training. Because of that, they were manipulatable. Everybody was being trained, particularly in the Chinese camps. They were quite sophisticated in their training. What was insidious about the Chinese training was that they were all sleepers. In other words, they would return and then a number of years later somebody would activate these men. They believed you could train people that way. That was the psychiatrists’ explanation.
The Thayer explanation was far more primitive. I started in with the observation that their captors took away their boots. They then gave them cheap Chinese sneakers. Two, they were very strict in the camps on looking for hidden supplies of food. Three, the prisoners had Western faces in an Asian country. There were escapees. If they could escape within the first 24 hours of their captivity they could get out. And some did get out. But once they got further behind enemy lines, taken to the camps that were up on the Yalu, the chances were slim.
Finally, I said....I wrote this down, typing it out with my two-fingers approach, so it was very brief. But I remember writing a report saying I didn't believe this business about the Manchurian Candidate thesis. I thought the men I had talked to had made the accommodations they had to make to survive in a prisoner of war camp. As soon as those conditions changed, and they were restored to American society, there would be no more Manchurian candidates. The ones that we were holding up his heroes for resisting the Chinese were the ones who were real pains in the ass to the Americans when they were in training at Fort Dix. This was my first exposure to high level debate. I was a sergeant at the time. So the arrogance that came to me at Columbia had been instilled during debates like that.
RCA: It must've been a little hard to debate colonels when you were only a sergeant.
NBT: There was a general that nobody could interview. He wouldn't talk to anybody. He insisted on having his interviewer be somebody of his rank, or better. Which he could ask for. I found that I could walk into the room because I was a sergeant and he was telling me things he wouldn't have told others. There was some question about whether or not he was a Manchurian candidate. So being a sergeant, I was out of uniform most of the time anyway. Rank meant something mostly on uniforms. For the most part you just did what needed to be done.
RCA: Do remember during that period if you were able to get out and around in Japan?
NBT: No, my Japanese was not good. Fair-to-middling. I could make myself understood as long as my Japanese counterpart had great patience and let me struggle with several approaches to say “Good Morning.” I was assigned an interpreter, another sergeant, who was a Hawaiian Nisei. He was supposed to be my interpreter.
RCA: Could he speak Japanese?
NBT: Japanese he had learned in the pineapple fields of Hawaii. My Japanese was better than his. But since he was my interpreter I had to lug him around wherever I went. And between the two of us, we could sometimes puzzle out what the Japanese were trying to say. But most of the time, my Japanese was better than his. Although it would throw Japanese who were trying to talk to us into a real tizzy, because they didn’t know who was doing which to whom. [Return to Topics]
I was in Japan during the last days of the Occupation and the turn-over. There is no room for a counterespionage group in an independent country. Except we had this little thing called the Korean War, which was in a state of truce. I was in Japan on the day when the turnover of power from the Americans to the Japanese took place. If that were the United States there would have been bands playing in the streets. Or, something would have happened. But that day in April was no different from any other day in Japan. Which is where I come up with the desire to have someone – not myself – work on General Ridgeway. Because he was able to make the turnover day not a day of great ceremony on the part of the Japanese. Things went along very normally. I was waiting for trouble, or waiting for some sort of demonstration, or something to mark the day. There wasn’t anything noteworthy. Which, to me, says that the Americans had turned over all power gradually. I don’t know how much of this was General Ridgeway’s idea, or if it just happened that way. It couldn’t have just happened that way.
RCA: He had at least to have allowed it.
NBT: Yes. At any rate, this is to me one of the periods of history – the closing days of the Occupation. We’ve had good men – Dower, others -- look at the front part of the Occupation. But nobody’s looked very much at the latter years of the Occupation. There were seven years. The first two have been covered well. The latter five nobody has done much with.
RCA: Is it possible that the actual end of the Occupation was anticlimactic because when MacArthur left there was such a fuss. Maybe that defused it.
NBT: Oh yes, it could have. And I think many of the fellows who have done the writing on the Occupation have written about the time when they were in Japan. About what they saw and about what they did.
RCA: You’ve never written about your experiences, have you?
NBT: No. Some of it I can’t, even today.
RCA: Did you leave Japan soon thereafter?
NBT: I was in Japan for two years, about two years. I don’t want to stick on that figure before thinking more about it.
RCA: 1951 to 1953
NBT: Yes, because I can remember that in the Counterespionage Section we had a good number of Japanese working with us, doing most of the interviewing, except on sensitive matters which didn’t involve the Japanese – or shouldn’t have involved them. I can remember there was one day when the Japanese were working for an Allied Power, and the next day the Japanese were working for a newly-restored sovereign power. I thought there would be some problems there. There weren’t. But the Japanese made clear that they were no longer bound by the orders that I was drafting, for example. So, there was an awareness that sovereignty had been restored. But it didn’t change work on the Korean minority in Japan, for example. They started getting our attention, once they had discovered the Inchon landing. We did all sorts of things so they wouldn’t believe their own intelligence organizations. [Return to Topics]
NBT: During the time that I was in Japan, I came to the realization – and I’m not sure how I did this – I was out every night of the week, wandering around, sitting on barstools in various parts of town. Out of all that came an awareness – and of all the things I had studies, politics had not been one of them. Although I was writing political commentary, I didn’t know it, for the most part. But when it came time for me to leave Japan, I came back with two thoughts in mind. One, I didn’t understand much about organized politics on the grand scale. And I’d better learn something about that. And two, somehow, Japan was going to go places again.So, when I came back to the United States, I moved into the apartment of the same fellow who had persuaded me to join the counterintelligence corps in the first place. I moved in with him, and enrolled at Columbia to get a degree in political science, and to learn something about Japan.
RCA: What year was that?
NBT: In 1966 or 1967. So, I started my career at Columbia, which ran all-told for about 14 years. So, I’m a “Columbia-Batsu,” if there ever was one.
RCA: Who did you study with?
NBT: I started studying with Hugh Borton. I missed Sir George Sansom. He quit the year I arrived, to go write his books in California. I never did know Professor Tsunoda, though I did use his library. Professor Shirato was my language teacher. All of us suffered under his regime, although his training was the best going at the time. You either took the course called “Shirato,” which took all of your time, or you didn’t last very long. He was one fellow who probably hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves for developing the East Asian Institute.
RCA: Did you do any history?
NBT: Yes, I did that with Professor Borton, for the most part, and with Professor Keene. Keene used to go a mile a minute and assume I could read the Genji Monogatari at a glance. Keene posed a real challenge for me, though I wasn’t particularly interested in the literature side of things. Columbia gave me a chance to re-shape my thinking. It took about 14 years to do so.
 RCA: How would you describe the reshaping?
NBT: I taught, while Professor Gerry Curtis was running around Japan someplace, I taught for a year at Columbia, taking Gerry’s courses. I’d fly to New York from Washington, teach his class, then spend the afternoon in the library or talking with people. It’s a strong Department, I think.
RCA: Many of the PhDs in Japanese politics have come from there. I suppose Professor Morley was the chair of your PhD committee.
NBT: Morley was my chair. Passin was on the committee. He recommended that I get a distinction, and the others went along with it. So, I got more than I had bargained for in my defense.
RCA: The book has lasted.
NBT: It’s out of print now, but there’s an after-market. For the last few years, now, I’ve been aware that since 1993 we’ve really had a different system of government develop in Japan. Somebody should sit down and build on what I wrote. [Return to Topics]
When I wrote my book, Tanaka Kakuei was LDP Secretary General. He hadn’t become prime minister, nor had he reached post-prime minister, the period during which I think he really shaped the Japanese government. Maybe I’ll do that.
RCA: Did you know him?
NBT: Yes. There’s a building close to the Diet in Tokyo called Sabou Kaikan. It’s loaded with politicians’ offices. On the fifth floor is Nakasone’s office. Nakasone and I would meet frequently there. And on the sixth floor was Tanaka Kakuei’s office. I used to meet Tanaka on the elevator frequently. From time to time we would get off the elevator and continue our conversations. He spoke like a machine-gun. I’m not sure that I understood everything that he said to me. He would get excited, his voice would increase in volume, his utterances would speed up, and pretty soon it was beyond my comprehension, or anybody else’s. But fortunately, I usually could get an interpretation from Mr. Shigezo Hayasaka, who was his chief secretary, of whatever the point was that Tanaka was trying to make with me earlier.
RCA: Those are two of the former prime ministers of Japan that you have known well. How would you compare Tanaka and Nakasone, as persons or political figures?
NBT: I was close to other prime ministers as well. Ohira Masayoshi, Miyazawa Kiichi. I was closer to Ohira than the others. He and Reischauer had a very close relationship when Reischauer was Ambassador and Ohira was Foreign Minister. I latched onto that friendship, ran messages between the two, but carried on my own dialogue with Ohira, who was the member of a faction that nobody talks about. That was the American faction. Ohira was one of them. Nakasone was the second of them. Miyazawa was the third. They all were American experts. They knew more ….
During the Reagan years, the Reagan men tried to teach Nakasone about American politics. He knew more than they did. One day I went in his library. Against one wall bookcases were lined up. They had doors on the front of them. I opened the doors to see what Nakasone was reading. All of the books were in English. Nakasone, Watanabe Tsuneo, and I worked on a translation of Theodore White’s long book, The Making of a President. Watanabe couldn’t understand the slang. That was my department. Nakasone couldn’t understand how plans could be made months or years ahead of time, and have it come out the way the Kennedys had it come out. For Nakasone, foresight in politics was limited to about six inches beyond your nose.
RCA: You didn’t find Nakasone a long-range planner?
NBT: He made the plans. He had the ideas. He liked thinking that way. But Japan was not at that stage of the game.
RCA: Did Nakasone fundamentally change Japan?
NBT: He ruled for five years. I mention that, because I was predicting in Tokyo that he would rule for five years at the beginning of those five years.
RCA: You were the only one.
NBT: I was the only one. And they asked me to recall my reasoning for that for his biography, and I couldn’t do it. But somehow I arrived at the five-year figure through some line of reasoning that I should remember if I want to go down with the reputation of being able to foresee the future.
RCA: Do you see parallels between Nakasone’s use of public popularity and Koizumi’s?
NBT: Yes. One was not copying the other. Koizumi was picking up where Nakasone had left off. I think Nakasone’s biggest contribution – I’m leaving aside his handling of the railroad unions and his handling of defense – was that he made foreign affairs popular. He came to the United States and reached some very tough agreements with President Reagan. Then when he went home, and trade was on the agenda as one of the tough negotiating items. He carried it off. He had breakfast here on one occasion with the President – the most publicized breakfast in history. Another time he was here in Washington negotiating on a trade matter.
When he went home he said all of us had to buy more foreign goods, and went out and bought an Italian necktie that didn’t fit. All of these were calculated moves. My greatest piece of advice to him was that when he went to Camp David he should wear a dirty shirt, because President Reagan would have on a jacket and a dirty shirt too. He followed the advice.
RCA: He was an interesting person. He seemed to understand the potential for power within the LDP as an outsider, which, don’t you think he was? He wasn’t very popular within the LDP, was he?
NBT: He was an outsider. He learned his politics spending more than three years trying to take over the Kohno Faction. He became the leader of the faction. That is where he had to learn to tolerate fools in order to bring together groups to achieve goals. He learned to be a politician trying to take over the Kohno Faction. It took him three years to do it.
RCA: He also changed some public attitudes about defense, didn’t he?
NBT: Yes. He made it rational. Another big move that he made, and others did as well, was he made the bureaucracy answer to him, whereas before him the bureaucracy was inclined to run quite freely.
RCA: Was that sustained after he left office?
NBT: Yes. I’ve been in his Sabou Kaikan office and watched a parade of jikan (administrative vice ministers) and seimu jikan (parliamentary vice ministers) trying to get Nakasone to agree to their policy recommendations for the year. He was on the short list of ministers or politicians who had to be consulted. In Nakasone’s case, he would make changes. It wasn’t an automatic case of “Thank you for the explanation.” He likes to think of resolving the railroad problem as one of his big accomplishments. And it was. But it was domestic.
RCA: That spelled the beginning of the end for the Socialist Party, didn’t it?
NBT: Yes, it did. He thought on other occasions that the railroad unions needed to be busted up, and he did that. I don’t mean to belittle these accomplishments. They were important. But I see other things that he did semi-consciously and unconsciously that seem to have had more effect. [Return to Topics]
There seems to me to be two streams of Japanese politics today. One is the Nakasone stream and the other is the Miyazawa stream. The Nakasone stream is emotional, it requires a whole crew of politicians who came in from regional assemblies. The second group is made up of politicians who were ex-bureaucrats. So, if you weren’t an ex-governor or an ex-leader of some local assembly you probably were an ex-bureaucrat. Miyazawa is the leader of the bureaucrats. He has his weaknesses, Miyazawa. But nevertheless, he’s been the most articulate in his support of the bureaucratic cadre in government. Nakasone, on the other hand, has verbalized and intellectualized the role of the regional politician when he comes to Tokyo.
RCA: So, does that make Miyazawa more of an elitist than Nakasone?
NBT: Yes. Though, they both are intellectuals. Both men are complex, with motives not subject to simple explanation. Although Miyazawa was a complete bureaucrat himself, he was the politician who insisted that young career bureaucrats be recruited from universities other than Todai, and made that stick for a while. Nakasone, on the other hand, also was a Todai graduate. But he spoke up for regional politicians who had made it into the national Diet .
RCA: Certainly Nakasone depended more on the support of the general public than did Miyazawa.
RCA: Is it true that Nakasone was the only prime minister in recent times who has left office with rising public opinion polls?
NBT: I’ve written that, and I hope it is true.
RCA: That must be where I read it. That’s remarkable. However, with the exception of Yomiuri, he was roundly disliked by nearly all of the Japanese communications media, wasn’t he? Yet, he was able to overcome that.
NBT: Yes. The Asahi didn’t like him. He was too right-wing for them. The Asahi is a populist newspaper. Nakasone was a populist prime minister. But their populism was different. They clashed and rubbed each party the wrong way. The value systems differ between the Asahi and Yomiuri. Miyazawa was more beloved of Asahi than the Yomiuri. So, you’ve had two schools of populism, both of which were formed by elites, thank you, which determined Japanese politics – until recently. [Return to Topics]
NBT: Lots has changed. But it's changed a incrementally, not suddenly. Not revolutionary. I don't know who the next prime minister is going to be. This present fellow has continued in office, riding on that thought. Nobody knows who the next prime minister is going to be. In the 60s I could write a paper and predict with great accuracy the three candidates and which one would probably win. I was more right than wrong during that period of stability in Japanese politics.
I see Koizumi's main strength as being..... Yes, he’s a popular man, a popular prime minister. But his real strength is that nobody knows who would succeed him if the doors opened and a new prime minister had to be chosen. Abe? He's too young and hasn't had the necessary experience. You can go down through the list of men who want the job, but they haven't been able to convince others in the party that they should have the job. So one of the great strengths of Koizumi is that nobody knows who should come next. Nobody's got an answer. Now, Koizumi has forced his own election. We know that the next prime minister will be somebody who isn't being discussed as a prime minister today.
A challenge in leadership. We know the next fellow has got to be a popular leader. That's become clear in the last five years. Koizumi holds a press conference twice a day. Dear God. You're not going to get more open government than that, in Japan. So you’ve got to have a prime minister who knows what he wants to do, who has a group of men around him who is willing to support him in these things. I don’t know who that man is. The factions will play a role in the nomination and the election of the new prime minister. But I don’t know from what pool they’re going to be working. So, we have a challenge in Japanese leadership. Are we going to have a weak prime minister? A strong prime minister? Or an idiosyncratic prime minister. I don’t know.
RCA: Could we have a place-holding prime minister?
NBT: That’s the usual solution. Nakasone, you will recall was “Tanakasone.” They thought he would last two or three months and then Tanaka would appoint a new man. Ono was supposed to be an interim prime minister. Several of the prime ministers were supposed to be interregnum prime ministers. I’m sure that sort of talk, if it isn’t already starting, will shortly be starting. Who should be the next prime minister. So, I don’t know. We have a challenge in Japanese leadership. Maybe Koizumi continues.
RCA: Well, he might, but am I misinterpreting the thrust of your comments? You seem to be saying that the trend is more toward the Nakasone-Koizumi style than ….
NBT: Yes. A “presidential” prime minister, not a parliamentary prime minister. That’s a long-range movement that somebody should be tracing in academic writing.
RCA: I’ve got a manuscript half-done on that, what I call the “central political executive.”
NBT: That’s a good phrase.
RCA: The prime minister, the cabinet, and the immediately supporting administrative agencies. I go back to the beginning, and try to look for trends. Once I can return to academic life, I’ll finish it.
NBT: I think you’re on the right track.
RCA: Lots of change, and more rapid change during the past decade or so, I think. Prime ministers no longer can get away with inarticulate television performances, for example. The Sunday morning television shows, and so on.
On another topic, what do you think of political parties issuing “manifestos” just before elections these days.
NBT: Manifestos are a good idea. They may be not be very realistic.
Top leadership in Japan? I don’t know where it’s coming from, or what its mandate is. Most bills get introduced into the Diet, and it takes seven years to get them passed. That’s a statistic I’ve dug out of somebody’s writing. A prime minister lasts in office from three to five years. Some recently have served much shorter terms. Which means prime ministers never are working on their own legislative programs.
So, there has to be general agreement on the direction of the country. Not just one man’s view, although if you can sell that one man’s view, well and good. But it has to be a party’s view, a manifesto view, an agreed set of values and political principles that everybody has agreed to. Or, at least that the true leadership has agreed to. I don’t know where that’s coming from. There are men in the Party who can do this. In fact, any of the leaders can come up with political statements. But I don’t see a clear road for Japan being articulated by the present prime ministers. So, we’ve got a challenge in the quality of Japanese political leadership going on right now, and it’s a problem that won’t be resolved by the coming election.
In fact, this next election may bust up…. The second insight, or pseudo-insight, today. This next election [scheduled for September 11, 2005] may bust up the all of the parties. Komeito may stay off by itself. But members of all of the other political parties may find themselves moving from party to party, and new parties being created. If the LDP loses and DPJ wins? Who gets the cabinet seats? There’s no clear way of deciding that ahead of time, except the old rules of seniority will probably come into play again. But we may have a whole new set of political parties to deal with.
RCA: Do you think that’s likely?
NBT: I don’t want to be digital in my answer. No black and white on this one. So, we’ve got a parliament whose powers are not known. That will be decided by …. From here on in, how often is the Upper House going to decide when we will have general elections?
RCA: I was surprised by the very emergence of discussion of whether or not the prime minister would have the right to call an election, after the Upper House vote. It’s fairly clear in the Constitution, isn’t it? [Return to Topics]
NBT: They missed the big issues, as far as I can see. Yoshida Shigeru was said to have fallen because of a slip of the tongue [what came to be called the 1953 “Bakayaro Kaizan”] That was all planned.
RCA: In my study of the Japanese central political executive, I found two Prime Minister Yoshidas. The first was the Yoshida during the Occupation, when MacArthur served as deus ex machina. The second was the post-Occupation Prime Minister Yoshida. The first Yoshida was quite an effective prime minister; the second one less so.
NBT: You may have stumbled onto something here. That’s a good division.
RCA: Many observers describe Yoshida as Japan’s greatest post-World War II prime minister.
NBT: Thinking of the first period.
RCA: Yes, I think they are thinking of “Douglas Yoshida.” Once his deus ex machina returned to heaven, Yoshida became again a petulant senior diplomat.
NBT: That’s a good thought.
RCA: I believe that the prime minister’s role is determined largely by popular expectations. Many observers call for “strong leadership.” But whenever strong leadership has been exercised – even to the degree Nakasone did – they are called a dictator!
NBT: They’ve got parliamentary, presidential, dictatorial, tyrannical, weak all confused.
RCA: There seems to be a fundamental disconnect in the legitimation of the executive government power in Japan. There are many methods of legitimizing the exercise of executive power. But like the French, Japan remains torn and undecided on this important point. I think it remains an open question.
NBT: I too think it is. And I think we’re trying, among other things, to define political leadership in Japan. And there are some other questions that go along with it. How much power should local government have? Should the bureaucracy be allowed to define what is a town, a village? What should be amalgamated? What should remain the same? This seems to be the basis of strong regional leadership. But at the present moment it is an issue that is controlled totally by the bureaucracy. The old Naimusho has reappeared.
RCA: Local bureaucracies receive large percentages of their funds from Tokyo; they receive seconded officials from Tokyo. And they have increasingly elaborate prefectural and municipal offices in Tokyo.
NBT: If they aren’t making bargains they are using their Tokyo offices as an intelligence base, preparing for negotiations in their home districts. We’ve got changes coming in the powers of the Diet. Will the Diet be more or less important than it has been in the past? I see them gradually and slowly moving toward a more responsible, or more political, parliament. But it’s moving very slowly. But it seems to me that if you are trying to negotiate a coalition government, you need committees, as we have in the Congress, to sort the issues out. Now that’s being done by what’s called zoku giin. But you can change the name and roll the zoku giin into Diet committees, and work through those. So, I see a growing, but slowly growing, power of the Diet. [Return to Topics]
The other big political institution is the party factions. They now have a more limited role. I thought that Koizumi was committing political suicide the first time he refused to accept faction recommendations for the next cabinet members. I thought that was the end of him. A form of suicide. Go out in glory. He managed to pull it off. Is that spelling not the death of Koizumi, but the death of the party factions? I think they are becoming less and less important. If so, where are matters really discussed? Political matters. Stuff that’s important. Not necessarily legislation. So for me, the role of factions in the future is ill-defined. I’m not sure what they’re up to. They may continue to be powerful. At least, when I was active with the factions in the 60s in Tokyo, I used to spend my evenings in the tea houses. Now, I’m told, the factions meet in the dining room on the upper floor of the LDP Headquarters building. It’s a fall, from my viewpoint, from the teahouses to the lunch room.
Or, are the factions assuming a new role? I’m not sure what that new role would be. But the factions will be needed. Every time you need a new prime minister.
RCA: What about koenkai. I’ve been amazed by reports that even after 1993 politicians have maintained, and even enlarged their koenkai.
NBT: I’m not to be trusted on koenkai. I thought that, particularly now, there would be a restructuring of koenkai. And once restructured, with single-member districts, there’s no reason to change. So, I thought that koenkai would go through a few years of turmoil, as new koenkai were fitted to new candidates. But by a couple of elections they would have sorted themselves out. That still may happen. But when I try to talk about koenkai with voters or with regional managers of political camps, they just describe the koenkai as an old institution that’s dying away. It’s not being replaced by new blood.
Now, I’ve not done anything – looked at the districts or plowed around in the statistics – to say that that’s true. But it could be an institution that’s dying out.
RCA: To be replaced by more popular, direct appeals to floating voters and others?
RCA: If that’s so, there has to be a fundamental change, not only in the koenkai, but in the parties themselves.
NBT: Well, I’m not sure we have political parties in Japan anymore. We have them, but they’re supported, I think, mainly by the newspapers.
RCA: What do you mean?
NBT: They write about them, even though they don’t exist. The only way you can tell if there is a political party is whether or not a group has asked for rooms in the Diet building. That’s the only way you can tell if a political party is in existence. Whether or not they have registered for a room, a “machiai shitsu,” [meeting room]. If they have a machiai shitsu somebody has filed the papers for the room. Some parties and some groups have no more reason for existence than getting a room from the government.
So, if you look at the Japanese Diet, and put the prime minister aside, in Lower House elections, each man has to form his own organization. So whatever form that organization takes, I don’t know. We’ve got a system in which the regional powers are weak, and most of the legislative functions of government takes place in the Diet. Not in Diet Committees yet. But it will be the Diet where you define what is politics. [Return to Topics]
NBT: I just gave a speech in Osaka for a couple thousand people -- my thoughts on the re-writing of the Constitution. I looked over my notes to see what I said. I’m not sure I now believe what I was arguing at the time. I had thought that the present document was just fine, and that changes would take place, but they would take place incrementally, as they have so far. So, most of what you can do with the Constitution you can do electorally, rather than re-write it. That would give the stability of a constitutional system as well. So, there’s no need for a re-writing of the rest of the Constitution. The present Constitution is good. What needs to be changed, can be changed through interpretation. I guess that’s what I said.
Now my thoughts are different. Now I say sooner or later the argument that we ought to write our own constitution is going to prevail. From what I’ve seen the Japanese do so far, it’s been pretty responsible. There’ve been some nuts. But there's been pretty responsible consideration of what a new constitution should contain. The present Constitution has plenty of flaws, if you look for them. We condemn slavery in the Japanese Constitution several times. But slavery is not a Japanese issues.
We talk in there about fundamental rights, and about very fundamental rights. What’s the difference? Some Japanese professors have spent their lives trying to figure out the difference. The real difference is that the different clauses had different authors. There is no real difference. We have several ways of defining “inalienable” rights. Examined in the context of the last sixty years it has made no difference whatsoever. So, a better constitution can be written, and the Japanese will re-write their constitution to fit the needs of the day. And the needs of the day seem to be favorable right now. So, now I’m changing slowly – I’ve still got a couple more changes left in me – saying they should re-write their constitution, and the draft the LDP has put out, I’m in the midst of trying to figure out. But it looks like a useful document.
There are some areas of disagreement or debate. And they have been trying to re-write everything just to make it sound more authentic.
RCA: So, incremental change rather than anything sudden.
NBT: My conclusion now is we’re going to have a new constitution. Now’s as good a time as any. The changes are going to be, from what I’ve seen recommended in the LDP draft, reasonable.
RCA: Thank you for your time and your thoughts today . This is a good beginning for our conversation. [Return to Topics]