A personable, middle-aged woman, humiliated beyond bearing, bursts into tears. Her boss reacts with a crude male-chauvinist taunt, and fires her. Their tiff starts a scandal and stalls a nation’s economic recovery, maybe the world’s. A villain is arrested, more run for cover. This is the Makiko and Junichiro Show, and it has kept the Japanese population glued to its TV screens most of this year, pausing only for a midsummer break. The slot is due to reopen any minute now and, like all good soap operas, it’s set to run and run. Even up in our little mountain village, my £150-a-year licence, cosy sofa and bowl of rice crackers give me the reassuring feeling that I really know what’s going on in Japan.

The casting can only be called inspired. Playing the female lead has been Makiko Tanaka, 58, the former Foreign Minister, mother of three and only daughter of Kakuei Tanaka, Japan’s most admired, reviled and powerful Prime Minister of the postwar years, a force in Japanese politics until he died in 1993 (still appealing a prison sentence for taking a $2 million bribe from Lockheed). Makiko Tanaka freely concedes that she would have had no chance of getting into the Japanese Parliament nine years ago if she had not been her father’s daughter. But once in Tokyo she quickly became a political star in her own right, thanks to her gift for TV. Some 99 per cent of Japanese homes have colour sets – the densest diffusion on our TV-soused planet – and Japan’s Parliament is covered unflinchingly face-to-lens: the offhand-remark writers, image sculptors and spokespersons who cocoon the politicians of more prudent democracies have yet to make an impact. TV crews stalk the corridors of power, hunting soundbites. Parliamentary proceedings are broadcast in real time, with question sessions, modelled on the venerable British original, jump-cutting from Q to A to Q. Japanese national politics are as entertainingly unreal as a TV reality show. Before she was driven into the wilderness Tanaka was TV’s star of stars.

She has won the Best Smile of the Year and Executive Fashion awards. She can think on her feet and speaks in forthright, easy to follow Japanese (and similar English – she went to a Quaker high school in Philadelphia). On screen and off, she retains the common touch made famous by her father, son of a bankrupt horse-dealer, who left school at 13. Tanaka père was one of the first Japanese politicians to scent the humanising potential of television, singing Japanese folk songs in a statesman’s suit and a pair of rice farmer’s clogs. We viewers were delighted. After his death, his daughter, an obscure housewife, stumped her father’s old stronghold in jeans and T-shirt and scored 90 per cent of the vote. She has dressed more stylishly for Parliamentary appearances, and is no less eye-catching among the drab ranks of the po-faced, tongue-tied run of Japanese politicians.

The image of the male lead, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, owes more to artifice. A trim 60-year-old, he has neither Makiko’s mobile face nor her quick wit, but he compensates with a trademark hairdo like no other on Japanese screens. As a young man, he had long, straight black hair, but the Koizumi of recent years sports a permanent-waved, steel-grey mane covering his ears and tumbling down to his collar, the inspiration of Teruo Nakagomi, a trendy hair stylist in his constituency. Koizumi complements his attention-grabbing coiffure with light-toned suits, ranging from summer casual to a candy-striped outfit he wears with a red rosette for visiting schools, and a collection of neckties variously described as ‘bright’, ‘loud’ or ‘vulgar’. His face is oddly mask-like but his movements, as seen on TV, are lithe: he sprints to the podium to answer questions and lopes from office to office along the camera-trapped corridors of the Tokyo Parliament, waving to the electronic electorate and tossing soundbites over his shoulder to the panting posse of reporters struggling to keep up with him. Son and grandson of politicians, Koizumi had much the same name recognition in his family constituency as Tanaka has in hers, though suburban Yokohama doesn’t often make it onto national TV. Elected at 30 on his family name, he had, until last year, spent almost three decades in Parliament, but had never advanced further than Minister for Posts and Telecommunications, for Health and for Welfare. Then he had his breakthrough, rather like an understudy who goes on at short notice, outplays the lead and takes over top billing, to rave reviews. It was pure Survivor.

True, Koizumi had an easy act to follow. His predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, a ponderous, bull-necked former college footballer – Tanaka has called him ‘Fatso’ – was the most wooden Prime Minister of recent Japanese history, certainly of the electronic era. Mori was widely known to owe his position to a classic backroom deal within the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power, with one brief interregnum in the early 1990s, since 1955, presiding first over Japan’s astonishing recovery from the lost war and then its long, mysterious economic stagnation, and racked by periodic scandals ever since Lockheed engulfed the elder Tanaka in 1974. In office Mori was a man of few words, many of them embarrassing gaffes, like his assertion that Japan is ‘a land of the gods with the Emperor at the centre’ – a World War Two slogan which alarmed the country’s Asian neighbours and more than a few modern-minded Japanese as well. With an election looming, Mori’s approval rating down to 10 per cent, the economy still sagging and three million unemployed, the LDP, as it usually does at the bottom of fortune’s cycle, dumped its lustreless leader in another backroom deal, hoping for a successor who could at least be plausibly billed as a new broom.

Koizumi was generally written off as a nuisance candidate with no following among Party professionals, and therefore no future. Makiko Tanaka publicly called him a henjin, the Japanese equivalent of ‘weirdo’. To make things worse, when he ran last year for President of the Party and thus Prime Minister, he was still a loyal member of Mori’s faction. Cameo TV appearances had already given him wider public recognition, however, reinforced by his campaign pledge to ‘change Japan by changing the LDP’. This sounds like sweeping the rascals out without sweeping another lot in, as did Koizumi’s promised ‘structural reform without sanctuaries’. Since the LDP has been in power for so long, the ‘sanctuaries’ Koizumi has never specified could only mean the cosy ‘iron triangles’ of powerful bureaucrats, hungry LDP politicians and the businessmen who court official favours, cash in hand. Koizumi was thus attempting the impossible – running against his own party, the one that had nurtured three generations of Koizumis. Yet Tanaka, convinced, she said, of his good intentions, threw her popularity behind him, and the pair dominated a campaign fought almost entirely on TV. Koizumi won the LDP presidency by 123 votes out of 141, and became Prime Minister in April 2001. To maintain the TV duo’s momentum, Tanaka had to have a top Cabinet post as well. Koizumi named her Foreign Minister. The new-broom Administration – with some familiar faces – scored an unheard of approval rating of 80 per cent, better than the Emperor’s. The Tokyo stock index hit 13,827, from which euphoric peak it has been steadily sinking, weighed down by economic and political turmoil and America’s own post-bubble troubles.

Some Japanese political commentators saw Tanaka as a potential rival to Koizumi – polls have often named her as the politician most Japanese voters would like to see as Prime Minister. Koizumi has his detractors. He is accused of ‘theatricality’, as if that were a low trick in the age of mass communication. It has also been noted that he had long been a loyal part of the Japanese establishment, and that his self-proclaimed break with the past was more a matter of sartorial style than of political substance. He has always belonged to one of the LDP’s squabbling factions, whereas Tanaka has dismissed the factions’ role as ‘collecting money to buy votes’, and has never joined one, despite the fact that the biggest and wealthiest was founded by her father. To her fans, this is more evidence of her plain speaking and independence of spirit.

Tanaka had other qualifications for her new job. Her sex, fluent English, good looks and outgoing personality guaranteed that Japan would be noticed at international gatherings, where her predecessors have usually been blank faces in the crowd. She had often acted as her widowed father’s interpreter and hostess when he was Prime Minister, and had charmed such diverse figures as Brezhnev, George Bush Senior, the Queen and Imelda Marcos, whose cavernous wardrobe and undemocratic outlook left her less than impressed – ‘and I never even noticed her shoes.’ Tanaka also accompanied her father on his US-defying visit to China in 1972, assuring her an attentive hearing from Japan’s huge neighbour.

Deeper calculations may have been behind her appointment, however. She was prepared to describe the Foreign Ministry, long believed to be without fault, as ‘a hotbed of corruption’. Japan’s ultra-secretive spook outfit, the Cabinet Research Office, is funded by off-budget Government grants, and international gatherings have been similarly paid for by officials using personal credit cards. Even by Japanese standards, cash control at the Foreign Ministry has been lax: higher officials graduate from the best universities and all have been sent to Oxford to acquire British accents and a pseudo-patrician indifference to book-keeping, David Niven Oriental-style.

In Mori’s time a middle-rank Foreign Ministry official was caught using secret funds to keep a string of racehorses, yachts and a mistress in a smart apartment – outraging Japanese voters worried about their jobs. Scandal followed scandal: one official taking kickbacks on the hotel bills of state guests, another who paid for sex with underage girls he met on the Internet. Some critics have thought, in view of the outcome, that Tanaka, for so long a housewife, came poorly prepared to clean up this den of gentlemanly thieves – a more urgent task than the management of Japan’s diplomacy. She is clearly not a virtuoso of administrative routine or office intrigue, and has few friends in the LDP, which she joined soon after she was elected. Her only ministerial experience had been an undemanding turn as director-general of the Science and Technology Agency. Her appointment as Foreign Minister could have been viewed as Mission Impossible, her slim chances of success a surety that her ambition would go no further. Nevertheless the team of Koizumi and Tanaka easily carried the elections of July last year. The duo’s approval rating stayed above 80 per cent, and even the battered LDP’s improved slightly. TV, we know, can work wonders.

Tanaka had hardly settled into her new office when she began to suffer almost daily televised harassment at question time from Muneo Suzuki, an LDP old-timer from the northern island of Kyushu. Within a week the Makiko and Junichiro Show had acquired its heavy. Short, balding and 54, Suzuki was perfect for the part. A farmer’s son, he has a speaking style that advertises his provincial roots and a fondness for high-pitched yelling. Unlike Koizumi and Tanaka he started from nowhere, getting into politics as a legislator’s secretary while still a student of political science and economics at an obscure university near his home village. At 35 he was elected to Parliament. There followed a series of minor government jobs, and then, last November, the key party post of director-general of the LDP election office – the career of a typical local boss tightly focused on the pork-dispensing potential of a party perpetually in power, keeping well out of the public eye.

Suzuki made his public debut, predictably, on TV. His role centres on the issue of four foggy, fishy islands that were seized from Japan in the dying days of World War Two, the Soviet Union’s reward for entering the war a week before it ended. Japan has been trying to get them back ever since. The two northernmost islands, Etorufu and Kunashiri, belong to the volcanic Kurile chain. South of them, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets are within sight of Hokkaido, Suzuki’s suzerainty, and both were administered prewar as part of Hokkaido. The Russians want to hang onto them, partly for the rich fishing, more importantly because they guard the sea route to Vladivostok. Japan’s long-held official view is that all four must be returned before a peace treaty with Russia can be signed. Suzuki’s personal policy – one not without merit – was to try for the southern pair and leave the other two for future haggling. At first it seemed an unequal contest: Tanaka was Foreign Minister, Suzuki held no official position. In his smarmy mock-humble mode the farmer’s son billed himself as the underdog: ‘the Foreign Minister is the grand champion, I hold only the lowest rank,’ he snivelled, using the terminology of sumo wrestling. The reality was different. Tanaka had only her TV popularity going for her, while Suzuki had been running the Foreign Ministry behind the scenes for years.

This subplot, Tanaka v. Suzuki, or Beauty and the Beast, has kept Japan entertained for more than a year. The Japanese Parliamentary system gives backbenchers an unlimited right to question ministers, and Suzuki in his best bullying manner subjected Tanaka to a two-hour grilling, on the basis that the demand for all four islands was a ‘return to Cold War times’. A rattled Tanaka responded by trying to get Suzuki’s future questions limited to one hour. According to Suzuki, Tanaka had told her supporters in the Ministry that people came in three kinds: ‘family, staff and enemies’. Tanaka denied saying it. Suzuki called her a liar. Tanaka complained that Japan’s electoral system was liable to send ‘nonsensical old men’ to Parliament (Suzuki is actually four years younger than Tanaka, but looks older). Tanaka said she had no particular nonsensical old man in mind. A committee chairman called her apology ‘insincere’. The bickering went on all last summer and autumn. The fate of the remote northern islands is not of much concern to most Japanese, but the real issue – whether Tanaka or Suzuki was in charge at the Foreign Ministry – was a powerful, easy to follow plotline.

That Tanaka had many enemies at the Foreign Ministry was signalled by a steady stream of leaks about her failings, all televised. She had held up a meeting for half an hour, it was said, while choosing her costume and accessories; she did not turn up at all to confer with the visiting US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage; she sent a secretary out to buy a ring matching one she had mislaid. Things came to a head in January, when an international conference was called in Tokyo to put together an aid package for Afghanistan at which more than three billion dollars was pledged. The heads of two NGOs active in Afghanistan, Peace Winds Japan and Japan Platform, complained that they had been barred from the conference at the last moment by ‘an order from the Foreign Ministry’. The head of Japan Platform, Kensuke Onishi, said that a Ministry official had told him on the eve of the conference that Suzuki was angry about a statement Onishi had made in a newspaper to the effect that ‘the Government cannot be trusted’ and suggested he apologise. When he declined, Onishi was denied entry to the conference. Questioned in Parliament, and thus on TV, Tanaka said that she had been told by the Ministry’s top official, Yoshiji Nogami, that Suzuki had been behind the decision. Nogami publicly denied that he had mentioned Suzuki’s name. Tanaka snapped: ‘I am telling no lies.’ Suzuki told the TV cameras that ‘Ms Tanaka has a habit of telling lies.’ A Party boss privately tried to persuade Tanaka to accept the Ministry’s version of events. Tanaka left the meeting in tears of rage. ‘I am trying to do my best,’ she told the ever-present electronic reporters. Asked for a comment, Koizumi said offhandedly: ‘Tears are women’s greatest weapons. When women cry, men cannot compete with them. Everyone knows that.’ A group of female legislators called on Koizumi to withdraw this remark. Scenting dissension in the ruling party, the Opposition boycotted deliberations on the upcoming budget until the Tanaka-Suzuki dispute was resolved. On 29 January Koizumi dismissed Tanaka, demoted Nogami and ordered Suzuki to leave his steering committee post. The next public opinion poll showed a drop in Koizumi’s approval rating from 80 per cent to 40 per cent. TV viewers, especially the women among them, had spoken.

Suzuki’s triumph was shortlived. Two weeks later Kensho Sasaki of the Japanese Communist Party put down a question asking whether Suzuki had pressured the Foreign Ministry to restrict contracts for building a goodwill earthquake shelter and evacuation centre on Kunashiri, one of the disputed islands, to construction companies in Nemuro, Suzuki’s home base. Newspapers consulted their files and reported that the centre was named after him; they printed photos of a beaming Suzuki, dwarfed by grateful Russians, inaugurating it in 1999. It turned out that the company which landed the contract had contributed £40,000 to Suzuki’s campaign chest. Dissatisfied with his replies, Parliament again summoned Suzuki, this time as a sworn witness, exposing him to penalties for perjury. Suzuki was still evasive, shouting at his interrogators and running a finger around a damp collar. It was reported that he regularly read diplomatic despatches, that there was another centre named after him in Africa, where Japan sends much aid, and that his Parliamentary secretary was a Congolese using a fake passport. Details emerged of his influence over the Foreign Ministry where he had no formal standing. Days later he called a televised conference to announce that he was resigning from the Liberal Democratic Party, but not giving up his seat in Parliament. Dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief, he explained that he was ‘an old-fashioned politician’. The description was all too true: Suzuki’s public persecution of Tanaka had not only made him a national figure, but uncovered a ‘sanctuary’ typical of those supposedly targeted by Koizumi.

The former Foreign Minister loftily ignored the fall of her tormentor, but has turned her tart tongue against her former boss. Accusing Koizumi of betraying his pledge to reform the LDP, she told the House of Representatives: ‘I think the Prime Minister himself has joined the resistance forces. He has extremely bad people around him.’ He had, she said, ordered her to clean up the Foreign Ministry and then failed to back her: ‘I felt as if someone was stepping on my skirt to hold me back, while that same person kept telling me to go ahead with my work.’ Having lost Tanaka, the future of Koizumi’s Government hung in the balance. The plot was moving.

Revenge drives this political soap opera, as it does most of the samurai dramas that compete with politics on my TV. The first victim was Kiyomi Tsujimoto, at 41 a younger, less ladylike Tanaka of the Left, who specialised in needling Koizumi on his most vulnerable point, his dignity. ‘No self-control!’ she jeered when Koizumi excused himself, obviously for a comfort break, during a heated question session. The taunt was not forgiven. A right-leaning magazine published figures, almost certainly leaked from a ministry, showing that Tsujimoto had diverted to her own office expenses all but £250 of a £1250 monthly salary paid from public funds to her ‘policy secretary’ for minimal work. Tsujimoto conceded, inevitably on TV, that she had done wrong and, dry-eyed, removed her Member’s lapel badge, announcing that she was resigning from Parliament, but not from her Party, for which she would continue to work. Many other Parliamentarians, she urged, ought to do the same, if they were interested in advancing their principles rather than themselves – a barbed reference to Suzuki and the many other predatory, bribe-hungry LDP zoku, or ‘tribes’ of Parliamentarians with a shared stake in the same industry.

The bloodletting spread like the action of a kabuki melodrama. Koichi Kato, viewed as late as last year as a future LDP Prime Minister, resigned from Parliament after a long-serving political aide was charged with evading more than £150,000 in income tax. Then an even bigger LDP fish, Yutaka Inoue, President of the Upper House, denied that his policy secretary had pocketed £300,000 from a failed construction firm that hoped to land a major contract in Inoue’s constituency. On 20 June the Lower House voted to lift Suzuki’s Parliamentary immunity, and he was arrested and lodged in the Tokyo Detention House, an up-market prison. An aide had thanked a timber firm for a £30,000 reward for helping it out of legal difficulties and carelessly left the e-mail on the office computer. In the Japanese manner, leaks began to shower on the fallen Suzuki: he had paid for his Tokyo house with £200,000 diverted from political funds; in total, £500,000 had been transferred from these funds to his own bank account.

Then, in the most surprising plot twist so far, Koizumi called on his one-time leading lady Makiko Tanaka to rebut, with documentary evidence, a charge by two weekly magazines that she had diverted to her own account the state-paid salaries of an unspecified number of secretaries who were employed by her family-owned bus firm. Considering the vast fortune her father made out of politics, the charge suggests sloppy book-keeping rather than dishonesty, but Tanaka has yet to disprove it. The Parliamentary session ended on 31 July. A week later Tanaka resigned from Parliament, ‘so as not to further aggravate public distrust in politics’, as she explained in a poignant front-door TV interview.

What’s been happening to Japan, while the Show has monopolised TV coverage night after night? Not much. The man credited with making Makiko cry, Tadamori Oshima, has just been promoted to Agriculture Minister in a largely cosmetic reshuffling of the Koizumi Cabinet. Koizumi has engaged two speechwriters, Japan’s first. Tanaka was followed in the Foreign Ministry by Yoriko Kawaguchi, a governessy former bureaucrat and whisky-firm executive, who visibly runs a tighter ship than her predecessor. The cameras leave her alone, however, and it is doubtful that she will bring a single vote to the LDP, of which she is not even a member. Prime Minister Koizumi’s promised search-and-destroy of ‘hidden sanctuaries’ has so far uncovered only Suzuki’s, for which he can scarcely claim credit. In effect, what we have been watching is government by scandal, a Japanese tradition many centuries old, trendily rescripted for TV. It has been said that Japan is really much like any other country, only more so. Politics is everywhere local, where the voters live, while pretending to be national, where the power to spend money is concentrated. Clannish, conservative, divided by geography into pockets of population separated by rugged mountains, most Japanese see Tokyo as the treasure-house to which local men and women are sent to bring home the goodies. TV has turned Japan’s politics into national entertainment. Its faceless home-town practitioners need a camera-grabbing leadership, someone to put on a convincing show while the real deals are cut in back rooms. Hence the Makiko and Junichiro melodrama. Some kind of reform is indeed underway, but, originating in the depths of the bureaucracy, it owes nothing to politicians and may take decades to show results. Meanwhile Japan’s domestic debts balloon, the credit-rating agencies fret and the Show, after the summer break, will go on. And on. And on. My sofa is ready.

Send Letters To:

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Vol. 24 No. 21 · 31 October 2002

Murray Sayle’s geography slips uncharacteristically when he describes Muneo Suzuki as an ‘LDP old-timer from the northern island of Kyushu’ (LRB, 17 October). Kyushu is about as far south as one can get in Japan. Suzuki is from Hokkaido, the northernmost island.

Anthony Thwaite
Low Tharston, Norfolk

Vol. 24 No. 23 · 28 November 2002

Anthony Thwaite’s geography is as dubious as Murray Sayle’s if he thinks that ‘Kyushu is about as far south as one can get in Japan’ (Letters, 31 October). Hateruma Island, the southernmost inhabited point in Japan, is about 800 km below the southern tip of Kyushu. The uninhabited Okinotori Island (administratively part of Tokyo), at about 1200 km south of Kyushu, is absolutely as far south as one can get in Japan.

Robin Thompson
London W5

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