Follow Us




Stay Hungry, Japan! An Interview with Nakasone Yasuhiro
A Political Elder’s Views on Leadership

Over the past five years, Japan has had six prime ministers, none of whom has exerted the leadership to make a lasting impact. Nakasone Yasuhiro, prime minister from 1982 to 1987, talks about the training that underpinned his success on the domestic and diplomatic stages and what Japanese politics needs today.

Nakasone Yasuhiro

Nakasone YasuhiroBorn in 1918. Studied law at the Tokyo Imperial University (today the University of Tokyo) before working in the Home Ministry and serving as a paymaster in the Imperial Navy. In 1947 he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he would be reelected 19 times until his retirement in 2003. In 1982 he became prime minister. His 1,806 days in office made his the third-longest administration in the postwar era. Today he serves in posts including chair of the Institute for International Policy Studies and honorary chair of the Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Forum. Author of works including Jiseiroku (Meditations) and Hoshu no yuigon (The Last Will of Conservatism). 

Politics: Less Substantial than Ever

INTERVIEWER The malaise afflicting Japanese politics today is becoming a cause for concern all around the world, not just in Japan. What do you see as the roots of the problem?

NAKASONE YASUHIRO I think politicians today lack a proper understanding of the times in which they live. The basic job of a politician is to implement policy based on an all-encompassing perspective that incorporates deep reflections on history and philosophy. But politicians these days don’t have that grounding in the fundamentals.

They don’t have any political ideas rooted in an academic understanding of the issues; they don’t have any strategy. They make entirely too little effort to improve their own values or reappraise their ability to evaluate a situation. As a result, they’re unable to perceive the present state of affairs accurately—the political situation and the position Japan is in.

They do little more than argue about how to respond to problems as they arise. They are incapable of seeing beyond the debates and disagreements between the government and opposition parties. The result is nothing but empty, simplistic squabbling. It’s no wonder so many people regard politics as the equivalent of a family quarrel.

Politics has utterly lost its profundity and gravitas. I don’t think politics has ever been as insubstantial as it is today.

The Need for a Historical and Philosophical Outlook

INTERVIEWER The new prime minister, Noda Yoshihiko, has written that you are one the postwar premiers he respects most. Do you have any advice for him?

NAKASONE Well, as a politician he’s made it to the prime minister’s seat, so he presumably has at least some analytical ability with regard to Japan’s current situation and global conditions. It’s a shame he has so few opportunities to break his views down and present them in simple terms to journalists or the public.

Politicians in the old days—people like Ogata Taketora [member of numerous cabinets in the 1940s and 1950s], Yoshida Shigeru [prime minister in 1946–7 and 1948–54], Hatoyama Ichirō [prime minister in 1954–6], and myself—all had a firm grounding. We had a feel for the political circumstances of the times and a sense of values. In short, we had mastered the learning that underpins all of politics, and we had the mental and physical training to carry out our political activities on the basis of that learning.

In our time, we also had a strong interest in religion. The generation of politicians who came before me, like Yoshida and Hatoyama, had frequent contacts with religious figures. They would call Zen priests up from Kyoto for advice or head off to temples to practice Zen meditation. They did all sorts of things to enrich their spiritual lives. I myself used to meditate once a week at Zenshōan, a temple in Tokyo’s Yanaka district.

There was a lot more interaction with figures from academia, too, in those days. Several times a month Hatoyama would invite groups of scholars to his home to hear their views; Yoshida did the same thing at the Kantei, the prime minister’s official residence. Ogata was no different. Politicians in the prewar and immediate postwar years shared an awareness that having the courage of your convictions was absolutely essential if you were going to make it as a politician. This meant that leaders were unlikely to make public statements or take actions without the learning and philosophical underpinning to back them up.

Today, politicians have almost no opportunity to take part in the kind of training that would allow them hone their thinking and beliefs. The heart of politics today consists of little more than verbal maneuvering—the points to be scored in Diet debates, the impact of a politician’s words on public image, the ability to deliver effective sound bites. Politics has become shallow. Lightweight.

To put it another way, politics has grown entirely too journalistic in nature, and its more academic aspects have vanished.

There is very little weight or substance to politicians’ pronouncements in recent years. You have Prime Minister Noda talking about being “like a loach,” for instance, or a cabinet minister joking that he’s going to “get radiation on you” to some reporters. It’s farcical. Japanese politics has lost its religious and philosophical qualities, and I get the impression that the people taking part in it approach it with little more seriousness than they would a video game. We need to take a fresh look at the things that should provide a strong foundation for politics—philosophy, scholarship, religion—and work to make them a part of politicians’ lives once again.

INTERVIEWER The news media have played a role in this as well.

NAKASONE Yes, they certainly have.

The Test of Summit Diplomacy

INTERVIEWER The malaise in Japan’s politics is affecting the nation’s foreign policy, too. In 2012 we’re going to see changes of leadership in many of the world’s key countries. What does Japan need to do on the diplomatic front now?

NAKASONE The leading politicians in Japan in recent years have shown little evidence of a systemic approach to the nation’s diplomatic strategy. When dealing with their foreign counterparts, Japanese politicians need to have a foreign policy approach that combines insight into global affairs with a properly formulated domestic political strategy.

Politicians in other countries tend to have a well-developed approach to foreign affairs. They have a firm foundation in place on which to stand as representatives of their nations in diplomatic dealings.

In Japan, too, when the pursuit of politics was more academic in nature, politicians learned the basics properly before stepping out on the global stage. As I noted earlier, today’s leaders need to step back and reconsider their fundamental positions and the values that politics must champion.

INTERVIEWER So in both domestic and international affairs, politicians have to stand on a firm foundation. Would you say this is the quality we need to see in our leaders?

NAKASONE What is the footing on which you stake out your positions? What is the meaning of the present age? To answer these questions, it’s vital to have your fundamental values in place; your philosophy; your sense of history. In the past, mastering these things was a prerequisite for becoming a politician. The act of refining your values, thinking, and historical understanding increases your “capacity,” your breadth and depth as a human being. Today’s politicians lack the diligence to carry this out.

Diplomacy isn’t a job to be handled by the minister for foreign affairs. Foreign ministers are just assistants in this field: the real diplomatic actors are presidents and prime ministers. Summit diplomacy is the essence of international relations. It’s a battle of strength and wits between national leaders, which is why I sometimes describe summit meetings as the Olympic Games of foreign affairs. It’s important for politicians to realize that increasing their capacity—cultivating a sense of history, an understanding of the modern age, and a world view of their own—is essential if they want not just to compete with their foreign counterparts but to surpass them.

In the first ten minutes or so of a meeting with another nation’s leader, you get a feeling for his capacity, so to speak. Even given language differences, if you watch the leader’s ability for expression and the way he comports himself when he delivers a statement, you’ll understand. And although sometimes your values resonate with the other leader’s, there are other times when you find yourselves at odds. But even when this happens, if you can convince the person you are dealing with that you’re a strong leader even though you’re working at cross-purposes, then that can translate into added power and prestige for your nation.

The trust built up between national leaders in this way is what drives diplomacy. And it is a leader’s personal ability as a politician that earns the trust of his counterparts.

In the postwar era, I feel that Japan’s education has really fallen short in terms of training politicians to stand up to the rigors of summit diplomacy.

  • [2011.11.10]
Related articles
Other interviews

Related articles

Video highlights

  • From our columnists
  • In the news