Stay Hungry, Japan! An Interview with Nakasone Yasuhiro


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

Born 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.

The Mission: Overcoming Crisis

INTERVIEWER In March 2011 a major earthquake and tsunami struck the Tōhoku region and led to a nuclear accident in Fukushima. How important is the ability of politicians when it comes to responding to this kind of crisis?

NAKASONE Politicians have to shoulder the burden of fate. Once you become prime minister, you may be confronted with a massive earthquake, a major nuclear accident, an international conflict, or a fiscal crisis; that’s simply your fate as a politician. The politician’s mission, though, is to overcome whatever crises arise by reading the situation accurately, responding to it well, and passing the lessons of that experience on to the next generation.

That’s the politician’s job. So there’s a need to be constantly studying and bettering oneself. This is something that Ogata, Yoshida, and Hatoyama did. I did it, too.

INTERVIEWER During your tenure as prime minister, you showed real crisis-management skills following the 1986 eruption of Mt. Mihara on Izu Ōshima, when you directed the speedy evacuation of the entire island.

NAKASONE My generation lived through the war, so we’ve got the right mind-set for coping with emergency situations. We learned how leaders are supposed to respond to emergencies back when we were second or first lieutenants in the military. By the time we became politicians, we had already fully internalized those lessons. We had experience. No matter what happened, we were prepared to take action right away, without consulting with others first. That’s why I was never taken unawares as prime minister; why I never had to scramble to respond. I just had to do what I’d been trained to do.

People today lack that experience and have no opportunity to engage in similar study. All they can do is try to develop this talent on their own or ask an older politician to show them the ropes. There’s still a real need for the senior generation to pass on their knowledge. But the political scene today doesn’t place the same emphasis on relationships between seniors and juniors that used to exist, and there are fewer opportunities for politicians to learn the practical skills they need.

From the perspective of crisis management, we’ve got complete amateurs in charge of politics today. And I don’t think this is limited to the political sphere: there are problems with leadership education in every field in Japan today.

The Need for Hunger

INTERVIEWER In education and in other areas, what do you think the Japanese people need to aim for as we move into the future?

NAKASONE Beginning in my student days, I underwent humanistic training. I studied the things I needed to know as an individual and I established the aspects of my mind that would form the basis of my career in politics. As soon as I decided that I wanted to become a politician, I dedicated all my daily efforts toward that goal. I increased my spiritual nourishment and worked to boost what we call tandenryoku—the strength deep within the lower abdomen, the source of mental focus in the body.

Probably people who decide they want to go into politics today have a similar attitude. But, I think people were much hungrier in our day: they had a passionate desire to go out and grasp things for themselves, whether that meant learning from their elders or studying under some Zen monk. I suspect that hunger isn’t quite so strong among people today.

I feel that the educational system in prewar Japan helped to foster this sort of hunger for knowledge, or desire to develop one’s character. People who get their education today seem to find it harder to develop the same ambition and appetite for mental nourishment.

It all boils down to how we develop ourselves as human beings. You often hear it said that the education provided in the higher schools in Japan’s old education system was of high quality. And indeed, it wasn’t just classroom and book learning: we had lots of opportunities to learn through athletic competition, by living together in dormitories, by listening to what the senior students had to tell us. We were constantly hungry—always trying to take what those seniors had and make it our own. People today just don’t have the same drive.

INTERVIEWER So people today lack the necessary educational grounding? Would you say this has weakened politicians’ ability to perceive the true nature of things?

NAKASONE Yes it has. What we need more than anything is hunger. The desire to shed light on the truth of matters.

INTERVIEWER Will Japan be all right in the twenty-first century?

NAKASONE Yes, it’ll be all right.

INTERVIEWER You’re sure of that?

NAKASONE Of course. The Japanese people have always been bound together by strong tribal ties, in a sense. This dates back to ancient times when we were a small group of people confined to the islands they called Ōyashima [the eight great islands]. It’s not so apparent in ordinary times, but in critical moments that cohesion will always come to the fore. It’s rooted in the Japanese sense of history and national pride. I believe Japan still has its strengths. I don’t think there’s any need for worry on that account.

(Translated from a September 30, 2011, interview in Japanese. Interviewer Harano Jōji is representative director of the Japan Echo Foundation.)

diplomacy Noda Yoshihiko Yoshida Shigeru politics Diet foreign policy Nakasone Yasuhiro postwar prewar leadership Hatoyama Ichiro Ogata Taketora