Former Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone dies at 101

Yasuhiro Nakasone boosted Japan's global profile as prime minister from 1982 to 1987.
Yasuhiro Nakasone boosted Japan's global profile as prime minister from 1982 to 1987.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Yasuhiro Nakasone, one of Japan’s longest reigning premiers and known for his friendship with former United States president Ronald Reagan, has died at the age of 101, a top ruling party official said on Friday (Nov 29).

Mr Nakasone, prime minister from 1982 to 1987, hobnobbed on the world stage with Mr Reagan and British premier Margaret Thatcher while battling with bureaucrats over domestic reforms.

He himself said he failed to achieve a dream of revising the country’s pacifist, post-war Constitution to clarify the ambiguous status of the military.

“Revising the Constitution takes time. I stressed to the public that it was necessary, but it was not possible to begin the revision quickly,” the straight-talking Nakasone told Reuters in an interview in January 2010. 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made loosening the limits of the US-drafted Constitution a key goal, but revising the charter’s pacifist Article Nine remains contentious.

Known for his “Ron and Yasu” friendship with Mr Reagan, Mr Nakasone made headlines after taking office when he said that in the event of a war, he would make Japan an unsinkable “aircraft carrier” for US forces and bottle up the Soviet navy.

He also broke an unwritten rule on limiting the annual defence budget to 1 per cent of gross national product. 

In 1983, he became the first Japanese premier to officially visit South Korea, mending fences with a country that Japan had brutally colonised from 1910 to 1945.

Mr Nakasone, a former lieutenant in the Imperial Navy who lost his younger brother in World War II, outraged Asian countries when he made an official visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, where convicted war criminals are honoured along with Japan’s war dead, on the 40th anniversary of Japan’s surrender.  He decided not to repeat the pilgrimage after it sparked riots in China.

His outspoken ways sometimes caused problems. 

In 1986, he offended blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans living in the US by saying they brought the average intelligence level of Americans below that of Japan.

He pursued domestic reforms aggressively, privatising Japan’s state-run railway, tobacco and telecommunications monopolies.

Critics say, however, that he failed to implement a landmark set of reform proposals to help Japan’s economy grow.

He was also less successful at reforming Japan’s education system, trying both to instil traditional morals and discipline while also nurturing individuals who could compete globally.

He won a rare fifth year in office after leading his Liberal Democratic Party to a landslide victory in 1986 elections. But his career was shadowed by links to a huge political scandal, a stocks-for-favours scam. 

He quit the LDP in 1989 over the scandal but two years later was welcomed back as a senior adviser.

He was forced to retire in 2003 when he was 85 along with other elder statesmen by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who was keen to rejuvenate the LDP’s image as a party of hidebound, elderly politicians.

Born in the hilly district of Takasaki, north-west of Tokyo, on May 27, 1918, to a wealthy timber trader, Mr Nakasone graduated from Tokyo University before entering the Home Ministry in 1941.  He joined the Tokyo Police Department after Japan’s surrender in 1945.

He has two daughters and a politician son, Hirofumi.