Yasuhiro Nakasone, the outspoken Japanese prime minister who raised his nation’s profile on the world stage in the 1980s and worked to soothe relations with the U.S. during trade disputes, has died at the age of 101, public broadcaster NHK reported Friday.
The son of a timber merchant, Nakasone survived enemy attacks while serving as a naval officer in World War II and went on to a political career spanning seven decades, leading Japan’s government from 1982 to 1987. As premier, he boosted defense and foreign-aid spending, broke up state monopolies and backed U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s tough approach toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The two men had a friendship that helped Nakasone blunt tensions over Japan’s widening trade surplus with the U.S.
“The five-year reign of the dynamic, much-traveled Nakasone put Japan on the world map — and the rest of the world on Japan’s map,” Time magazine wrote upon his resignation as prime minister.
A graduate of the prestigious Tokyo Imperial University, Nakasone was first elected to parliament in 1947 and would remain in politics until 2003, when he was pressured into resigning to make way for a new generation of candidates within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
As premier, he gained a reputation as a nationalist for increasing the defense budget and visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war criminals are enshrined along with others killed in the nation’s wars.
Nakasone himself said he wanted a greater international role for Japan after it had spent decades looking inward while rebuilding the economy.
“My aims were administrative reform and the internationalization of Japan,” he said in “The Making of the New Japan,” a memoir published in 1999. As Japan rose from the ashes of war to become a dominant economic power during the 1950s and 1960s, “we became spiritually weak and lost our sense of identity and assertiveness,” especially on the international stage, he wrote in his 2002 book “Japan: A State Strategy for the Twenty-First Century.”
Nakasone more than doubled Japan’s overseas development aid during his term. Domestically, he oversaw the sale of Nippon Telegraph & Telephone and the predecessor of Japan Tobacco Inc., both state-owned monopolies, and presided over the breakup of Japan National Railways.
Nakasone’s reputation was tarnished in 1986 when he was quoted saying Americans’ intelligence was lowered by the presence of racial minorities. He made a formal apology after the remark caused an uproar in the U.S.
And in 1989, after he had left office, Nakasone admitted having received contributions from Recruit Co., a company at the heart of a bribery scandal that led to the resignation of his successor, Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. Nakasone denied having done anything inappropriate and wasn’t prosecuted, though he resigned from the LDP over the scandal.
Nakasone was born May 27, 1918, in Takasaki city in Gunma prefecture, northwest of Tokyo. He was the third of six children, two of whom died young.
He grew up playing in his father’s timber yard, fishing in streams and training homing pigeons, he recalled in his 1999 book. He excelled in math and English in school and was accepted at Tokyo Imperial University, where he set his sights on a civil-service career.
Nakasone served as an officer aboard a cruiser during World War II. In December 1941, he came under a U.S. air attack while helping build an airfield on the Philippine island of Mindanao. The next month, he helped cremate the bodies of 23 comrades who were killed in an attack on his convoy off Borneo.
His younger brother, Ryosuke, was also killed in the war. Four decades later, as prime minister, Nakasone apologized for Japan’s wartime actions in a speech to the United Nations.
“Since the end of that war, Japan has profoundly regretted the ultra-nationalism and militarism it unleashed, and the untold suffering the war inflicted upon peoples around the world and, indeed, upon its own people,” Nakasone said in the speech.
Nakasone married Tsutako Kobayashi in 1945. The couple had two daughters and a son, Hirofumi Nakasone, who served as Japan’s minister of foreign affairs from 2008 to 2009.
Following the war, Yasuhiro Nakasone worked for the Ministry of Home Affairs until he quit to run for parliament. He was elected in April 1947 at the age of 28 and would rise in the ranks to serve in several ministerial posts, and as head of Japan’s defense agency, before becoming prime minister.
His domestic support as premier fell toward the end of his tenure as he pushed unsuccessfully for an unpopular sales tax. He stepped down when his term expired in November 1987, although he remained a member of parliament.
Nakasone continued to speak out on national affairs in public appearances and media interviews, even in the final years of his life, often calling for revision of the pacifist constitution imposed on Japan after the war.