TOKYO — In the days of despair and chaos after World War II, with Japan's value system turned upside down, a rebellious Toshiki Kaifu asked the principal of his high school, "What can we do to heal our wounded hearts?"
"Why don't you hurl your problems at an audience, and see how they react?" the principal suggested.
Those words charted the path that Kaifu, the son of a photo studio owner, has followed ever since. He entered an oratory contest, and won. In college, he won a series of national debates--and through his 29 years in politics his reputation for oratory has continued.
On Tuesday, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party gave him what is in essence the ultimate oratorical prize: the party presidency--and with it the post of prime minister. In an election today, Parliament confirmed him as the nation's leader.
None of Kaifu's predecessors were chosen for their ability as public speakers, but oratory has suddenly assumed a value of critical proportions to the ruling party.
Stung by an unprecedented defeat in the July 23 election for the upper house of Parliament, the party decided it needed an orator capable of coping with the campaign craftsmanship of the Socialist leader, Takako Doi.
As a result, Kaifu was suddenly plucked from the obscurity of his second-echelon post in the party's smallest faction and given command.
His years as the favored apprentice of the late Prime Minister Takeo Miki, the "Mr. Clean" of conservative politics who served in Parliament from 1937 to 1988, have given Kaifu a "soft" image as a reformer--a quality the party will need to overcome a widespread influence-buying scandal and an attitude of arrogance toward voters that threatens its 34-year hold on government.
The association with Miki, who was shunned by Japan's wartime leaders for daring to speak out against going to war with the United States, has also given him the aura of a dove.
Kaifu himself, since he declared his candidacy last week, has described his assets as "youth, fervor and action ability."
At 58, he will be the youngest Japanese prime minister since 1972, when Kakuei Tanaka assumed office at 54. From a distance, there is still a boyish look to his features. But when the television cameras move in for a close-up, they reveal gray in the hair, bags under the eyes, the beginnings of a double chin and a tired expression.
There are many comparisons with Miki. But in Kaifu's background, and in the principles he enunciated in campaigning for the party presidency, there is a striking resemblance to the proud nationalism of former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.
Nakasone and Kaifu both condemned Japanese aggression in World War II, yet both also acted as patriots during the war.
Nakasone entered the navy immediately after graduation from college, while Kaifu found himself drafted at 14 to work in an aircraft engine parts factory in Nagoya, near his birthplace at Ichinomiya, today a city of 250,000 people.
Later, in 1945, Kaifu passed an examination to become a "junior airman."
"I wanted to fly wild in the skies," he recalled years later. But Japan's defeat came before he got the chance.
In 1951, the streak of nationalism in Kaifu led to his arrest. As a college student, he delivered a speech against stern security regulations that U.S. occupation authorities had imposed on freedom of speech after the Korean War began. A week later, his release was secured by Kinsho Kono, a conservative politician from Ichinomiya.
Kaifu started working part-time in Kono's office while he attended Waseda University. And he started accompanying Kono on visits to the home of the politician's political mentor, Miki.
Ultimately, the Miki relationship become almost that of father and son. When Kaifu and his wife, Sachiyo, now 56, were married, Miki served as go-between.
Even today, Kaifu, emulating Miki, wears only polka-dot neckties. His wife said he owns about 70 of them.
The first thing he did after accepting an offer of support for the party leadership from former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita was to visit Miki's widow to inform her that he was running. Yet his campaign statements called up memories not of Miki, but of Nakasone.
Pledged to Retain Treaty
He pledged to maintain the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty as the foundation of Japan's diplomacy but also declared that one should "defend one's country with one's own hands"--a phrase of Nakasone's.
He also recalled that in his first political campaign, in 1960, he pledged to work to have Japan "overtake and surpass" economically both Europe and the United States. That, too, was a Nakasone goal.
At 29, Kaifu was the youngest winner in the 1960 election. He has now been elected 10 times, a record that puts him on a par with even the front-line leaders of the seniority-minded party.