TOKYO — Like most of Japan's traditional kuromaku , or string-pullers, Shin Kanemaru, 76, the kingpin of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, feels most at home working out behind-the-scenes political deals.
"Foreign policy is not my cup of tea," he says.
But now, Kanemaru, 76, a former deputy prime minister whose sleepy-looking, bulldog-like face belies a wealth of common sense, quick wit and wry humor, finds himself in Pyongyang, North Korea, on a mission aimed at ending decades of hostility between his nation and the Communist hermit of Northeast Asia.
Forty-five years after the Japanese colonial rule of Korea ended, the two governments still lack even minimal contact. Japan does maintain diplomatic relations with non-Communist South Korea.
Indeed, Kanemaru's prestige is so high that neither Japan's opposition Socialists, who arranged the five-day trip that began Monday, nor ruling party leaders would have asked him to make it if anything less than success were possible.
North Korea invited him to head the 53-member mission of Liberal Democrats, Socialists and government officials in the belief that any promises from Kanemaru would be tantamount to a pledge from Japan.
North Korea's President Kim Il Sung "seems to have an interest in me," Kanemaru remarked.
The interest stems from the fact that Kanemaru is credited with putting Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu in office and, almost by himself, sustaining him there.
For hints of the political future in Japan, all eyes focus on Kanemaru, upon whom Kaifu relies for managing both dealings with the opposition and internal disputes within the ruling party, according to the newspaper Asahi's deputy political editor, Kotaro Akiyama.
"What Kanemaru says is bigger news than what happens abroad," said Keiichi Katsura, professor at Tokyo University's Newspaper Research Institute.
During his 32 years in Parliament, Kanemaru has been a Cabinet minister four times and secretary general of the ruling party. He holds no post now. But he is chairman of the 107-member parliamentary faction that put former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita into office and, by most accounts, is more influential than Takeshita himself.
Takeshita, many politicians believe, still harbors ambitions. Kanemaru does not. That is fundamental to the traditional kuromaku (literally, "black curtains") who often serve as power brokers to prime ministers.
The ultimate old-style politician--a master of the cryptic remark on some occasions and of feigned ignorance on others--Kanemaru has gathered respect and influence through a combination of old-fashioned horse sense, a shrewd feel for political timing and a network of friendships spanning both sides of the political spectrum.
Kanemaru's forte is the broad brush strokes of policy. The details he leaves to lesser mortals, such as his protege, Ichiro Ozawa, the Liberal Democrats' secretary general.
U.S. Ambassador Michael H. Armacost makes it a point to meet Kanemaru for regular informal chats. And when Bush Administration officials visit Tokyo, the U.S. Embassy does its best to arrange appointments with Kanemaru.
Agriculture Secretary Clayton K. Yeutter, on two trips to Japan in August seeking an opening of the rice market, met Kaifu first--then Kanemaru.
A U.S.-Japanese dispute in June, over the amount of public works spending that Washington wanted Tokyo to agree to as an import-stimulating measure over the next 10 years, was settled with a word from Kanemaru. The word added an extra $107 billion worth.
Nor was it an accident that Yamanashi prefecture (state) was selected as the site for construction of a magnetic railway test track, which ultimately is expected to become part of a new Tokyo-Osaka line. Kanemaru, the "chief" of the so-called tribe of construction industry-backed members of Parliament, hails from Yamanashi.
Earlier this month, Kanemaru said he wanted Education Minister Kosuke Hori to visit Beijing for the opening of the Asian Games--despite Japan's pledge at the Houston economic summit to refrain from dispatching high-level officials to China.
"If Kanemaru says he wants Hori to visit, I guess that will happen," said Ozawa, the ruling party secretary general. Sure enough, it did.
Pragmatism is a hallmark of the man. "Kanemaru is amazing. He can easily abandon his ideas" when the situation changes, Justice Minister Seiroku Kajiyama said in an interview in the magazine Jiji Tsushinsha.
So grateful was Kanemaru to the late Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek for allowing Japanese troops in China to return home after World War II without demanding reparations that he never visited the mainland until last month. Taiwan and China are no longer enemies, Kanemaru explained.
Of his close personal relationship with Makoto Tanabe, a vice chairman of the formerly Marxist-imbued Socialist Party who is visiting Pyongyang with him, Kanemaru said: "Politics is compromise. On that point, he and I have a relationship of trust."