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Japan's Cabinet Secretary Wields Power on His Own Terms

Politics: Hiromu Nonaka is both a champion of the underdog and a feared force in government who pulls no punches.

April 17, 1999|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Japan's prime minister is Keizo Obuchi, but the shadow shogun truly running the world's second-largest economy, many insiders say, is the enigmatic and widely feared politician Hiromu Nonaka.

Though little known outside Japan beyond his role as government spokesman, the prime minister's chief Cabinet secretary wields enormous power here. Nonaka's shrewd political tactics are credited with keeping the Obuchi administration alive for more than nine months, far longer than many expected. His behind-the-scenes efforts also are largely responsible for boosting Obuchi's popularity rating from dismal to at least respectable.

"If Nonaka were to quit, the Obuchi Cabinet would be destroyed," said a senior bureaucrat close to the prime minister's office. Politicians turn to Nonaka to get things done, and his imprint is on virtually everything the administration does.

While a chief Cabinet secretary is often referred to as the "prime minister's wife," Nonaka is much more powerful than his predecessors. His masterminding and pride-swallowing earlier this year brought the small splinter party headed by archenemy Ichiro Ozawa--a man whom Nonaka had publicly branded a traitor and privately called a U.S. spy--back into the Liberal Democratic Party fold in a coalition government.

Nonaka also is said to have brought the nation's huge banks to heel, persuading them to accept a $500-billion bailout plan that many had resisted.

Fellow members of the prime minister's special ad hoc economic advisory panel--which includes the chiefs of some of Japan's best-known companies--take heed when the smart and well-studied Nonaka holds forth, as he often does. "Everyone listens very carefully when he speaks because he is so powerful," said a person close to the committee.

He is feared not only for vicious verbal attacks that have earned him the nickname "the Sniper" but also for his strong information network, which one political commentator brands the "CIA of Japan."

Behind-the-Scenes Wheeling and Dealing

The wily Nonaka, 73, is the consummate Japanese back-room politician, wheeling and dealing behind the scenes with party loyalists. At the same time, he is a maverick. He is blunt in a society that shrivels at confrontation, and he often defies the group-oriented culture in pursuit of his own agenda.

Nonaka's success is all the more surprising because he comes from the wrong side of the tracks.

He has had to overcome the superstitious taint of being from an area that is home to a caste, of sorts, widely discriminated against, a group so stigmatized that even mention of its name--burakumin--make Japanese cringe. In Nagatacho, Tokyo's Capitol Hill, Nonaka's background is whispered about. Some say it is why he has never aspired to become prime minister.

When he was a young man, similar gossip wounded Nonaka so deeply that he wept, quit his railroad job and ran for local office, motivated to eradicate prejudice, he later said.

Perhaps influenced by his own experiences, Nonaka champions the weak and handicapped in a society that generally is not tolerant of either.

"Nonaka has the rare qualities of compassion and intimidation," said a profile last year in the weekly newsmagazine Aera. He personally apologized to a man falsely accused by police of poisoning neighbors and was the first senior ruling party official to apologize to the Chinese for the "Rape of Nanking."

Nevertheless, Nonaka's usual take-no-prisoners style ruffles feathers at home and abroad. In the midst of Western airstrikes against Iraq in December, Nonaka committed what appeared to be a breach of security, informing reporters that the raids would last only four days.

His lifelong adversaries, members of the Communist Party in his home base of Kyoto, brand him a dictator. "People who are bullied by him are too afraid to speak up because of his possible revenge," said the editor of one Communist newspaper, who asked not to be identified.

Nonaka says he doesn't care about his political future--an attitude that liberates him to say and do what he sees fit without worrying about whether he will lose his seat in the House of Representatives. Instead, he is known to sacrifice himself for his leaders.

"I'm a day laborer," Nonaka said in Shokun magazine last June. "I never think of what I talk about today or how I want to appeal to the public. My judgment is only based on my animal-like instinct at each moment."

(Nonaka's office declined several requests for an interview with him and also declined to answer written questions.)

Nonaka's farm background and mere high school education fall short of the elite pedigrees held by many of the powerful bureaucrats in senior ministry posts. And his 15 years in national politics make him a relative political neophyte in that arena. Gaunt and just under 5 feet, 5 inches tall, Nonaka has no hobbies and doesn't drink, smoke, play golf or sing--all popular pastimes in Nagatacho.

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