On Christmas Eve 1948, a thin middle-aged man in a shabby khaki uniform and a peaked cap was released from Sugamo prison. His soft lips formed a toothy smile as he boarded an American jeep. Kishi Nobusuke had just spent three years in Sugamo jail as a class A war crimes suspect. He had been General Tojo’s minister of commerce and industry when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Before that he had been the industrial czar of Manchukuo. He was in fact the nearest Japanese equivalent to Albert Speer. His wartime responsibilities ranged from munitions to slave labor. If the war had been fought by soldiers, their conquests had been administered by people like him.
Many a postwar friendship was kindled or strengthened in Sugamo. Kishi’s cellmate was Sasakawa Ryoichi, the leader of a small fascist party in the 1930s and a notorious racketeer in occupied China. He expanded his fortune after the war in various more or less opaque ways, which included a huge gambling enterprise. Wartime connections and a great deal of shady money made him a formidable backroom operator in postwar conservative politics. Sasakawa was released the same day as Kishi. Less than ten years later, Kishi would be prime minister of Japan.
In 1948, however, Yoshida Shigeru was still in charge. Though both moved in the same high-flown circles, Kishi and Yoshida did not like each other. Yoshida, born in Tosa [now Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku], the son of a People’s Rights Movement activist, was a genuine conservative compared to Kishi, a Choshu man [now Yamaguchi Prefecture in western Honshu], proud of his provincial samurai ancestry and a typical exponent of the more zealous Japanese Right. Kishi had more silky charm than the gruff Yoshida, who is still remembered in Japan for having called a socialist MP a “damned fool” in parliament. But from the time he entered Tokyo Imperial University to the end of his long career, Kishi’s instincts were always on the opposite side of liberalism. As a young man, he admired Kita Ikki, the national socialist agitator behind the 1936 military rebellion. In the constitutional debates between Minobe and his rightist enemies, Kishi took the ultranationalist view. In Manchukuo, he was close to General Tojo and the Kwantung army. In 1939, he was in favor of strengthening the ties with Nazi Germany. In the struggles between businessmen and the military, he took the latter side. And in Sugamo prison, he still believed Japan had fought “a just war.”
Even though Kishi became a defender of democracy after the war, his politics were in some ways remarkably consistent. Before and during the war, he described himself as a national socialist: authoritarian, nationalistic, and socialist in the sense of seeing a planned economy as the right way to strengthen the nation and spread its wealth. He was never a believer in laissez-faire, or liberal Anglo-Saxon-style capitalism. In 1953, Kishi spoke out against policies of “the ‘let-alone’ type.” What was needed, instead, was centralized industrial planning that “should be carefully worked out–like the Russian five-year plans.” Just before making this statement, he had been on a trip to West Germany, where he had had a pleasant encounter with his old colleague, the former Nazi economics minister Hjalmar Schacht. Kishi’s economic ideas were and would remain very close to the mainstream of Japanese thinking….
For a moment, in 1955, it looked as though the Socialist Party might have a chance. The right and left wings made peace and merged into one Japan Socialist Party (JSP). But this galvanized the Liberals and Democrats, who, after a spate of mutual calumny and backstabbing, formed the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The architect of the merger was Kishi, and big business was the force that drove it…. This new alignment of parties became known as the “1955 System.” …
The LDP … quickly made the 1955 System into the LDP System. With the help of big business, Washington, senior bureaucrats, and an electoral system that favored the conservative rural areas, the LDP built up a formidable political machine. It was founded on money: money from construction companies, crime syndicates, industrial corporations, CIA slush funds, and trading companies, sluiced through a network of pork barrels, managed by party factions whose members could expect tenure in the Diet as long as the money kept flowing to their constituents. The factions were formed around powerful bosses, who were rotated as party leaders and prime ministers, so that everyone had a chance to feed at the trough. To operate smoothly, the LDP System relied on fixers behind the scenes, which is where old racketeers such as Sasakawa Ryoichi and Kodama Yoshio came in. Every new LDP prime minister vowed to abolish the factions. None of them did. The socialists did not get another chance to govern for forty years, and even then they did not last long.