The end of an era

The death of former finance minister Shoichi Nakagawa provides a tragic footnote to the downfall of the LDP.

Shoichi Nakagawa, the finance minister under Taro Aso who, becoming infamous worldwide for his behavior at a G7 meeting in Rome in February, was forced to resign and then lost his seat in the August general election, was found dead at his home in Tokyo's Setagaya ward Sunday morning. Yomiuri notes an absence of external wounds, suggesting that Nakagawa, like his father Ichiro, took his own life.

This last detail should give us pause. As became apparent when Nakagawa's alcoholism finally made its way into the media, it seems likely that he was struggling with demons that few of us can truly understand. As I remarked at the time, Nakagawa ought not to have been an object of ridicule; the only question raised by his behavior was why Aso put a man struggling with a serious disease in charge of the finance ministry in the midst of "a once-in-a-century financial crisis."

The timing of his death also has important symbolism, coming as it does in the wake of the election of Sadakazu Tanigaki, one of Nakagawa's predecessors as finance minister, as LDP president. By choosing the dovish Tanigaki by a substantial margin — Tanigaki received 300 of 498, more than double the 144 votes received by Taro Kono, who finished second — LDP Diet members and party supporters gave their support for a new policy direction, an impression reinforced by Tanigaki's naming Shigeru Ishiba as chairman of the LDP's policy research council. The balance of power within the LDP, which, as discussed in this post has favored revisionist hawks for much of the post-cold war period, has shifted decisively in the direction of the LDP's past, the past of "income doubling" and egalitarianism. Appropriately Tanigaki belongs to the revived Kochikai, the faction that was home to Hayato Ikeda, Kiichi Miyazawa, and other LDP leaders who kept the party focused on economic welfare and social stability.

Appealing to this tradition alone is not enough, of course: Tanigaki faces an uphill battle to change the LDP into a party that can commit to any one policy line, let alone an agenda that prioritizes the wellbeing of Japan's citizens and addresses the dilemma facing Japan's government today. Indeed, I think Tanigaki is more likely than not to fail in remaking the LDP into a party that will be positioned to return to power in the immediate future. He may be wholly sincere in his desire to reform the party, but as the candidate of the LDP's establishment, Tanigaki won precisely because he poses less of a risk to the LDP's traditional institutions than Kono.

But Nakagawa's death calls attention to just how precipitously the influence of the LDP's ideological conservatives has declined since the 2007 upper house election. Having lost their best opportunity to move their agenda when the LDP lost and then Shinzo Abe resigned and promptly checked himself into Keio hospital, the conservatives rallied to irritate Yasuo Fukuda, managed to get their man Aso into the premiership, but then were utterly lost as the global financial crisis ravaged the Japanese economy. They are still there: Abe still thinks he can return to glory and Aso has already stated that "sooner or later the Hatoyama government will fail," which may be factually true but Aso seems to think it will happen sooner rather than later due to Hatoyama's personal failings. But they are irrelevant to the LDP's future, able to irritate a party leader, much as they did to Fukuda, but unable to shape the party's agenda in a way that will enable the LDP to return to power.

The Japanese public has made clear in the past two elections what it wants from the government: government action to mitigate economic insecurity, especially regarding pensions and retirement. The LDP's conservatives have made clear that they have very little to say about these issues, and on the issues that they do have a lot to say — foreign policy, national defense, "moral" education, the constitution — the voting public has little to no interest.

So Nakagawa's passing may be the final exclamation point on the revisionist era of the LDP.

But politics aside, Nakagawa's death should not be an occasion for having one last laugh at his expense. The British politician Enoch Powell famously wrote, "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs." But Nakagawa's end — both his political end in August and his mortal end — was particularly tragic, if only because it was in large part the product of his all-too-human failings. Whatever one thinks of his politics — I certainly have had little positive to say over the years — one ought to spare a thought for the late Shoichi Nakagawa. RIP.

Other posts by Tobias Harris: