Since 1955, Japan has had three transformational prime ministers. The first, Kishi Nobusuke (1896–1987), can fairly be termed the father—or at least the midwife—of Japan’s postwar order. The second, Tanaka Kakuei (1918–1993), was an outsider, a bit of a revolutionary. He did not overthrow the order that Kishi had installed, nor did he want to. But he demanded—and got—a seat at the table of power for the class of people he championed, who had had little voice in Kishi’s original configuration. Tanaka was felled at the height of his influence in 1985 by betrayal and a stroke. Yet the disciples who betrayed him continued to dominate Japanese party politics, and in 2009 one of them mounted the most formidable threat yet to the foundations of the postwar order, before he and his allies were dispatched into the political wilderness—for good? The last of the transformational prime ministers was Abe Shinzo (1954–2022), the one who did the dispatching—and Kishi’s grandson. Schooled from an early age in the minutiae of Japanese politics, Abe bore a lifelong ambition to clear his grandfather’s name—after 1945, Kishi had initially been jailed as a possible war criminal—and with it, that of the class to which he and Kishi belonged. That class had colonized Korea, invaded China and provoked a war with the United States in a doomed effort to secure complete freedom-of-action for Tokyo. Abe died last month, the victim of a freak assassination—freakish in that the assassin did not kill him for being a representative of reaction but because of a grudge, one that sheds some light on the problems that still beset the Japanese political system today.

But first, let’s go back to the beginning. Why start with 1955? There had been other important prime ministers before then. But Japan’s modern political set-up is known as the 1955 system because that was when Kishi cemented it into place. Born into an old military-aristocratic family from Yamaguchi, on the southwestern tip of Honshu Island, Kishi was a top-flight law student at the Tokyo Imperial University and entered the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in the 1920s, determined to drive the economic development of Japan. In the 1930s he was the economic Czar of occupied Manchuria, building up a personal fortune while overseeing a heavy-industrialization process based on forced labour, then Minister of Munitions in the wartime cabinet of Tojo Hideki (an earlier transformational prime minister). After the surrender he was jailed by the American Occupation authorities, though never convicted. He was rehabilitated in 1949 in the wake of Washington’s Cold War ‘reverse course’, which saw a purge of leftists from positions of any power and the release from prison of thousands of wartime officials. Kishi re-emerged as a key link between Japan’s wartime leaders and the postwar elite that coalesced (or re-coalesced) in the 1950s. Armed with cia funds, he went on to forge an alliance of the two principal conservative parties in 1955, forestalling an election that might otherwise have been won by the left-wing Japan Socialist Party. The Liberal Democratic Party that Kishi midwifed would maintain a lock on Japan’s parliamentary system for half a century.

Kishi became Prime Minister himself in 1957, following a stroke that felled his predecessor.footnote1 Laying the foundations for Japan’s postwar lunge for economic prosperity involved three interconnected tasks; all three had to be accomplished for any of them to succeed. The first task was to insulate decision-makers in the great ministerial and corporate bureaucracies against political interference from below. This meant not only establishing a party system that excluded the left from power but breaking organized labour which in the 1950s constituted a formidable threat. The government deployed coercive sticks—a tenth of Japan’s entire police force was dispatched to end the 1960 Mitsui Miike strike, in retrospect organized labour’s last great hurrah—but also used carrots: life-long economic security for core male employees, enforced by the Labour and Justice Ministries.

The second task was to ensure that rogue elements of the bureaucracy could not hijack the entire set-up, as had happened in the 1930s. Several means emerged to neutralize potentially destabilizing power-seekers, among them the manufacture of scandals typically selected by the public prosecutor and amplified in the broadsheet press. But the most important involved depriving any bureaucratic entity of untrammeled access to the means of physical coercion. The American Occupation had already begun the process by breaking up the all-powerful Interior Ministry and the kempeitai (thought police); the National Police Agency was lodged in the Cabinet Office, rather than in one of the more powerful ministries. Meanwhile, the potentia of a standing army had been removed by the terms of the 1951 Security Treaty, under which Japan’s defence and the conduct of its foreign relations—two of the four powers (along with the power to tax and issue money) which commonly define a state—had been assumed by an external entity, the United States.

Which brings us to the third of the interconnected tasks: ensuring the perpetuation of Japan’s de facto status as a protectorate of the us. This was a tricky matter since a large proportion—perhaps a majority—of Japan’s population didn’t want it. The dissident right chafed under Tokyo’s subordination to Washington and resented the various democratic reforms imposed by the American Occupation during its early, ‘liberal’ days. Meanwhile, the left was enjoying a historic peak in its influence. Professors, teachers, public intellectuals, journalists for the quality press—not to mention millions of factory and office workers—were for the most part ardent socialists. Sympathetic to the Chinese Revolution and the anti-colonial forces sweeping the Third World, they wanted nothing to do with a us that they saw as a reactionary, repressive force, and which they blamed for reinstating the very people who had dragged Japan into war.

But the American embrace had become essential for the political order that Kishi and his allies had built. Not only did the American nuclear umbrella provide for Japan’s security without debilitating domestic debates and vast military expenditure, but the us offered Japanese companies access to a seemingly infinite external market, allowing Japan to rise to industrial pre-eminence with exports as the key engine of demand. In return, Washington demanded that the left be kept away from power, lip-service support for American foreign-policy goals—no recognition of Mao’s government in Beijing—and a string of us military bases on Japanese soil. These Kishi and his cohort were content to provide. They weren’t totally happy about it; they would have preferred a Japan that could throw its weight around with impunity. But, chastened by defeat, these men were realists. Full recovery of Japan’s sovereignty and the dismantling of the postwar settlement—subordination to Washington and the various reforms that the Occupation had imposed—could wait until the time was right. True, Kishi was forced to use the most high-handed methods to secure formal approval of the renewed Security Treaty in 1960. While more than a million people took to the streets of Tokyo in protest, Kishi sent police onto the floor of the Diet to help him ram it through. In the face of the rage sweeping Japan, he had no choice but to step down as prime minister; but he would remain a formidable éminence grise into the 1980s.

But the world was changing. The international ‘shocks’ of the 1970s, as Nixon revoked the Bretton Woods agreement and levied tariffs on Japanese goods, provided the opportunity for a challenger to the mandarin elite that had dominated the postwar order. A farmer’s son and self-made construction millionaire, Tanaka Kakuei exploited the Achilles’ heel of the system Kishi had devised: the need to win elections in a gerrymandered system that conferred a disproportional electoral voice on rural districts. The class of people he championed—farmers and rural construction companies—became the prime beneficiaries of the rivers of spending he pried out of the official bureaucracy. Although Tanaka only occupied the Kantei—official residence of Japan’s Prime Minister—from 1972 till 1974, when he was forced out by a scandal, he used his consummate back-room skills to direct Japanese politics for the next decade, in the process earning the title yami shogun (shadow shogun) from the Japanese media. Every prime minister from 1978 through 2000 was anointed by Tanaka or one of his disciples, following the stroke he suffered in 1986. These men were generally content with the existing order, including Japan’s subordination to Washington.