Media Mix, May 6, 2012

The cover of Atsuko’s book, “Aki: The Woman Who Lived With Kakuei Tanaka”

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about a supposedly “hidden child” that Ichiro Ozawa fathered two decades ago. As explained in the column, kakushigo is a fairly popular subject for tabloid and even not-so-tabloid journalists. Consequently, some stories become so freely reported that “hidden” seems the wrong adjective. Coincident with the Bunshun story about Ozawa’s kid is the publication of a book by Atsuko Sato about her late mother, Aki, who was the consort of Ozawa’s mentor, Kakuei Tanaka, probably Japan’s most powerful postwar prime minister and the master of the sort of money-politics that still dominates the Diet.

Everybody seems to know that Tanaka was Atsuko’s father, but the Niigata kingpin never legally acknowledged her. In the book she reveals that he often visited her as a child, lavishing cash and gifts on her, and expressing his affection unconditionally. Though she called him “uncle,” she thought of him as her father. As she grew up, he gave her “more money than I could spend” and always sent her a postcard whenever he went overseas. He was hardly the aloof man on the edge of her life, which is how Ozawa is characterized by Bunshun in relation to his hidden child. If anything, Tanaka overdid it. But then, Tanaka’s relationship to Aki was another open secret. As Atsuko explains, Aki was more than just Tanaka’s lover. She was his most trusted secretary, carrying out the distribution of cash that was so essential to his power. She accompanied him everywhere, flying first class alongside him. Journalists knew all about her even if they didn’t write about their relationship.

But despite Atsuko’s “princess life” the pressure of not having a legitimate father weighed on her and she eventually rebelled and fell into emotional turmoil. She rejected her mother and they were estranged. Atsuko became a bar hostess and attempted suicide several times. In a sense, the reason for her anxiety was borne out after Tanaka died and left Aki nothing. She was alone, broke, and in her later years chronically ill. Atsuko and Aki were finally reconciled shortly before the latter’s death, after which Atsuko retraced her mother’s life and wrote this book. Obviously, there is score-settling involved, not to mention an expected melodramatic and self-serving take on all the events she describes; but what’s mainly interesting about Atsuko’s story is that all this stuff is hardly a surprise to anyone.

That’s because everyone already knows why Atsuko remained unacknowledged and Aki died penniless. Former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, Kakuei’s daughter and only natural heir, made sure neither ever happened, at least after it became in her power to prevent them. Following Kakuei’s debilitating stroke in 1985 Makiko assumed command of the Tanaka household and barred any contact between her father and his two mistresses and their children (he had another “family” in the Kagurazaka district of Tokyo). It’s generally assumed that Makiko also made sure none of these previous dependents received any of the vast Tanaka estate, all of which came under Makiko’s control when Kakuei died. An ironic footnote to all this family intrigue is that some commentators have said that Tanaka wanted his acolyte, Ichiro Ozawa, to marry Makiko when they were younger, though this sounds more like wishful thinking on the part of tabloid political reporters. As pointed out in the column, Tanaka eventually arranged for Ozawa to marry the daughter of a powerful supporter, while Makiko married Naoki Suzuki, the hapless lawmaker who is now the defense minister and under fire for his supposed lack of expertise in the field. As everyone knows, Naoki changed his name to Tanaka when Kakuei adopted him so that the latter could have a male heir, thus putting Makiko in the odd position of being married to her legal brother. But while some may naturally assume this marriage was completely carried out for political expediency, apparently Makiko and Naoki really were soulmates, and likely it was Makiko’s idea to have Naoki adopted so as to further consolidate her grip on the Tanaka legacy. After all, each legally acknowledged offspring receives an equal share of a patriarch’s estate.

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