Sayonara, Shinzo Abe

The prime minister of Japan is resigning. Will his successor be the great-great-grandson of the "Bismarck of Japan"?

Published September 12, 2007 6:03PM (EDT)

You do not get more connected than Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Taro Aso, a leading candidate to be the next prime minister of Japan. He is the grandson of one prime minister -- Shigeru Yoshida, who negotiated the peace treaty ending World War II -- and the son-in-law of another, Zenko Suzuki. His father was close to Kakuei Tanaka, Japan's most powerful postwar prime minister, and his younger sister is married to the first cousin of Emperor Akihito.

And to top it all off, he is the great-great grandson of Okubo Toshimichi, one of the most fascinating figures in modern Japanese history. Okubo was a key leader of Japan's Meiji Reformation, which ended the 240-year rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and ushered in a period of rapid government-directed modernization. For industrial policy fans, the Meiji Reformation sets the gold standard.

Called by one biographer "the Bismarck of Japan," Okubo was a samurai who ended up forbidding Japan's samurai from wearing their swords in public. He was a leader of a rebellion from Satsuma who ended up crushing another rebellion, also from Satsuma, while leading an army of government conscripts. Perhaps more responsible than any other single man for helping Japan escape Western imperialist domination, he was assassinated at age 48 by clansmen who believed he had betrayed his own domain and the samurai class.

Looking for clues as to how Japan so rapidly climbed into the top rank of the world powers? Check out Okubo's late 19th century travel itinerary. From 1871 to 1873, he and a handful of other top officials toured the world on fact-finding mission.

Courts, prisons, schools, trading firms, factories, and shipyards, iron foundries, sugar refineries, paper plants, wool and cotton spinning and weaving, silver, cutlery, and glass plants, and salt mines, . . . there is nowhere we haven't gone," he wrote.

In his "Memorandum on the Promotion of Production and Encouragement of Industry" he laid out a manifesto that challenges today's free trade, free market orthodoxy.

It is therefore the duty of state officials, wholeheartedly and skillfully on the basis of actual conditions, to encourage industry and increase production and thus secure the foundation of wealth and strength without delay ... First of all, those responsible for the nation's subjects must take great care to determine the way, appropriate to the country's ways and customs and taking into account the people's temperament and knowledge, to conduct all affairs, from the [handling of] profits of industrial production to the operation of vessels used in land and maritime transport, that may be involved in the urgent task of protecting the people.

So can we ascertain any clues as to Aso's likely managment style from this illustrious pedigree? Okubo Toshimichi and his compatriots were in part motivated by a desire to escape the "unequal treaties" forced upon them by foreign powers. Would Aso likewise try to revise Japan's American-influenced constitution? There's no doubt that he is considered a hard-liner likely to push for a greater global security role for Japan. But let's hope he hasn't spent too much time poring over his great-great-grandfather's life.

In an 1867 letter co-written by Okubo and his Satsuma compatriot Saigo Takamori, sent to Iwakura Tomomi, a leading figure at the imperial court, on the topic of "the Imperial Restoration," Okubo wrote:

"When with great resolve, a policy of establishing the foundation for the imperial restoration is proclaimed, there is bound to be a great deal of confusion. People have been contaminated by the old habit of settling down into the more than two hundred years of peace. If we decide to resort to arms, it can conversely have the salutary effect of renewing the spirit of all people under Heaven, and pacifying the central regions of the country. Therefore we deem it the most urgent task to decide for war, and to find victory in the most difficult situation."

One last note. Taro Aso is well known to be a huge fan of Japanese manga and anime. And why not? His great-great-grandfather is a recurring figure in at least one popular serial.

UPDATE: Hilariously, shares of anime and manga related stocks surged on the news.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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