When word first leaked out that Kakuei Tanaka, 68, had refused to see ruling party Secretary General Noboru Takeshita when he tried to pay a New Year's day visit to the Tokyo residence of the recuperating former prime minister, political analysts in Japan were intrigued. It is obvious that this event (or perhaps non-event) is important in speculating about the successors of the present Japanese premier, Yasuhiro Nakasone, who currently is expected to step down on Oct. 30 or before.
Few modern Japanese politicians have been more powerful than the colorful Mr. Tanaka who even today controls the largest (141 members) faction within the Liberal Democratic Party despite a stroke he suffered two years ago - and the fact that he was found guilty on Oct. 12, 1983 of charges that he accepted $2 million in bribes from Lockheed Aircraft Corp. between 1972 and 1973 for his alleged assistance in promoting the sale of long-range TriStar jetliners to All Nippon Airways, Japan's second biggest commercial airline.Mr. Tanaka, presently waiting for the Tokyo High Court to hand down a decision on his appeal of that decision, served as prime minister from January 1972 to December 1974. Although he was sentenced to four years in prison and fined $2 million, he has consistently insisted on his innocence and remains free on bail.
As kingmaker" of Japan's political world, the self-made millionaire continues to enjoy enormous clout; he was instrumental, for instance, in putting into power at least three men: incumbent Prime Minister Nakasone and his two immediate predecessors - Zenko Suzuki and Masayoshi Ohira.
And even though he lost his job as a direct result of the Lockheed scandal, the diminutive Mr. Tanaka has lost none of his feistiness and his upcoming decisions doubtless will play a key role in the future race for the next party president, who automatically also will become Japan's prime minister in view of the LDP'S strong majority in the nation's parliament.
Since Mr. Takeshita is one of three LDP leaders striving for the premiership - the others being Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and the party's Executive Council chairman, Shintaro Abe - the rejection of his visit to Mr. Tanaka's residence had Japanese political watchers buzzing. Therefore, the question emerges whether the skillful behind-the-scenes power manipulator hopes to return to the the country's political limelight at some point.
Of course, much will depend upon the fate of Mr. Tanaka's appeal to the Tokyo High Court and the extent of his ultimate recovery from the effects of his stroke. For the moment, however, it is evident that his views are listened to by many within his faction - if not exactly by all of its members.
Under Japan's parliamentary system, only elected members of the two houses of the legislature are permitted to vote for candidates for their own party's presidency when such decisions come down to the wire.
Japan's political maverick, even though he long ago resigned his seat in parliament, clearly remains able to keep his opponents on their toes. Obviously many of them outside his faction remain fed up if not outraged by his persistent political interference. One LDP leader (not a member of the Tanaka faction) recently put it bluntly when he remarked: One day or another, he's going to have to quit and really retire completely from the nation's politics."
Maybe so. But for the moment there is no sign that the doughty Mr. Tanaka has any such intention. Instead, he is maintaining the usual pressures and insists upon attempting to dominate his party, evidently winning concessions along the way for his faithful supporters. This is no laughing matter for the LDP's other factions, of course, at least as long as he remains a political force to be reckoned with.
If recent events are any dependable omen, Mr. Tanaka's opponents among LDP elders will have a long wait, especially since the ailing one-time poor country boy appears to be recovering nicely (thank you) and at some point may be able to actively resume his position as the computerized bulldozer" of Japanese politics. Nonetheless, there is no realistic talk (for the moment) in Tokyo's political circles of Mr. Tanaka becoming the country's prime minister once again. It is considered possible but not probable.
Still, the horse trader's son with only a grade-school education is a shrewd politician and a definite pragmatist - and thus almost impossible to predict since he has no predetermined commitments and no visible creed except power.
For all that, the cunning Mr. Tanaka realizes that his absence from the political battle line has left his faction less than completely unified, largely as a result of persistent doubts about his eventual return. This situation has divided his massive faction into three groups, with the strongest one led by Mr. Takeshita, the same politician the power broker surprisingly refused to see on New Year's day.
Other faction leaders were admitted to the Tanaka residence at that time it should be noted. This development clearly has complicated matters for Mr. Takeshita and his followers within the faction and actually caused many of them to judiciously rethink their own positions. This is especially so since this action was preceded toward the end of 1986 by a distribution of substantial political funds from the tenacious Mr. Tanaka's own seemingly endless coffers through the anointed faction chairman, Susumi Nikaido, and, pointedly, not through Mr. Takeshita.
Whatever the case, the patient Mr. Takeshita remains slightly ahead of his two conservative competitors in the drive for the premiership due to his important position as the ruling party's secretary general.
Yet this obviously could change rapidly over the coming months - unless he is somehow able to patch up whatever mysterious differences he has with Japan's sequestered kingmaker.