Thursday, December 28, 2006

Talk about Them Old Times: the New Administrative Reforms Minister and His Father

Much has been made of Shinzo Abe's desire, or need, to complete the unfulfilled legacy of his father Shintaro Abe, who came this close to becoming prime minister when he succumbed in 1991 to cancer. The elder Abe was not alone in suffering that fate though. Four years later, a heart attack also silenced his contemporary and once-rival Michio Watanabe.

Mr. Watanabe had begun having health problems around the time the elder Abe died, and the LDP had gone into temporary decline during the Hosokawa and Murayama administrations. Thus, the political prospects of the septuagenarian were no longer looking so rosy in 1995 when he departed for that Great Big Diet in the Sky. But in the dry winter of 1985, between cabinet jobs, when he visited Brazil for a fortnight, he was in the prime of his health. It was then that I traveled with him and his entourage as embassy watchdog/gofer/interpreter. (I had been in Brazil for five months then.)

This was definitely not one of those Diet-in-recess "survey missions" that seem to have little effect on subsequent political deliberations. Nor was Mr. Watanabe there, as was the wont of many a politician who visited Brazil and other parts of Latin America, to curry favor with the local Japanese immigrant community from his electoral district (more broadly the prefecture-based kenjinkai). No: for his more or less annual, decidedly private trips usually avoided Sao Paulo and Rio neighborhood, where the bulk of the Japanese immigrant and business communities lived. Instead he would typically make a beeline to Brasilia, look up a couple political figures, then take a four-hour drive on a dusty road to the little town of Paracatu, in whose neighborhood a small, predominantly Japanese agricultural community prospered, and spent a couple of days mixing with the locals. He looked more like the Don back in his hometown of Corleone than anything else. And in a very real way, he was the Godfather of that community. This trip was not much of an exception; he would be making the rounds of a couple of Japanese-Brazilian joint ventures, but the last leg of the trip would definitely be the beloved immigrant community of Paracatu.

Mr. Watanabe's connection with Brazil that led to his ties to that little Japanese immigrant community in Paracatu began when he became Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Mnister in 1978. He took a serious interest in the Cerrado Development Project, which used development loans, grants and other official development assistance from Japan for an irrigation and agricultural project of immense proportions. (Note: The project itself was a success, but the overall Brazilian public and external debt grew to enormous, ultimately unsustainable proportions, and the project did not escape the fallout.) Adjacent to the Cerrado Project site but not part of the project proper, Japanese agricultural cooperatives cleared a much small patch of land and settled several hundred Japanese immigrant farmers there. But this smaller, private-sector project went through some rough patches in its early years, threatening its viability. So, to make a long story short, the farmers contacted Mr. Watanabe, who had become Finance Minster in the meantime, a loan came through from a Japanese agency, and the project was saved and was firmly on its feet by the time I had arrived in Brasilia in March 1985. Mr. Watanabe never made a big deal about this, and no wonder; he stood to gain little from immigrant feedback to his particular home electoral constituency. But he seemed to have fallen in love with those immigrants, and they with him.

Going back to my travels with Mr. Watanabe, I had never met the man, but he had a well-deserved reputation as a hothead, as quick with his brawn as with his brains, a man with a big ideas and a bigger mouth that sometimes got him into trouble. Compared to the suave, impeccably pedigreed Abe the elder, he was a noisy, gauche upstart. Or so we thought. What I saw up close was a very different side of the man.

True, his legendary ability to work a crowd was in full view when he took on the immigrant crowd. The middle-aged ladies and the elderly in particular all but drooled over him. But up close, one on one, he was retiring, almost shy at times, especially with young women, when he had to really force himself hard to make a stab at small talk. In unguarded moments during our travels, he would let on that what we saw was what we really got, he was definitely not the glad-handing type and that he had a hard time remembering names and faces. He did not go out of his way to thank us at every turn, but he never lorded it over us either. In fact, although he never said much about it, he always seemed quietly appreciative of the ways we all tried to anticipate accommodate his wishes. Two incidents stand out in this respect.

At one of our stops, we took more than an hour to check of our hotel, and the schedule had to be knocked back accordingly. Now politicians can be, if anything, an impatient, sometimes impetuous breed who believe that the Sun revolves around them and them only. He is not unusual the politician who would have bawled out the hotel management, his entourage and the government flack of the moment, on this occasion and not necessarily in that order. So imagine my relief when Mr. Watanabe merely mumbled to his secretaries, "Don't let this happen the next time around", and that was the end of it. But this paled in comparison to the next incident.

The four-hour drive to Paracatu is not a particularly scenic or, for Mr. Watanabe, an unfamiliar one. Moreover, this was the last leg of the trip, and we had been all over the huge Brazilian map. Thus, Mr. Watanabe had chartered a small twin-engine plane to fly him and his two secretaries there, and I would join them, presumably as the embassy dignitary-cum-interpreter. The rest of the entourage would drive ahead of the plane, and wait for the plane at the Parcatu airport. Now, with us at the time was the widow of a Paracatu community leader who had recently met his death on the road from Paracatu to Brazil and whose gave we were going to visit. I, in all sincerity, gave up my seat to the widow, and vaguely remember feeling good about myself for doing so.

The Paracatu airport turned out to be little more than a large clearing exposing the red, porous Cerrado soil, a gateless fence separating the airstrip from the dirt road that had taken us there, and a cabana-like bar that doubled as the airport terminal of sorts. We did not have to wait very long for the plane to arrive; first the sound of the propellers, then the plane itself coming into sight. As the plane neared to make its landing, I was distracted and looked away, so I did not see the plane as it was about to touch down. Then all of a sudden, there was a noisy rattle; I look around in surprise, to see the plane going up and away, while everybody else made a commotion. The plane soon returned, this time to land safely. When the plane stopped, we approached; and the visibly shaken secretaries were the first to emerge, then the widow, then finally, Mr. Watanabe himself, subdued, but clearly the most calm and collected of all. One good look at the plane, and we saw a slender protrusion from the fuselage had been bent; worse, one of the propellers had been bent at a sharp angle. A inch or two, one way or other, and the plane would surely have flipped and tumbled all over that dirt patch, at best horribly injuring the occupants and likely worse. The first time around, the pilot had tried to land without lowering the landing gear. He claimed that everything had indicated that the landing gear had been released the first time around. Mr. Watanabe was not amused. He told his secretaries to get to the bottom of this. But that was that for the moment. We continued on with our schedule, Mr. Watanabe acting as if nothing untoward had happened, duly visiting the grave of the community leader, enjoyed an evening cookout at one of the immigrant farmhouses, then retired to another farmhouse where a young recent immigrant couple close to the Watanabe family lived.

So, a couple of days later, we are back in Brasilia, and it nearing the time for Mr. Watanabe and his entourage to leave, their kokoro no sentaku (laundry of the heart) over. It is then that they are talking about the Paracatu accident and I overhear Mr. Watanbe say, "Harattoite yare (Pay them the charter fee)".

Bless you, Mr. Watanabe, wherever you are.

Most of you reading this blog will know that Mr. Watanabe's son is Yoshimi Watanabe, who replaced the ill-fated Genichiro Sada as Administrative Reforms Minister today. And yes, he was a member of that entourage. He handled the logistics jointly as one of two secretaries to Mr. Watanabe. The other secretary was on leave from the insurance company where he was regularly employed; as far as I could gather, he and the younger Watanabe seemed to have been college buddies. The younger Watanabe was in his early thirties then, but still had the unformed feel of someone not long out of college. His buddy/co-secretary appeared to be the slightly dominant figure in this friendship. Easy-going and good-natured, the unspoiled and youthful bachelor at the time did not display the Seisaku Shinjinrui (Policy-Wonk New Breed) gift of the gab of his later, Diet years. The younger Watanbe and I had dinner once in 1988, together with other members of the embassy who returned to Japan that year, but I haven't talked to him since.

So, this time, it's Mr. Watanabe's chance to see if he can catch lightning in a bottle. That will be difficult, if not impossible. He doesn't have an abductees issue to grab (or the issue to grab him, if you prefer to put it that way), a Koizumi to push him to the front of the line, or that Abe charm that felt so cool in small doses. That's a lot of strikes already. And, unlike Mr. Abe's previous Cabinet Chief post, the Administrative Reform portfolio will bring to bear great pressure on him to show real and meaningful progress.

(Note: I recall accompanying the Watanabes on another trip in 1986, likely after yet another of those annual cabinet shuffles that were the de rigeur of the times. I was making myself useful, I suppose. Thus, I may have conflating events from two trips.)


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