Shadow Shogun Steps Into Light, to Change Japan

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AT day's end, it was perhaps one of the few things over which he held no sway, the relentless logic of aging, that made Tsuneo Watanabe, Japan's most powerful media baron, decide to step out of the shadows.

He has recently granted long, soul-baring interviews in which he has questioned the rising nationalism he has cultivated so assiduously in the pages of his newspaper, the conservative Yomiuri — the world's largest, with a circulation of 14 million. Now, he talks about the need to acknowledge Japan's violent wartime history and reflects on his wife's illness and his own, as well as the joys of playing with his new hamsters.

Struck by his own sense of mortality, Mr. Watanabe seems ruffled that his power may be waning. He has railed against Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who he says just doesn't listen to him anymore. "Before, early on, he used to listen to me sometimes," Mr. Watanabe told a television interviewer.

During a two-hour interview at his office, where, in addition to the paper, he presides over Japan's most popular baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants, and the rest of the Yomiuri Media Group's empire, he puffed on one of the three pipes on the coffee table before him. He was a man in a hurry, in a hurry to change Japan, no less, by forcing it to confront, understand and judge its wartime conduct — and set it on the correct path as his testament to the nation. "I'll be 80 years old this year," he said. "I have very little time left."

His first move was to publish an editorial last June criticizing Mr. Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, the Shinto memorial where 14 Class A war criminals, including the wartime prime minister, Hideki Tojo, are deified. It was an about-face for The Yomiuri, which had tended to react viscerally against foreign criticism of the Yasukuni visits.

Indeed, the paper was a main force in pushing for the more muscular nationalism now emerging in Japan. Shortly after becoming editor in chief in 1991, Mr. Watanabe set up a committee to revise the American-imposed pacifist Constitution. If MacArthur's Constitution emasculated Japan by forbidding it to have a real military, Mr. Watanabe's Constitution, published in 1994, restored its manhood. Now, it seems only a matter of time until Japan completes the process that Mr. Watanabe started years ago. Still, he seems troubled by some aspects of the nationalist movement he helped engender. The editorial, which reflected his worries about Japan's relations with its Asian neighbors, sent shock waves through the political world. It called for the building of a secular alternative to the shrine and said Mr. Koizumi did not understand history.

Mr. Koizumi worships at a shrine that glorifies militarism, said Mr. Watanabe, who equates Tojo with Hitler. He added, "This person Koizumi doesn't know history or philosophy, doesn't study, doesn't have any culture. That's why he says stupid things, like, 'What's wrong about worshiping at Yasukuni?' Or, 'China and Korea are the only countries that criticize Yasukuni.' This stems from his ignorance."

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