Ex-lower house vice speaker Kozo Watanabe dies at 88

Kozo Watanabe, former vice speaker of the House of Representatives and a major figure in Japanese political life who served in key Cabinet posts such as trade minister, died of old age at 2:08 a.m. on Aug. 23 at a hospital in Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. He was 88. His home address is 14-51 Joto-machi, Aizuwakamatsu. Funeral services were held with only his close relatives in attendance. The chief mourner is his eldest son Tsuneo, senior researcher at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. A public memorial is planned for some time in the future. Born in the now-defunct town of Tajima (now encapsulated in the town of Minamiaizu) in 1932, Watanabe proceeded from Aizu Senior High School to Waseda University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences (then known as the first faculty of letters), where he honed his oratorical skills as a member of the Yubenkai (debating club), which has produced many politicians. He debuted in the political world in 1959 when he was elected a prefectural assembly member for the first time. After serving two terms there, he won his first National Diet seat in the 1969 House of Representatives election, running in the prefecture’s old second electorate on an independent ticket. He later obtained retroactive endorsement from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as a party candidate. He was elected to the lower house 14 straight times until retiring in 2012. Watanabe served as parliamentary vice minister of trade and of education, and chairman of the lower house’s Committee on Commerce and Industry (now Committee on Economy, Trade and Industry), among other posts, before becoming health and welfare minister in the second Cabinet of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone inaugurated in December 1983. He was appointed home affairs minister and concurrently chairman of the National Public Safety Commission in the first Cabinet of Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu launched in August 1989. He was later named chairman of the Budget Committee in the lower house and, in the first Cabinet of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa sworn in in November 1991, assumed what was believed to be one of the top three Cabinet posts, the minister of international trade and industry, working to resolve Japan-U.S. trade disputes. While holding that ministerial portfolio, he chaired a quadrilateral trade ministers’ meeting hosted in the village of Kitashiobara, Fukushima Prefecture, in April 1992. In the ruling camp, Watanabe supported Kakuei Tanaka as a member of the LDP’s major faction led by the former prime minister and, later, played an active role in the political community as one of “the seven leading figures” of a faction headed by former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. In 1993, he left the LDP, seeking to realize a two-party system, and established Shinseito (Japan Renewal Party) together with other deserters, including kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa and Tsutomu Hata. After the new party merged with small other parties to become Shinshinto (New Frontier Party), Watanabe assumed the chairmanship of the party’s political and general affairs councils as well as the post of deputy party leader. He later acted as a supreme adviser to the new but now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Boasting a broad network of personal connections with both the ruling and opposition camps, he was vice speaker of the lower house from 1996 to 2003, logging the longest term of office in that post adding up to 2,498 days. When Watanabe became chairman of the DPJ’s Diet affairs committee in 2006, he attracted widespread popularity for his soft-spoken narrative in the Aizu dialect, earning the nickname of “Komon-sama in the Heisei era (1989-2019),” likened to “Mito Komon,” a retired feudal lord featured in the popular namesake TV period drama series. He was instrumental in the historic takeover of the reins of government by the DPJ in 2009. In the spring of 2003, Watanabe was decorated with Japan’s top honor, the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun. He is an uncle of former Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato. In his later years, Watanabe often strolled in the Tsuruga Castle park near his home, responding to tourists’ calls in a friendly manner. He saw his health break down two years ago, spending the last days of his life in and out of hospital, according to his relatives. ■Great contributor to Fukushima: Gov. Uchibori Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori issued the following statement over the death of Watanabe: I received the news of the passing of Mr. Kozo Watanabe with a great surprise and, at the same time, with deep regret. Until retiring from the political world in 2012, he faced up to an array of difficult situations always with “Aizu-damashii” (the Aizu spirit) of “No means no.” He made great contributions to the development of Fukushima Prefecture and of this nation with outstanding wisdom and lofty faith. I pledge to continue the challenging work of creating “newly born Fukushima” with full might, keeping firmly in mind Mr. Watanabe’s passion for Fukushima’s reconstruction and re-creation. I hereby express my heartfelt condolences. 【Photo】Kozo Watanabe tells of his desire to steer Diet affairs smoothly as new vice speaker of the House of Representatives in an interview in November 1996. (Translated by Kyodo News)