Early Years: The Road to a Political Career

When Keizo Obuchi began his political career in 1963 by winning a seat in the House of Representatives, he was just 26 years old, one year over the required age of 25 for candidates. This made him the youngest member ever elected to Japan's national legislature. Here is the story of how he grew up as a youth and student to enter the political arena at such a young age.

Birth in a pastoral setting
Obuchi was born in the town of Nakanojo in Gunma Prefecture on June 25, 1937. Nakanojo, located about 130 kilometers north of Tokyo, is roughly in the middle of Japan's main island of Honshu, and it is in a verdant setting surrounded by mountains. Gunma is known as a cradle of modern Japan's sericulture--the raising of silkworms for producing raw silk--and Kohei Obuchi, the Prime Minister's father, was the manager of a silk mill. Keizo was the second son of Kohei and his wife Chiyo.

In each of his six years of elementary school, Keizo served as president of his class. He went from elementary school to a local middle school but then, at the age of 13, transferred to a private middle school in Tokyo at the urging of his father, who was then serving as a member of the House or Representatives. Since then the Prime Minister has made Tokyo his home.

Preparing for a political career
Upon finishing high school, Obuchi was admitted to Waseda University in 1958, where he enrolled in the School of Literature. Having dreamed from his high school days of taking up a role on the international stage, Obuchi opted to major in English literature. But when his father died suddenly in 1958 at the age of 54, after having been elected to the lower house for the second time, Obuchi resolved to carry on his father's mission by entering the world of politics.

The first step he took was to join Waseda's speech club, which had served as a launching pad for notable political figures like Noboru Takeshita (prime minister, 1987-89). As the club's public relations representative, his accomplishments included the arrangement of a public debate among candidates for the governorship of Tokyo. He also took part in other extracurricular activities, including aikido training and body building, with the aim of developing skills and strengths that would help him become a successful politician.

Nakanojo, Obuchi's home town, seen today

Climbing Mount Fuji as a high school student

Obuchi began practicing aikido
at age 22 to build his body for
the stresses of a political career.
Solo tour of the world

While in Berlin,
Obuchi earned money by working as
a TV camera crew assistant.

After receiving his B.A. from Waseda in March 1962, Obuchi went on to pursue graduate studies in political science at the same university. But his desire to learn more about politics in the hope of becoming a politician himself was not satisfied by academic studies, and so at age 25 Obuchi set off on a trip around the world by himself to see conditions in various countries with his own eyes.

Obuchi departed in January 1963. His first destination was Okinawa, a Japanese territory that was then under the administration of the United States. From there he went on to Taiwan, Thailand, Pakistan, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the Middle East, Africa, Europe, North America, and South America. His solo travels, which lasted nine months, took him to 38 countries.

The world in 1963 was in the midst of the East-West cold war that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union. Japanese people still required special permission to travel overseas, and Obuchi's trip was more like an adventure than a tour. Carrying just one suitcase, he had to work as he traveled to help cover his expenses. He ran especially low on money while he was in Europe, and so he took on a variety of jobs, such as dishwasher and assistant aikido instructor. The most physically demanding was his work as a TV camera crew assistant in Berlin, which was then a focal point of the East-West confrontation. Obuchi's job was to run along with the TV crew lugging a heavy camera battery day after day; strong as he was, he could hardly stand by the time the day's work was done.

world map The young Obuchi's travels
took him from Asia to Africa,
Europe, and the Americas.
(The course shown here has
been somewhat abbreviated
for simplicity.)

Meeting with Robert Kennedy
Robert Kennedy
Robert Kennedy's address to Waseda University
The highlight of Obuchi's travels was his meeting with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Obuchi did not have any special connection or letter of introduction to rely on. Instead he composed a letter of his own requesting the chance to have a meeting, and he carried it in person to Kennedy's secretary's office. In the letter he described how impressed he had been to hear the Attorney General speak at Waseda during his visit to Japan in February 1962.

A week later, when Obuchi had half given up on being able to meet Kennedy, he got a call from the Attorney General's secretary telling him, "The Attorney General says he will meet you." Going to the Department of Justice at the appointed time on the following day, Obuchi was greeted warmly by Kennedy, who thanked him for listening to his speech and encouraged him to pursue his dream of a political career: "Tomorrow belongs to young people like you. Let's meet again in Washington after you become a politician," Kennedy said, and presented him a tie clasp commemorating the election of his brother John F. Kennedy as president.

Deeply impressed by Kennedy's openness, the young Obuchi resolved that when he became a politician, he would maintain his accessibility and be ready to meet anybody.

Obuchi went on to visit South America, and in September 1963 he returned to Japan. In November of the same year he ran for election to the Japanese House of Representatives, and he won, becoming the youngest candidate elected.

Obuchi's nine-month trip around the world, marked by his meeting with Robert Kennedy and a wealth of other experiences, may be termed the starting point of his career as a politician, which started formally with his election to the Diet at age 26.
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Photos courtesy of Munakata Satoshi, Kyodo News, and Kyusyu Asahi-Broadcasting.