A file photo of US President Ronald Reagan (L) and Japanese Premier Yasuhiro Nakasone in Venice prior the opening of the Leading Industrial Countries Summit. Nakasone passed away on Friday aged 101. Photo: AFP/Mike Sargent

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, an ardent conservative who worked to forge a stronger military alliance with the United States, died on Friday at the age of 101, an official at his son’s office said.

In office for five years from November 1982 to November 1987, Nakasone was known for trying to transform the nation defeated in World War II into a full-fledged member of the West during the Cold War era.

His efforts to strengthen security ties with Washington came at a time of intensifying trade friction with the United States, the world’s biggest economy.

Describing Washington as “the most important partner for Japan,” he built a friendship with then-President Ronald Reagan. In a country where dignity dictates that first-name relationships be entered into sparingly, he encouraged the news media to celebrate “the Ron-Yasu relationship.”

His willingness, even determination, to show himself different from run of the mill, stodgy Japanese politicians won him more popularity with the public than within his own party, some said.

When interviewers for Newsweek magazine asked about that in January 1986, Nakasone replied: “I have deliberately been carrying out political affairs using a new method. Given the fact that we now live in an information-oriented age, the impact of the mass media is enormous. The people at large have been moving much more rapidly than the party machinery or the party caucuses. By catching this rhythm I have been putting forth the kind of policy that can live up to the expectations and desires of the people at large.”

Officials at the office of his son Hirofumi Nakasone, who is a member of the Japanese parliament’s upper house, confirmed the ex-premier’s death, with one of them saying he died Friday, without offering further details.

He broke post-World War II taboos in Japan by deciding to provide military technology to the US and scrapping the cap on the nation’s annual defense budget.

Seen as a security hawk and a nationalist, Nakasone’s positions on defense angered left-wingers in Japan, at a time when anti-war sentiments were even stronger than today after the defeat in World War II.

Echoing the “Reaganomics” policies of the American president, Nakasone privatized national enterprises such as railway and telephone operators, leaning in favor of the free market and a small state.

He also left his mark on Japan’s relations with neighbors China and South Korea, which have been haunted by wartime history.

He was the first Japanese prime minister to visit South Korea, which had been under Tokyo’s colonial rule from 1910 to the end of World War II in 1945.

In 1985, he visited a controversial war shrine but did not go the next year after China strongly criticized the move as an attempt to whitewash history.

He stepped down as prime minister in 1987 as support for his government plummeted after he tried to introduce a large-scale indirect tax system.

Declining to fade away quietly, he made himself accessible to visitors seeking samples of his views and his dry, cosmopolitan humor.

As an example of the latter, the Japanese term for prime minister is sori daijin. Nakasone liked to quip, punning off a song about love from the movie Love Story, thatLeaving the prime minister’s office means never having to say you’re sori.”

– With reporting by AFP

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