Takashi Tachibana. Photo: Bungei-Shunju

Takashi Tachibana, whom many fellow journalists would rank as the best of his era in Japan, has died in Tokyo at age 80 after a long illness, his family told Asia Times. Immediate cause of death was acute coronary syndrome.

Tachibana became famous nearly five decades ago thanks to a hugely publicized investigative reporting project. Then, like the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward after Watergate, the reporter refused to rest on his laurels. He continued for decades to produce leading edge journalism, scholarship and criticism.

Tachibana’s leadership of monthly magazine Bungei-Shunju’s project involving relentless investigative digging in open sources is often credited as having played a major role in bringing down Kakuei Tanaka, the more than typically corrupt prime minister who had been postwar Japan’s most powerful leader.

The mainstream Japanese-language daily media initially gave Tachibana’s reporting a lukewarm reception. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan intervened, arranging for Tanaka to speak at a luncheon – which became the most famous (notorious, in some people’s view) press conference the club ever hosted.

Thanks to the fame that Tachibana thus acquired, he enjoyed remarkable freedom in what he could report on for the rest of his career. He made astonishing use of that freedom and continued to inspire youngsters who wondered how they could get the real story in a country where the kisha (reporter) clubs rule.

Born in 1940, in Nagasaki, Tachibana graduated in French literature from Tokyo University. His first job (1964) was with the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun. After a couple of years he quit and in 1967 he returned to his alma mater to study philosophy.

Finding it was hard to make ends meet as a young scholar, he freelanced, writing articles for various magazines. In 1971 he opened a tiny bar/eatery called Gargantua in Shinjuku 2-chome’s Golden-gai, an iconic Tokyo nightlife area. He did the cooking, handling a large number of menu items. He sold Gargantua in 1972 and left for Europe and the Middle East to wander around.

Tachibana was a 34-year-old freelancer when he became famous for speaking truth to power. Leading a team of 20 journalists, relying not at all on leaks, he meticulously waded through an ocean of publicly available information to chronicle Tanaka’s dealings.

He waited until a couple of days before the monthly magazine’s deadline to start confronting officials with his findings. “A hastier approach,” wrote T. Tokuoka of Mainichi Daily News, “might have touched off a counteroffensive from the Prime Minister’s quarters, which could possibly have wrecked the whole venture.”

When the Bungei-Shunju editor was looking for someone to lead the reporting project, “no establishment journalist would touch it,” Newsweek reported. “They had all been pressured away or they had too much to lose.”

Tachibana hadn’t been ground down to fit a Japanese daily newspaper reporter’s routine of covering briefings, following kisha club rules and showing up at politicians’ houses late at night to receive the daily dose of wisdom. Another similarly intrepid reporter, the late Takaya Kodama, wrote in the magazine’s same issue about Tanaka’s female “shadow,” Aki Sato. Tachibana and Kodama eventually would be lionized as Japan’s Woodward and Bernstein.

The magazine’s 61-page exposé, TIME reported, was “a devastating chronicle of Tanaka’s financial dealings through dummy corporations, secret bank accounts, incomplete tax statements and the use of vast amounts of money to buy support within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Tanaka clung to office just long enough to welcome President [Gerald] Ford to Tokyo.”

TIME added that “Bungei-Shunju’s feat would have been a coup in any country. But in Japan, where the press seldom mentions the private peccadillos of government leaders, it was an unprecedented display of hara (guts). The nation’s last major political scandal, the 1966 ‘black mist’ influence-peddling affair, went unreported in the press until the matter came before the Diet. This time, Bungei-Shunju’s disclosures were ignored for nearly a fortnight.”

Both soon to resign under pressure, Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and US President Richard Nixon meet at the US Embassy in Paris, April 1974. Photo: AFP / © Collection Roger-Viollet

What happened to turn the tide? “It was only when foreign reporters grilled Tanaka about the article that big Japanese dailies began to print disapproving editorials,” TIME reported.

“Why such docility?” TIME asked. “For one thing, Japanese journalists have a tradition of pleasant bonhomie with their news sources that makes hard digging difficult. Then there are the reporters’ clubs …. Beyond that, many major news organizations are in debt to banks that have close ties to the Liberal Democratic Party …. Tokyo dailies have also built their offices on government land relinquished to them through important politicians.”

At that October 21, 1974, FCCJ press conference, first the sarcastic-sounding introductory remarks by the moderator, a Hungarian Communist correspondent, and then tough questioning from the floor aroused government outrage. Tanaka grew so disturbed by persistent questions – which from the third question focused on the Bungei reportage – that he walked out before the scheduled end of the conference.

Tachibana was not present at the press conference. The main effect on his career came from the fact that after the FCCJ presser the mainstream Japanese media began asking tough questions – and within days the prime minister had to resign.

While Tanaka never returned to the FCCJ, Tachibana became friends with a number of foreign correspondents and went on to speak several times in the club over the following decades.

Right after one of his FCCJ talks, in 1976 when he was preparing a major piece on the Lockheed scandal, Newsweek quoted him as saying that “the establishment press has always played journalistic kendo at a meter’s length from their opponent’s sword and has never closed in. I think some of the individual reporters on the major papers will notice what we’re doing, but I think the impact on management will be negligible.”

He always acknowledged an inspirational debt to investigative journalists abroad. For example, he wrote a book published in 1978 entitled Journalism wo kangaeru tabi, (Travels to Think About Journalism) in which he interviewed David Halberstam and other well-known journalists.

But although he continued to do political journalism, he also branched out to become a polymath. While people close to him have lost count of how many books he published all say the number is more than a hundred. “His strength is really his diversified interest in different subjects,” says his close friend Hideko Takayama, who worked for the Baltimore Sun,  Newsweek and Bloomberg News during a long career with the foreign press. “His interest went into so many directions it’s been hard to keep up.”

Those directions, she says, “have ranged from Kakuei Tanaka to the sexual revolution in the US, from space to brain death, from the Japanese Communist Party to near-death experiences, from agricultural cooperatives to music, from science to the Emperor.”

Tachibana, she recalls, “once produced record albums recorded at his own place under the label ‘Chez Tachibana.’ One of his major works was Uchu kara no kikan (Return from Space), in which he interviewed American astronauts about how their space trips changed their lives, and I think it is one of his best.”

One of his later works, published in 2016, is Toru Takemitsu – Ongaku sozo e no tabi (Journey Toward Musical Creation), over 700 pages of text based on interviews with the late Japanese composer Takemitsu. Another 2016 Tachibana book title can be translated as Tachibana talks about War

A little later he penned a Bungei-Shunju article entitled “Diabetes and Cancer.” Tachibana suffered from both.

Journalist Bradley Martin knew Takashi Tachibana starting the late 1970s, when Martin was based in Tokyo for the Baltimore Sun. Alex Martin of the Japan Times also contributed reporting for this article.