Ryle Dwyer: How Charles Haughey wooed Japan in the throes of a political crisis

A 1989 official visit by the then Taoiseach took place in the midst of a major corruption scandal — and yet it proved to be a highly successful mission for the Irish, writes Ryle Dwyer

Ryle Dwyer: How Charles Haughey wooed Japan in the throes of a political crisis

A 1989 official visit by the then Taoiseach took place in the midst of a major corruption scandal — and yet it proved to be a highly successful mission for the Irish, writes Ryle Dwyer

One could hardly imagine a more traumatic political time to visit Japan than late April 1989, when the then taoiseach Charles Haughey arrived there.

Japan had been shaken for months by a financial scandal involving a company offering shares to politicians at preferential prices.

The deputy prime minister and minister for finance were both forced out of office early due to their involvement. Prime minister Noboru Takeshita tried to distance himself from the scandal by explicitly denying personal involvement, and drastically reshuffling his cabinet with the introduction of 15 new faces in December 1988.

Within two days, however, he was hit by further controversy when his new minister for justice had to quit over disclosures of his involvement.

A public opinion poll taken in late March, just weeks before Mr Haughey’s visit, indicated that three quarters of the people interviewed wished for Takeshita to resign immediately.

As no stranger to controversy himself, Mr Haughey realised his state visit would be welcomed by the government as a diversion from its travails. As a result, his four-day visit was surprisingly successful, even though the prime minister had to announced his resignation during those four dramatic days.

Following his arrival in Japan on April 23, 1989, Mr Haughey was welcomed at the Imperial Palace by acting emperor Akihito, who had taken over in January, following the death of his father, Hirohito, who had been on the throne for over 60 years, going back to 1926.

The taoiseach met with Mr Takeshita in Tokyo next day for more than two hours.

“We discussed a wide range of bilateral issues, as well as international political affairs and European Community matters,” Mr Haughey told the Dáil the following week.

“I took the opportunity of stressing Ireland’s wish for a close working relationship with Japan and our concern for the development of an open world trading system.”

Mr Takeshita lauded the Dublin government’s “vision in setting up the Irish Financial Services Centre”, in which four major Japanese financial corporations were already involved.

“We agreed to establish a joint forum for political, cultural, and educational matters and another joint forum for economic affairs,” said Mr Haughey.

Their main aim was to “advance the growing relationship” between the two countries, in order “to serve as a clearing house for ideas and projects and to identify difficulties and problems”.

Mr Takeshita’s political position became utterly untenable that day with the latest disclosure, that he had received 151m yen (over $120,000) from the company involved in the scandal. Next day, which was Mr Haughey’s second full day in the country, Mr Takeshita announced that he was stepping down as prime minister.

“I offer my deep apology to the people of our country, particularly for allowing political distrust to deepen due to affairs in which I was involved,” he said.

“I have chosen to step aside in order to restore the people’s trust in government.”

After making this announcement, Mr Haughey noted that Mr Takeshita sent “a personal message, assuring me that the understandings we had reached and the arrangements made would stand”.

Mr Haughey had a particularly fruitful discussion that with the trade and industry minister.

“We believed that an imbalance between Japan and the rest of the European Community should be remedied by more trade and investment rather than by restrictions or limitations,” he said.

“I mentioned that our exports to Japan had, in fact, grown by 30% last year.”

The trade minister promised to arrange an investment mission as soon as possible to examine to “all possibilities for Japanese investment in Ireland”.

Mr Haughey warmly welcomed this.

The same day, the taoiseach went on to have meetings with representatives of various organisations, including prominent officials of six large companies interested in investing in Ireland. His hectic state visit duly ended the following day. One could hardly imagine a more politically traumatic four-days on which to visit Japan.

But relations with Japan were strengthened as a result of the “historic visit,” according to the Irish embassy in Tokyo.

The Industrial Development Authority told Mr Haughey the week after his return that “five or six or six Japanese companies were likely to announce investment in Ireland in the coming months”.

Haughey had suggested in Japan that Ireland could act as an honest broker for the Japanese within the European Economic Community (EEC), especially with Ireland due to take over the presidency of the EEC Councilduring the second half of 1989.

As a result, the IDA expressed hope in “the new, active development of our relationship with Japan which we expect to follow the Taoiseach’s visit”.

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