Photo/IllutrationHiromu Nonaka, center, with Ryutaro Hashimoto, right, during a meeting at the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters in 2001 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Hiromu Nonaka, a seasoned Liberal Democratic Party politician who died on Jan. 26 at age 92, had a small scar on his forehead.

It came from being hit with a tobacco pipe when he was an infant by a woman who was baby-sitting him.

“When my five siblings and I were small, we were looked after by people with criminal records and those who came from the Korean Peninsula,” he recalled. “They were just like family, and we kids were really attached to them.”

According to "Sabetsu to Nihonjin" (Discrimination and Japanese), there was a munitions factory near his family home in Sonobe town (present-day Nantan city), Kyoto Prefecture. His parents, who were philanthropists, were ever ready to open their home to anyone who had no family or nowhere to go.

Growing up, Nonaka lived with such people. But outside the home, he witnessed Korean laborers being flogged in public.

When he was 25, Nonaka ran in the Sonobe assembly election, quitting the now-defunct Japanese National Railways.

"Members of the town's youth league put up my campaign posters without telling me," he explained. "It was a fait accompli, and I had to run."

Nonaka served a long string of elected offices, including that of Sonobe mayor and as a member of the Kyoto prefectural assembly.

He was 57 when he was elected to the Lower House for the first time. An unusually late bloomer where national politics was concerned, he nevertheless became one of the most influential LDP politicians, serving as chief Cabinet secretary and LDP secretary-general.

Nonaka’s strength lay in his ability to come up with mordant put-downs for his political foes.

He called opposition leader and his long-time rival Ichiro Ozawa "the Satan" and aspersed Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who led a non-LDP coalition government in the early 1990s, as "the feudal lord who exploits the masses."

He accused his turncoat LDP colleagues who supported Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of eating "doku manju" (poisoned cake), a term he coined and that became a fad expression at the time.

People either idolized or detested Nonaka. In recent years, few politicians, if any, have elicited such extreme popular sentiments as him.

His supporters extolled him as "prime minister material, if only he were 10 years younger." His detractors vilified him as "the ultimate anti-reform old guard."

In either case, Nonaka's genuine empathy with society's vulnerable members never wavered. He heeded the voices of Hansen's disease patients and long-suffering Okinawans hosting U.S. military bases. In his constituency, he remained committed to welfare for people with disabilities into his final years.

As someone who kept deep roots in his community and remained mindful of people on the lowest rungs of society's ladder, Nonaka was an outstanding politician.

His given name, Hiromu, is written in kanji characters that could together mean, “He who serves society broadly.”

And that was precisely how he lived, never compromising on his anti-war and anti-discrimination convictions.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 29

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.