A Japanese politician who has known Zenko Suzuki intimately over the years was asked recently to describe Suzuki's general views on foreign affairs.
The politician said he had no idea what those views are. He said, somewhat vaguely, that he supposed that Suzuki would generally follow the policies of the late prime minister Masayoshi Ohira. Beyond that, he couldn't say.
It was not an unexpected answer. Zenko Suzuki is scheduled to be anointed as the new prime minister Thursday but his views, even after 35 years in national politics, are not widely known. Suzuki himself is almost unknown outside his immediate circle of political intimates. Taking a page from 1976 American politics when a candidate named Jimmy Carter was first surfacing a Japanese newspaper recently began a Suzuki profile with the question: "Zenko who?"
Suzuki was formally chosen today by party members to head the Liberal Democratic Party. Since his party hodls substantial majorities in both chambers, he is certain to be named prime minister on Thursday.
An amiable, hard-working man who has held an important party position for years, the 69-year-old Suzuki is regarded by colleagues as an excellent political tactician. For nine terms he has served as a chairman of the party's executive council, a position that requires patience and an ability to resolve factional struggles."A moderator," is how another party member describes him.
Failing to have distinctive views is not unusual in prime ministerial candidates in Japan. For three decades, they have been chosen from a fairly narrow spectrum of conservative politicians.
Most, however, had been previously known as prominent Cabinet ministers. Almost all had served either as minister of foreign affairs, of international trade and industry, or finance, and their views on at least one important area of policy had become known.
Suzuki has held none of those three key posts, although in the past 20 years he has been minister of posts, health and welfare, and agriculture. None involved him in crucial, highly-publicized issues.
Outside the restricted world of politics, he made a small mark as negotiator and conciliator. As minister of agriculture in 1977, he conducted long and difficult negotiations over fishing rights with the Soviet Union, returning from Moscow declaring that he had "endured something unendurable and survived something unsurvivable."
In 1974, he had received considerable public attention for negotiating with fishermen angered by the release of radiation in their fishing grounds by the Mutsu, a nuclear-powered ship. His patience during 15 days of difficult dialogue added to his reputation as a successful negotiator.
The selection of Suzuki for the prime minister's post stems from the factional struggles within the Liberal Democrats and the fact that he had fewer enemies than any of the other men considered. Two considerably more prominent men were passed over -- Yasuhiro Nakasone, because too many colleagues distrust him, and Toshio Komoto, because he had refused to defend the Ohira government in a crucial no-confidence vote last May.
As late as two weeks ago, no one talked of Suzuki as a candidate, but as the others were rejected his name kept popping up among a council of elders charged with selecting someone on whom the party could more or less agree. He had been chosen earlier as the new leader of Ohira's large faction. But a friend explained that was merely a device to hold the faction together under a popular leader, not an effort to put him forward as a serious candidate.
Many believe it was the behind-the-scenes manipulations of former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, who is on trial in the Lockheed bribery scandal, that pushed Suzuki to the forefront. Others think Tanaka really preferred Nakasone but was unable to unite his own faction behind him.
Suzuki has left no tracks by which to judge his views on foreign policy or national defense. Neither was even mentioned in his formal campaign statement issued earlier this year. A friend said he expects that, as prime minister, Suzuki will adhere to Ohira's promise to President Carter of a gradual increase in Japan's defense spending.
Suzuki's early career showed a tendency to seek out powerful supporters. He ran as a socialist when first elected to the lower house in 1947, but by the time of the 1949 election he was running with the liberal party, a conservative forerunner of the present Liberal Democratic Party. Suzuki has explained the shift simply. His native village had been severely damaged by a typhoon and wanted government aid. His constitutents claimed he was powerless to obtain it as a socialist. So he switched to a position closer to the levers of power.
Suzuki was born in a fishing village in northern Japan's Iwate Prefecture, the son of a man who owned several fishing boats, and his career has been allied with the fishing industry. He was graduated in 1935 from the fisheries college of the agriculture, forestry and fisheries ministry.