James D. Hodgson, during his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Japan, meets with President Richard M. Nixon at the White House in 1974. (Charles Del Vecchio/The Washington Post)

James D. Hodgson, who as President Richard M. Nixon’s secretary of labor oversaw efforts to increase the employment of veterans and minorities, and who later became the U.S. ambassador to Japan, died Nov. 28 at his home in Malibu, Calif. He was 96.

His death was not widely known until Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis released a statement Monday. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Mr. Hodgson — who pronounced his name “Hodson,” without the “g” — was a longtime executive with Lockheed in California when he was chosen in 1969 to be the No. 2 official at the Labor Department under then-Secretary George P. Shultz.

When Shultz introduced his top deputies to the press, a reporter asked Mr. Hodgson whether he was a Republican or a Democrat.

“I’m a Democrat,” he replied.

“It never occurred to me to ask that question,” Shultz recalled Tuesday in an interview. Mr. Hodgson soon changed his political affiliation to Republican.

When Shultz was named director of the newly formed Office of Management and Budget in 1970, Mr. Hodgson was quickly approved as labor secretary. In an interview with The Washington Post, he pledged to support what he called the “noble concept” of collective bargaining.

During more than two years of leading the Labor Department, Mr. Hodgson found himself in a contentious labor environment marked by work stoppages and tense negotiations. There were strikes by California farmworkers, dockworkers, teachers and police officers, among other groups.

Mr. Hodgson called for a law to prohibit strikes by transportation workers and resisted raising the minimum wage from its rate of $1.60 an hour, and he was especially eager to scale back 18 percent annual pay increases that had been won by unions in the construction trades.

“We have a hands-off policy in the Labor Department as far as saying what wage increases are justified,” he said in 1971. “I only say what is not justified, and I am damn sure that the construction industry is not entitled to the wage increases it has been getting.”

It fell to Mr. Hodgson to introduce a Nixon administration plan in 1971 to impose temporary wage and price controls in an effort to bring inflation under control. The combination of events led to a war of words with AFL-CIO leader George Meany, who supported strikes by labor unions during the wage freeze.

“Mr. Meany appears to be sadly out of step with the needs and desires of America’s working men and women,” Mr. Hodgson said.

Meany, in return, called Mr. Hodgson a “janitor,” a demeaning reference to his perceived importance in Nixon’s Cabinet.

Nonetheless, there were several major labor breakthroughs during Mr. Hodgson’s tenure. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created in 1971, and the same year, Mr. Hodgson launched an effort to increase training and employment programs for returning veterans of the Vietnam War. Within two years, their unemployment rate had been cut in half.

Mr. Hodgson resigned soon after Nixon’s reelection in 1972.

“I’ve served with many people in government who had extraordinary capability and made extraordinary contributions,” Shultz said Tuesday. “Jim Hodgson is among the heavy cream of that group.”

James Day Hodgson was born Dec. 3, 1915, in Dawson, Minn. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1938 and later served as the state director of youth employment in Minnesota.

He joined Lockheed’s personnel department in Burbank, Calif., in 1941 and later served as a Navy intelligence officer in the Pacific during World War II. He returned to Lockheed after the war and eventually became vice president for industrial relations.

He taught labor relations at UCLA and served on a mayoral committee on labor-management relations in Los Angeles before coming to Washington.

In 1974, Mr. Hodgson was named ambassador to Japan, where he served for three years. He later was chairman of a uranium mining firm and taught at various universities.

Survivors include his wife of 69 years, Maria Denend Hodgson of Malibu; and two children.

Mr. Hodgson had long advocated the hiring of minority workers as an act of sound business and good citizenship. In a 1968 article in the Harvard Business Review, he and a co-writer called training programs run by companies “an investment that should bring returns to society many times over.”

“If we measure the benefit in lives rebuilt, in the restoration of men and women to productivity, in reduced social tensions, and in strengthened human resources for the nation,” they wrote, “the returns are incalcuable.”