The Geisha Who Took Down a Prime Minister

The Geisha Who Took Down a Prime Minister

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Prime Minister Uno Sosuke superimposed in front of image representing geisha Nakanishi Mitsuko, who has a black bar in front of her eyes.
In 1989, Uno Sōsuke burst onto the scene as the new prime minister of Japan. Only 69 days later, he'd resign - and all because of a geisha named Nakanishi Mitsuko.

In 1989, the twelfth-floor office suite of media mogul Tokuma Yasuyoshi played host to an unusual guest. Mr. Tokuma, head of Studio Ghibli’s parent company, was one of the great wheelers and dealers of the Japanese media world. He was well-acquainted with a wide variety of power brokers, be they politicians, celebrities, or yakuza. Still, there was something notable in having Uno Sōsuke, the Prime Minister of Japan, essentially living in Mr. Tokuma’s private suite. [1]

While employees worked on distribution deals for movies, books, and CDs on the floors below, the Prime Minister did his best to stay out of sight. (Something made difficult thanks to the highly recognizable streak of white in his otherwise black hair.) The leader of Japan, only weeks into his tenure as PM, was actively trying not to be seen. At that moment, he was embroiled in a major scandal – and all because of a single geisha.

It was the first year of the Heisei era, and Japan’s economic boom years of the Bubble era continued unabated. The idea of a powerful man being involved with a geisha was nothing overly shocking. And yet, when Nakanishi Mitsuko stepped forward to tell of her relationship with Uno, it spelled the end of his promising, decades-long career. Uno Sōsuke would go down as one of the shortest-tenured Prime Ministers in Japanese history, the veritable Liz Truss of his day.

But Nakanishi Mitsuko did more than simply bring low her powerful paramour. By emerging from the shadowy world of the geisha industry, she broke a centuries-old code of silence. From the position of a kept woman, she challenged the mores of her society, in which men cheating on their spouses was the natural assumption. The flurry of discourse that surrounded Prime Minister Uno Sōsuke and Nakanishi Mitsuko shook the power centers of the nation – prompting questions about Japanese society that ring true even today.

Former geisha Nakanishi Mitsuko in a simple brown shirt, appearing on TV channel TBS. A scroll bearing kanji is on the wall behind her, and a picture of Prime Minister Uno Sosuke is superimposed.
Former geisha Nakanishi Mitsuko speaks to TBS. 1989.

Born in Scandal

Uno Sōsuke’s meteoric rise and stunning descent were born of yet another scandal – the largest of its time. The Heisei era had just begun, and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (自由民主党) was already in crisis.

It began in 1988, the year before Hirohito, the Showa Emperor, would pass away and the era would change. In that year, the so-called “Recruit Scandal” had shaken Japan’s belief in its public institutions to the core. Academic Yayama Taro, writing in 1990, explained the depth to which the insider trading scandal impacted Japanese society:

“Like a single match, the Recruit scandal has touched off a conflagration of skepticism that threatens to envelop all things political in Japan. But feeding the flames has been a whole complex of factors: not only the resentments and fears of ordinary citizens whose dreams of home ownership have been shattered by the skyrocketing prices of land… but disgust for the politicians who seem to be the only ones making easy money from stocks and political contributions, and anger at the corruption of top officials in such central government agencies as the Ministries of Education and Labor.” [2]


A landmark series of articles by the Asahi Shimbun revealed that human resources company Recruit Holdings Co., Ltd., had bribed numerous high-level politicians and business leaders with shares of a subsidiary previous to going public. The sums were large enough, and the web of persons involved so far-reaching, that the affair was soon hailed as the worst since the infamous Lockheed Scandal of the mid-’70s.

The Asahi Shinbun reports on Prime Minister Takeshita’s resignation during the Recruit Scandal.

Uno Sōsuke, Unlikely Prime Minister

As the Recruit Scandal wound its way through endless media coverage and, eventually, the courts, LDP leadership dropped like flies. Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru, already unpopular for initiating Japan’s first consumption tax, resigned. Numerous cabinet members followed. The reputations of other Prime Ministers, past and present, were deeply affected. In 1990, Shinto Hisashi, president of telecommunications giant NTT, was sentenced to two years in jail.

The LDP was in shambles. A new leader was needed, but so many of the party’s top players were implicated in the scandal. The furor around the bribery, the media coverage of which left “the impression… that everyone was on the take”[3], seemed to threaten the LDP’s nearly 4-decade stranglehold on national power. All the LDP could do was promise political funding reform alongside the selection of someone squeaky-clean to lead the party. In effect, this meant someone “whom the Recruit company had considered unimportant to the point of not offering a stock bribe.” [4]

The man for the job, it was decided, was Uno Sōsuke.

Prime Minister Uno Sōsuke, 1989 (his sole year in office). From the Prime Minister’s Residence homepage. (CC 表示 4.0.)

From the Gulag to the Prime Minister’s Office

Just who was this unlikely new Prime Minister, selected for both his unimpeachable character and relative obscurity within the party?

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When Tokyo Was Socialist: the Story of Governor Minobe


[1] Alpert, Steve. (2020). Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man. p.27

[2] Taro, Yayama. (1990). The Recruit Scandal: Learning from the Causes of Corruption. Journal of Japanese Studies, 16(1), 93–114.

[3] White, James W. (1993). The Dynamics of Political Opposition. Postwar Japan as History. (Quoted in Mitchell.)

[4] Mitchell, Richard H. (1996). Political Bribery in Japan. University of Hawaii Press. 124-126.

[5] 蚤野久蔵. (2014). 書斎の漂着本(30) ダモイ・トウキョウ. Bungenkyo.

[6] Blustein, Paul. (July 23, 1989). The Geisha Who Jolted Japan’s Numero Uno. Los Angeles Times.

[7] Blustein, Paul. (June 29, 1989). Geisha Affair Troubles Japan. The Washington Post.


[9] Hiatt, Fred & Shapiro, Margaret. (June 1, 1989). PARTY CHIEFS PICK FOREIGN MINISTER TO LEAD JAPAN. The Washington Post.

[10] 元木 昌彦. (2019年6月4日). 平成挽歌―いち雑誌編集者の懺悔録(5). NetLB-NEWS.

(2022.07.31). 宇野宗佑は女性問題のスキャンダルで退陣。愛人の中西ミツ子が指三本の秘密を暴露. アスネタ!

Fukui, Haruhiro. (1989). Japan in 1988: At the End of an Era. Asian Survey, 29(1), 1–11.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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