Japanese Prime Minister Sosuke Resigns After Affair with a Geisha

Following his appointment as Japan’s prime minister in June, 1989, Sosuke Uno resigned his office after only sixty-nine days when the press revealed he had paid a geisha a monthly salary for sexual favors prior to being prime minister. The scandal inspired a newly active women’s movement and led the media in Japan to rethink the significance of sex, gossip, and other scandal as relevant and newsworthy.

Summary of Event

In the summer of 1989, a woman describing herself as a geisha approached the Mainichi Shinbun, one of the largest newspapers in Japan, claiming that the married prime minister Sosuke Uno had paid her to have a sexual relationship in the months before he assumed office. The prestigious newspaper balked because the story was considered beneath its dignity, and she was referred to an affiliated magazine. That magazine, the Sunday Mainichi, broke the story, but it caused little stir among a public that expected sexual dalliance among its politicians. When, however, a socialist politician accused Uno in parliament of bringing shame to the nation, the public’s interest deepened and Uno found himself at the center of a major scandal. [kw]Sosuke Resigns After Affair with a Geisha, Japanese Prime Minister (Aug. 10, 1989)
[kw]Geisha, Japanese Prime Minister Sosuke Resigns After Affair with a (Aug. 10, 1989)
Mainichi Shimbum (newspaper)
Uno, Sosuke
Takeshita, Noboru
Mainichi Shimbum (newspaper)
Uno, Sosuke
Takeshita, Noboru
[g]Asia;Aug. 10, 1989: Japanese Prime Minister Sosuke Resigns After Affair with a Geisha[02410]
[g]Japan;Aug. 10, 1989: Japanese Prime Minister Sosuke Resigns After Affair with a Geisha[02410]
[c]Government;Aug. 10, 1989: Japanese Prime Minister Sosuke Resigns After Affair with a Geisha[02410]
[c]Politics;Aug. 10, 1989: Japanese Prime Minister Sosuke Resigns After Affair with a Geisha[02410]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Aug. 10, 1989: Japanese Prime Minister Sosuke Resigns After Affair with a Geisha[02410]
[c]Sex;Aug. 10, 1989: Japanese Prime Minister Sosuke Resigns After Affair with a Geisha[02410]

The son of a merchant family in western Japan, Uno had attended Kobe University of Commerce and served in the Japanese imperial army during World War II. During the war he spent two years as a prisoner of war in Siberia and later wrote a book about that experience, one of several books he wrote over his career. He was elected to the Japanese diet, the legislative arm of the Japanese government, in 1960 and served without great distinction in various areas of government, including defense, the ministry of international trade and industry (MITI), and foreign affairs.

Uno’s predecessor as prime minister, Noboru Takeshita, had been ruined by a corruption and bribery scandal. During Takeshita’s term, it was revealed that at least thirty members of his Liberal Democratic Party, the LDP, had been receiving favors from Recruit, an upstart publishing and telecommunications company. In the face of this scandal, Takeshita was forced to resign his office on June 3, 1989. After a month-long search by the LDP, Uno was named as his successor.

The LDP, wanting Takeshita’s replacement to be untouched by the Recruit corruption scandal, took its time to make a decision. The party settled on Uno only after Masayoshi Ito, its first choice, had demanded as a condition of his acceptance of the office that all LDP leaders who had received favors from Recruit resign from politics. Finding that demand unacceptable, the LDP settled on the bland Uno as the prudent choice. They were certainly unaware that for several months before his appointment, Uno had been paying a woman a salary for sexual favors.

The woman, whose name was never revealed, had lost patience with Uno because she received only a small amount of the payment she was due and because she did not receive a parting gift from him when the affair was terminated. She described Uno in her statement to the press as vain, rude, and self-centered. The article that broke the story, published by Sunday Mainichi magazine, on August 10, was sensationally titled “Accusation of an Office Lady: ’I Was Bought for 300,000 Yen per Month.’”

The scandal turned international after Washington Post
The Washington Post followed with its own story of the affair. Despite Uno initially denying the story and later trying to mitigate the damage caused by it, the woman’s accusation soon turned from being a subject of gossip and humor to one with serious political consequences for Uno’s already troubled party.

In spite of a statement by the editor of Sunday Mainichi that the central part of the scandal was that Uno paid for a woman’s companionship and that the moral standard for a prime minister was higher than the norm, to consider the Uno scandal simply a sex scandal would be a mistake. The Japanese public at that time would not have batted an eye at the disclosure of sexual infidelity of a married politician. That sort of behavior among powerful politicians was taken for granted. What seemed to bother many Japanese more than the moral issue was the payment. For some, particularly the women, the amount was far less than it should have been. For others it was taken as a sign of political incompetence that a man in his position did not deal quietly with the geisha and pay her the amount required to keep her quiet.

Uno’s disrespect aroused the anger of Japanese women. Traditionally reticent, they campaigned vigorously to remove him from office. Over fifty women’s groups joined in an effective anti-Uno movement. In fact, the campaign against Uno is considered by many the coming of age of women’s activist politics in Japan and the first real flexing of women’s political muscle.

The international coverage the scandal was receiving also irked the Japanese. As a member of an opposition party put it to Uno, the prime minister was making Japan look foolish in the eyes of the world. This was an unforgivable sin, especially for a Japanese prime minister.

On still another level, the breaking of the cherished geisha code of silence was another scandal in itself. Whatever is said to a geisha is privileged information, and a geisha is bound by honor never to reveal anything that passes between her and her client. The revelation of her affair with Uno was convincing evidence for geishas all over Japan that this woman was no true geisha.

The ill feeling caused by Uno’s miserly dealings with the geisha was not the sole cause of the serious problems faced by Uno and his party in the polls. Also in the limelight at the time was the Recruit scandal. In addition, immediately upon assuming the job of prime minister, Uno had to implement an unpopular consumer tax.

For his part, Uno never admitted fault for his part in the affair and stubbornly refused to deal with it at all. He never apologized to the nation or to his wife or to the woman with whom he had the affair. In an odd twist, his wife apologized to the nation on his behalf during an interview in which she also stated that Uno had never talked with her about the matter. Uno resigned his office in disgrace on August 10, 1989, after sixty-nine days in as prime minister, one of the shortest terms of office on record in Japan. He died of cancer almost ten years later the age of seventy-five in the western Japanese city of Moriyama.


Uno’s resignation was immediately preceded by the Japanese Socialist Party handing the LDP its worse defeat in over three decades. The sex scandal no doubt contributed to the party’s defeat and Uno’s resignation, but there were many other causes as well. Uno resigned not because of the scandal but because of his party’s losses in the election, losses that ended the LDP’s thirty-eight-year political rule within four years.

Also, the media coverage of the Uno scandal changed the way the Japanese press came to deal with such matters. After the Japanese public learned that the press knew about the Recruit and Uno scandals and did not report them until after the stories broke elsewhere, public confidence in the press fell drastically. No longer would even the “serious” newspapers consider sex and gossip irrelevant.

Furthermore, many consider that the Japanese women’s movement came of age during the anti-Uno campaign of 1989. Before the scandal, women’s political organizations were relegated to consumer and health matters. Their campaign to unseat Uno showed another, more public, side to their activism. Mainichi Shimbum (newspaper)
Uno, Sosuke
Takeshita, Noboru

Further Reading

  • Downer, Lesley. Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World. London: Headline, 2000. A good overview on the rich history of the geisha in Japan. Includes an eye-opening discussion of how geisha are both created and trained as “art persons” who do much more than act as companions to paying men.
  • Pharr, Susan J. Media and Politics in Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996. A scholarly look at the Japanese news media, including an examination of how it handled the Sosuke Uno sex scandal.
  • West, Mark D. Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle: The Rules of Scandal in Japan and the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. A comparative study of how scandals come to be and are dealt with in Japan and the United States. Includes discussion of the Sosuke Uno sex scandal.

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