Willem Drees
Drees in 1958
Prime Minister of the Netherlands
In office
7 August 1948 – 22 December 1958
See list
Preceded byLouis Beel
Succeeded byLouis Beel
Minister of Finance
In office
1 July 1952 – 2 September 1952
Ad interim
Prime MinisterHimself
Preceded byPiet Lieftinck
Succeeded byJo van de Kieft
Minister of Colonial Affairs
In office
15 March 1951 – 30 March 1951
Ad interim
Prime MinisterHimself
Preceded byJohan van Maarseveen
Succeeded byLeonard Peters
Leader of the Labour Party
In office
9 February 1946 – 22 December 1958
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byJaap Burger
Deputy Prime Minister of the Netherlands
In office
25 June 1945 – 7 August 1948
Prime MinisterWillem Schermerhorn
Louis Beel (1948)
Preceded byHendrik van Boeijen (1942)
Succeeded byJosef van Schaik
Minister of Social Affairs
In office
25 June 1945 – 7 August 1948
Prime MinisterWillem Schermerhorn
Louis Beel (1948)
Preceded byDolf Joekes
Succeeded byFrans Wijffels
Leader of the Social Democratic Workers' Party
In office
14 May 1940 – 9 February 1946
Preceded byWillem Albarda
Succeeded byOffice discontinued
Additional positions
Member of the House of Representatives
In office
3 July 1956 – 3 October 1956
In office
15 July 1952 – 2 September 1952
In office
27 July 1948 – 10 August 1948
In office
4 June 1946 – 4 July 1946
In office
9 May 1933 – 25 June 1945
Parliamentary leader in the
House of Representatives
In office
10 August 1939 – 25 September 1945
Preceded byWillem Albarda
Succeeded byMarinus van der Goes van Naters
Parliamentary groupSocial Democratic Workers' Party
Personal details
Born(1886-07-05)5 July 1886
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Died14 May 1988(1988-05-14) (aged 101)
The Hague, Netherlands
Political partyLabour Party (1946–1971)
Other political
Social Democratic Workers' Party (1904–1946)
RelativesWillem Drees Jr. (son)
Willem B. Drees (grandson)
Jacques Wallage (grandson-in-law)
Alma materAmsterdam Public Trade School (B.Acc)
OccupationPolitician · civil servant · Accountant · Stenographer · Historian · Author

Willem Drees Sr. (Dutch pronunciation; 5 July 1886 – 14 May 1988) was a Dutch politician of the Social Democratic Workers' Party (SDAP) and later co-founder of the Labour Party (PvdA) and historian who served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 7 August 1948 to 22 December 1958.[1][2][3][4]

Drees was elected to the House of Representatives for the SDAP in the 1933 general election and served as a frontbencher and spokesperson for social affairs. He succeeded Willem Albarda as party leader in 1940, and following the end of World War II, Drees was appointment Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs in the national unity Schermerhorn–Drees cabinet. In February 1946, Drees was one of the co-founders of the Labour Party and became its first Leader. After the 1948 general election, Drees led his party through a successful cabinet formation with the Catholic People's Party and formed the Drees–Van Schaik cabinet, with Drees becoming Prime Minister of the Netherlands, taking office on 7 August 1948.[5]

The Drees-Van Schaik cabinet fell on 24 January 1951 and after a short cabinet formation was replaced by the first Drees cabinet, with Drees continuing as prime minister. For the 1952 general election, Drees served again as lead candidate and following a successful cabinet formation formed the second Drees cabinet and continued as prime minister for a second term. For the 1956 general election Drees once again served as lead candidate and following another cabinet formation formed the third Drees cabinet and continued as prime minister for a third term. The third Drees cabinet fell on 11 December 1958 and shortly thereafter Drees announced his retirement and would step down as Leader and would not serve another term as prime minister. Drees left office upon the installation of the caretaker second Beel cabinet on 22 December 1958.

Drees was known for his abilities as a skilful team leader and effective manager. From 1948 to 1958, his four cabinets were mostly praised and supported by the largest parties in the Netherlands.[6] During his premiership, his cabinets were responsible for several major social reforms to social security, welfare, child benefits and education, overseeing the decolonization of the Dutch East Indies following the Indonesian National Revolution, the fallout of the annexation of former German territory and dealing with several major crises such as the North Sea flood of 1953 and Hofmans scandal.

Drees retired from active politics at 72 but continued to be active as a valued historian and prolific author and served on several state commissions and councils on behalf of the government. Drees was granted the honorary title of Minister of State on 22 December 1958 and continued to comment on political affairs as a statesman until his death in May 1988 at the age of 101. He holds the record as the fourth longest-serving and longest-lived Prime Minister at 101 years, 314 days and his premiership is consistently regarded both by scholars and the public to have been one of the best in Dutch history.[7][8][9]

Early life and education

Drees in 1908

Willem Drees was born in Amsterdam on 5 July 1886 in an orthodox reformed middle-class family. His father Johannes Michiel Drees, a banker and supporter of Abraham Kuyper, died when Drees was five years old, which left his mother Anna Sophia van Dobbenburgh, his two siblings and himself in a precarious financial situation. Drees could continue studying thanks to the support of his uncle Frits. He attended the three-year hogereburgerschool (HBS), supplemented by the two final grades of the Amsterdam Public Trade School. Drees grew up attending Sunday school and catechism, but rejected the Christian creed at the age of eighteen.[5][10]

He developed an interest in political and social affairs at this time, such as the Boer Wars and the Dreyfus affair. At the Trade School, he met the sons of diamond workers who were united in the General Diamond Workers' Union of the Netherlands, the most politically and socially developed social democratic labour union at the time. At the age of sixteen, Drees became a member of the Dutch Association for the Abolition of Alcoholic Beverages, and would remain a teetoler for the rest of his life. After attending a speech of Pieter Jelles Troelstra following his election victory in Amsterdam in December 1902, Drees became a democratic socialist. He joined the Social Democratic Workers' Party (SDAP) on his eighteenth birthday.[5][10][11]

Near the conclusion of Drees' time at the Trade School, the school's principal offered Drees a position at a brewery, but he refused due to his opposition to alcoholic beverages. Instead, after obtaining his Bachelor of Accountancy degree in 1903, he started working as a bank teller for the Twentsche Bank [nl] in Amsterdam in July 1903. This work did not satisfy him, however, and he rejected an offer by his uncle Frits for a career in brokerage and insurance. In July 1906, Drees quit his job at the Twentsche Bank and pursued his passion, becoming a stenographer at the municipal council of Amsterdam, and then at the States General of the Netherlands in The Hague from January 1907 until August 1919.[5][10]

Political involvement

Early career

Drees became a member of the executive committee of the SDAP's The Hague branch in 1910, and the following year, at the age of 25, he was elected as the branch's chairman, a position he would keep until 1931. He was first elected to the municipal council of The Hague in 1913, and would keep his seat until 1941. In 1919, Drees became the city's second social democratic alderman, alongside Willem Albarda. He was responsible for social affairs from until 1931, and for finance and public works after that. In this period, Drees supported the broad coalition that governed the municipality, and was a proponent of a pragmatic, reformist course for the party; he had not supported Troelstra in his call for revolution in the Red Week in 1918.[11] For 22 years, between 1919 and 1941, Drees also held a seat in the Provincial Council of South Holland. Drees was asked to succeed Willem Vliegen as the SDAP's national chairman in 1926 and he reluctantly accepted, but after the party's secretary and several local branches protested his nomination at the party congress of that year due to Drees' limited national fame, he withdrew his nomination. The following year, however, he became a member of the national SDAP executive, where he would remain until the party's dissolution in 1946.[5][10]

Drees was elected to the House of Representatives in the 1933 general election, taking office on 9 May 1933 and simultaneously resigning as alderman of The Hague. He served as a frontbencher and spokesperson for social affairs. In the context of the Great Depression, he was a proponent of an active crisis policy of industrial planning and the execution of large-scale public works; he saw industrialisation as the structural solution to mass unemployment. Sooner than other prominent SDAP members, he advocated the devolution of the Dutch guilder. He also strongly opposed the activities of the National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands and other anti-democratic movements, stating in 1935 that fascists are not opponents but enemies. He likewise rejected cooperation with the Communist Party of the Netherlands.[5][10] After the SDAP's parliamentary leader Willem Albarda was appointed Minister of Water Management in the second De Geer cabinet, Drees was selected to succeed him, becoming parliamentary leader on 10 August 1939. Shortly after the German invasion of the Netherlands, Albarda announced he was stepping down as party leader, and Drees was unanimously selected as his successor on 14 May 1940.

During the German occupation Drees was taken hostage in Buchenwald concentration camp on 7 October 1940. On 7 October 1941, he was moved to Kamp Sint-Michielsgestel [nl], but he was released on 11 May 1942 due to poor health.[12] After his release, Drees played a prominent role as vice chairman and acting chairman of the illegal Executive Committee of the SDAP, and as a prominent participant in secret interparty consultations. In 1944, he became chairman of the Contact Commissie van de Illegaliteit and a member of the College van Vertrouwensmannen, which the government-in-exile charged with the preparation of steps to be taken at the time of liberation.[13]

Following the end of World War II, Drees was appointment as Minister of Social Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister in the national unity Schermerhorn–Drees cabinet, taking office on 25 June 1945. In February 1946, he was one of the co-founders of the Labour Party (PvdA) and became its first Leader. For the 1946 general election, Drees served as one of the lead candidates, and following the 1946 cabinet formation continued his offices in the first Beel cabinet. For the 1948 general election Drees again served as one of the PvdA's lead candidates, and following a successful cabinet formation with the Catholic People's Party, he formed the Drees–Van Schaik cabinet, with Drees becoming Prime Minister of the Netherlands, taking office on 7 August 1948.[5]

Prime Minister of the Netherlands

From 7 August 1948 to 22 December 1958, Drees was Prime Minister of the Netherlands in four successive cabinets: the Drees–Van Schaik cabinet, the first Drees cabinet, the second Drees cabinet and the third Drees cabinet. From 1948 to 1958, his four cabinets were mostly praised and supported by the largest parties in the Netherlands.[6] As Roman/Red coalitions, they were formed by the Catholic People's Party, the Labour Party and the Christian Historical Union (CHU), supplemented by the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) until 1952, and the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) from 1952 on.[14]

His period in office saw at least four major political developments: the traumas of decolonisation, economic reconstruction, the establishment of the Dutch welfare state,[15][16] and international integration and co-operation, including the formation of Benelux, the OEEC, NATO, the European Coal and Steel Community, and the European Economic Community.

Belgian Prime Minister Paul-Henri Spaak and Drees at a Benelux conference, 10 March 1949

A wide range of social reforms were carried out during Drees's tenure as prime minister. In social security, the Occupational Pensions Funds Act of March 1949 made membership of industry-wide pension funds compulsory, while the General Old Age Pensions Act of May 1956 introduced universal flat-rate old age pensions for all residents as a right and with no retirement condition at the age of 65. The Retired Persons' Family Allowances Act of November 1950 established a special allowance for pensioned public servants with children (abolished in 1963), a law of November 1950 extended compulsory health insurance to cover other groups such as old-age and invalidity pensioners, and a law of December 1956 introduced health insurance with special low contributions for old-aged pensioners below a certain income ceiling. A law of August 1950 established equal rights for illegitimate children, and introduced an allowance for disabled children between the ages of 16 and 20. This law also introduced monthly (previously annual) fixing of the number of children for whom allowances are claimable. The Temporary Family Allowances Act for the Self-employed of June 1951 entitled self-employed persons with low incomes to family allowance for the first and second child (abolished in 1963), and a law of February 1952 introduced an allowance for studying and for disabled children until the age of 27.[17] In 1949, an unemployment insurance act was passed that came into effect in 1952. This contained redundancy pay insurance "for an initial short period of unemployment and the actual unemployment insurance for the period thereafter."[18] In 1952 a Social Security Scheme for the Unemployed entered into force on 30 June 1952. It applied to unemployed persons "who, in principle, do not fall under the Unemployment Act or who, in principle, do fall under the said Act, but do not (any longer) receive benefits under the said Act." The scheme therefore distinguished two groups of employees and had two benefit schemes.[19]

In 1949, an Artist Subsidy Scheme was introduced, under which artists "lacking sufficient income from their profession received a financial provision for a certain time allowing them to continue working."[20] A Law of 22 June 1950 established the Praeventiefonds with the task of making funds available "to take measures aimed at preventing disease or promoting health."[21] From 1950 to 1957, the Praeventiefonds received a separate budget "from the Equalization Fund for supplementary nutrition for TB patients curing at home."[22] Under the Accident Pension Supplement Act of 26 May 1950, "in certain cases persons who received an annuity or benefit under one of the Accident Acts were granted a supplement to their annuity or benefit."[23] One journal at that the time commented on the provisions of this law: "The law supplementing accident benefits came into force on 12 June 1950. Pursuant to this law, a contribution of 25% is granted on annuities under the Accidents Act 1921 and the Agriculture and Horticulture Accidents Act 1921, which annuities are calculated on the basis of a loss of fitness to work of more than 25%, if these annuities have been or will be awarded, in connection with an accident, that took place before 1 January 1947 and the person affected was compulsorily insured on the day of the accident. The same allowance is given on the annuities under the Maritime Accidents Act, if these benefits have been or will be awarded in connection with an accident that took place before 1 January 1946. Furthermore, the Minister of Social Affairs has determined that a married woman who is the breadwinner for her husband or for one or more children under the age of 16 is entitled to the allowance, unless her husband already derives rights under the law. The supplement does not apply to those who had an accident after the above dates. Their basic wages, on which interest is calculated, are higher."[24]

Newly appointed Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Drees at the Ministry of Defence, 11 January 1951

The Pension and Savings Funds Act (PSW) of 1952 improved the vulnerable position of employees in private companies "by obliging the employer who had promised a pension to his employee to cover the pension risk he assumed, either with a pension fund or with an insurance company." However, the Act "does not oblige the employer to promise a pension: in contrast to the salary, to which the employee is entitled in all cases (cf. Article 1637 g of the Civil Code), the employee is only entitled to a pension if this has been promised."[25] An Act of 29 September 1955, Stb. 456, amending the Poor Law, introduced an amended regulation regarding the domicile of social assistance, or for the payment of the costs of nursing or care of the sick, disabled and elderly in the appropriate institutions. The aim of the amendment was to provide a more satisfactory arrangement for liability for costs.[26] In 1956, a Hungarian Refugee Assistance Scheme was introduced,[27] along with Provision for the Blind (Voorziening voor Blinden). This provision recognized the blind as one of the groups in society entitled to a special benefit.[28] In addition to the normative benefits, benefits tailored to the individual case could also be awarded, "such as expenses for the mental and cultural development of the blind person, costs of education or training and medical treatment or nursing of the blind person in his family."[27] In 1957, a new social health insurance scheme for indigent pensioners was set up called bejaardenverzekering ("elderly insurance").[29] In January 1958, legal aid was introduced.[30] The General Widows and Pensions Act was also drafted, which was passed under the second Beel cabinet[31]

In terms of working conditions, safety Regulations for Electric Passenger and Goods Lifts with a Cage that can be entered were introduced on 15 June 1949.[32] A Decree further amending the Safety Decree for Factories and Workplaces, 1938 dated January 1950 "adds seven new Sections, 212-212 F to the Safety Decree of 1938. The new sections deal with construction, repair or demolition of buildings, foundations, water works, underground conduits and roads. In addition to general safety provisions, there are provisions concerning the construction and use of scaffolds, floors, gangways, stairs, gangplanks, etc., and hoisting appliances."[32] Other decrees were issued concerning working hours for various groups.[33] The Silicosis Act of 1951 sought "to prevent and combat dust lung diseases, such as silicosis, caused by inhalation of finely divided quartz dust, e.g. from sandblasting or sandstone processing, and asbestosis, caused by inhalation of asbestos dust."[34] The Law on dangerous tools of 5 March 1952 contained safety regulations with regard to dangerous tools and protection equipment.[35] In the legislative amendment of 19 January 1955, after a number of failed attempts, the regulation of working and rest times in agriculture was realized in the Labor Act 1919.[36] The Act of 18 June 1953 (Stb. 421) amended the provisions of the Labor Act 1919 on the night work of women and young persons. For instance, the time of commencement of the daily working hours for blue-collar workers under the age of 16 was raised from 5 to 6 hours, and the minimum night's rest for young people from 11 to 12 hours.[37] A law of 6 August 1954 established a legal ban on industrial work for 14-year-old girls.[38] In 1950, works councils were established,[39] requiring all enterprises with more than 25 employees to allow their employees to elect representatives.[40] The Industrial Reorganization Act of 1950 made it mandatory for workers to belong to an industrial organizations, which were bipartite associations that represented labor and management interests. These were primarily responsible for administering occupational security programs like disability and pensions. According to one study, "by making participation in the associations mandatory, Drees was able to vastly expand the scope of the workforce covered by social security programs, guaranteeing a greater degree of uniformity in the benefits workers received."[41] Dismissal law was reformed in 1953, with a scheme introduced "that not only created the possibility of claiming compensation after a manifestly unreasonable dismissal, but also the so-called 'restoration of employment'."[42] In 1957 the dismissal of female civil servants upon marriage was abolished.[43]

Greek Prime Minister Alexandros Papagos, Drees and Greek Foreign Minister Stefanos Stefanopoulos, 2 February 1954

In the field of housing, the Implementation for Rent Act (1950) fixed rents and rent increases, while the Regional and Town Planning Act (1950) regulated the planning of house building. In addition, the Reconstruction Act of 1950 established housebuilding programmes,[44] and legislation was passed on house building standards (1951), the uniformity of buildings (1954), and uniform building standards (1956).[45] In 1953, a premium scheme for home improvement was set up by the government.[46] From 1956 it was possible for low-income groups to obtain a mortgage guarantee.[47] In education, measures were carried out such as increased expenditure on the system, a reduction in registration fees at state universities and at the institute of technology,[44] and the granting (in January 1956) of a special benefit to primary school teachers and to certain categories of vocational teachers, "particularly those who risk being unemployed and who cannot lay claim to a retaining fee."[48] From 1951 onwards government grants were provided to 'impoverished young people from very good study aptitude that met reasonable requirements of general development and civilization' (De Looper, 1997).[49] A doubling of the deduction of costs for learning and studying children aged 16 to 27 from income and wealth tax was achieved, followed by a triple deduction for income, wage and wealth taxes for parents with studying children aged 16 to 27 who lived away from home and who were largely supported by their parents.[50]

Other initiatives included secondary schools for girls and special primary education in 1949, teacher training colleges in 1952,[51] the extension of compulsory education to eight years in 1950,[52] the Nursery Education Act of 1955, which introduced the option of kindergarten for children from the age of four upwards, while also establishing regulations for nursery-school teachers,[17] and the Schoolfees Act of 1955, which abolished all fees up to the school-leaving age.[53]

A department of social welfare was also established (1952),[45] employment facilities for the disabled were expanded and care for the blind received money.[54] In 1952, a policy framework was set up for dealing with "problem families," such as subsidies for pillarized family care and social development work in the cities.[55] That same year, the Ministry of Social Affairs began granting subsidies "to promote the employment of the blind, on the one hand through contributions for individual cases (purchase or conversion of equipment, transport, etc.), on the other hand through subsidizing the work facilities of the blind." Following on from schemes for the blind, equal provisions for other handicapped persons were established in 1955 and 1958.[56] From 1953, subsidies to voluntary agencies serving the physically and the mentally handicapped were included in the budget of the Ministry of Culture, Recreation, and Social Welfare, when they were introduced as an experiment that year.[57] In addition, "Government care for passengers on inland vessels started with the establishment of the Social Commission for Boatmen in 1956."[58] The Water Supply Act of 1957 sought to achieve sanitation in terms of drinking water quality.[59] In 1957, "the task of the Central Commission for Cultural Work in Labor Camps (CCCA) was modified and expanded and at the same time the Provincial and Local Committees were abolished. The task of the CCCA was formulated as the promotion of the cultural interests of workers, group-housed in housing estates whose operation and/or management falls under the care of the minister and, if necessary, other groups of workers, group-housed outside their places of residence."[60] The Health Act of 1956 contained new legal regulations concerning regarding the organization of public health care,[61] while the Medicines Supply Act of 28 July 1958, contained new regulations "regarding the supply of medicines and the practice of medical preparation."[62]

In addition, a number of 'regulation laws' were passed through parliament including the Insurance Brokerage Act, the Shop Closing Act (including some twenty amendments), development plans for disadvantaged areas and the Credit System Supervision Act.[63]

The third Drees cabinet fell on 11 December 1958 and shortly thereafter Drees announced his retirement from politics. Drees left office upon the installation of the caretaker second Beel cabinet on 22 December 1958. He was granted the honorary title of Minister of State on 22 December 1958 and continued to comment on political affairs as a statesman until his death in May 1988 at the age of 101. He continued to be active as a valued historian and prolific author and served on several state commissions and councils on behalf of the government. The Labour Party appointed him a member of its Executive Council for life in 1959. Due to impaired hearing he stopped attending its meetings in 1966. He strongly disagreed with New Left tendencies in the membership and strategies of the Labour Party, and eventually gave up membership of a party he had served for close to 67 years.

Personal life

Drees in his house in The Hague, 2 July 1981

On 28 July 1910, Drees married Catharina Hent (6 May 1888 – 30 January 1974)[64][65] and had two sons and two daughters. Both his sons Jan Drees and Willem Drees Jr. were active members of the Labour Party, but left the party around 1970 to join the Democratic Socialists 1970. The cause was a row with younger party members who wanted to plot a more radical left-wing course for the party. Drees himself left the Labour Party in 1971 leaving them without their icon, but he never joined the Democratic Socialists 1970.

Drees was a life-long teetotaler.[5] He was also an Esperantist and addressed the 1954 World Esperanto Congress, which was held in Haarlem.[66]

Drees died on 14 May 1988 in The Hague, at age 101.[67] From 22 August 1986, when former Turkish President Celâl Bayar died, until his own death Drees was the world's oldest living former head of government.

In 2004 he ended in third place in the election of The Greatest Dutchman.[68][69]


Ribbon bar Honour Country Date Comment
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Netherlands Lion Netherlands 22 December 1958
Grand Cross of the Order of Leopold Belgium 10 March 1949
Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog Denmark
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Holy Trinity Ethiopia 3 November 1954
Grand Cross of the Order of the Legion of Honour France 10 July 1954
Grand Cross of the Royal Order of George I Greece 2 February 1954
Grand Cross of the Order of the Star of Africa Liberia 10 December 1956
Grand Cross of the Order of Adolphe of Nassau Luxembourg
Grand Cross of the Order of the Oak Crown Luxembourg 12 July 1951
Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav Norway
Grand Cross of the Order of Vasa Sweden
Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Order of the White Elephant Thailand 26 September 1955
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George United Kingdom 24 July 1958
Medal of Freedom with Gold Palm United States 7 April 1953
Honorific titles
Ribbon bar Honour Country Date Comment
Minister of State Netherlands 22 December 1958 Style of Excellency


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Further reading

Party political offices Preceded byWillem Albarda Parliamentary leader of the Social Democratic Workers' Party in the House of Representatives 1939–1945 Succeeded byMarinus van der Goes van Naters Leader of the Social Democratic Workers' Party 1940–1946 Party merged intothe Labour Party New political party Leader of the Labour Party 1946–1958 Succeeded byJaap Burger Lead candidate of the Labour Party 1946, 1948, 1952, 1956 With: Jaap Burger (1946, 1948) Marinus van der Goes van Naters (1946, 1948) Succeeded byJaap Burger Ko Suurhoff Anne Vondeling (1959) Political offices New office Deputy Prime Minister 1945–1948 Succeeded byJosef van Schaik Preceded byDolf Joekes Minister of Social Affairs 1945–1948 Succeeded byFrans Wijffels Preceded byLouis Beel Prime Minister of the NetherlandsMinister of General Affairs 1948–1958 Succeeded byLouis Beel Preceded byJohan van Maarseveen Minister of Colonial Affairs Ad interim 1951 Succeeded byLeonard Peters Preceded byPiet Lieftinck Minister of Finance Ad interim 1952 Succeeded byJo van de Kieft Records Preceded byCelâl Bayar Oldest living state leader 22 August 1986 – 14 May 1988 Succeeded byNaruhiko Higashikuni