Miyazaki’s New Governor: Has the reformer reformed himself?
Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 23, 2007
WHILE IT WAS AN AMERICAN who said he would rather be governed by 500 people selected at random from the Boston telephone directory than the faculty of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the Japanese electorate has given every indication over the years that they completely understand the concept.
The voters of Miyazaki Prefecture down in Kyushu demonstrated that once again on Sunday when they chose comedian Higashikokubaru Hideo, more popularly known by his stage name of Sonomanma Higashi, to serve as their new governor. The special election was held to fill the vacancy created after the previous governor, Ando Tadahiro, was arrested for his role in a bid-rigging scandal.
The new governor is no stranger to controversy himself. He was a protégé of comedian and television personality Beat Takeshi, who is also an award-winning film director known internationally by his original name of Kitano Takeshi. Higashi and several other budding comedians were once part of a group called the Takeshi Gundan, or roughly, Takeshi’s Legion.
The Gundan was more than just a school for comedy. The show business ties of several members were slender at best, and people noticed that all the members behaved as if they were Takeshi’s yojinbo, or enforcers. It may not be a coincidence that Takeshi often directs and appears in movies in which yakuza are either the main or primary characters.
If the boys were acting out, they carried it a little too far in 1986 when they had a rumble at the offices of a weekly newsmagazine that specialized in scoops of show business scandals. Takeshi was angry at the way the magazine badgered a younger woman he was involved with, and he went to their offices to discuss the situation accompanied by most of the Gundan. Enraged by the attitude of the journalists, the group attacked them with whatever was at hand, including umbrellas and fire extinguishers. Naturally, they were arrested—Higashi included–and Takeshi wound up being sentenced to a six-month jail term.
There have been other brushes with the law. In 1999, Higashi was questioned by prosecutors for allegedly kicking a comedian named Hokkai Janjan in the head during a year-end party at a restaurant. One year before that, he also was interrogated for receiving sexual services from a 16-year-old girl at a club called Nenchu Muchu (Lost in Dreams All Year Long). Higashi claimed in his defense that he thought she was 18 at the time.
After this incident, he voluntarily suspended public performances, started practicing Zen, and won admission to Waseda University in 2000. By all accounts, his academic record was superb, and he graduated in 2004 at the age of 46. The subject of his graduation thesis was election campaigns. When the Miyazaki election was announced, he canceled his contract with Takeshi’s production company and retired from show business.
Despite his checkered background, Higashi easily won election. He didn’t garner an outright majority, but he did pick up almost 45% of the votes in a five-man field. While his celebrity was an important factor in his victory, it wasn’t the only one. The voters were clearly put off by the bid-rigging scandal, and the bland political orthodoxy of the other candidates worked in his favor as well. One rival—endorsed by Prime Minister Abe—campaigned on the platform that he was the best man to lead local reform efforts because of his extensive political connections. He wound up in third place, ahead of the Communist Party candidate.
Exit polls also show that he received extensive support from that demographic cohort all the politicians lust for: younger people in their 20s and 30s who support no political party. Many from this group went to the polls in this election for the first time.
Finally, and perhaps most important, observation of the candidates’ behavior in television coverage left no doubt that Higashi was the dominant alpha male in the race. While this subject is seldom broached by the mass media or political analysts, who like to pretend that voters carefully mull over the pros and cons of all the issues, everyone else realizes intuitively that this is the determining factor in most elections worldwide.
It of course remains to be seen how Higashi—or should I say Governor Higashikokubaru–will perform in his new job. Other comedians have held public office in Japan before, with mixed results. One was Nishikawa Kiyoshi, who served several terms in Japan’s Upper House after an extremely successful show business career working in a duo with the late Yokoyama Yasushi. Nishikawa has since retired from politics and still occasionally appears on television.
Another was Yokoyama Nokku, an Osaka comedian who was part of a comedy team with Yokoyama Out. Nokku was elected to the Upper House for four terms and went on to become governor of the Osaka Metropolitan District. Nokku was knocked out of his job in disgrace, however, after being hauled into court by a 21-year-old campaign worker for sexual harassment.
In light of the new governor’s rough and tumble background, scrapes with the law, and a predecessor destined to do some jail time, the people of Miyazaki must surely hope that Sonomanma has by now learned how to straighten up and fly right.