Japan from the inside out

Japan’s celebrity politicians

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Japanese television this morning was filled with wall-to-wall features on Sonomanma Higashi’s election as governor of Miyazaki Prefecture. (See yesterday’s post for more details.) He may not be the last person the media expected to see elected to an important government position, but his colorful background makes it safe to assume that he wasn’t within hailing distance of the top ten on their list, either.

But Higashikokubaru Hideo (his real name) is by no means the first celebrity to successfully cross over to politics in Japan. He’s just the next in a long line of performers, athletes, or otherwise well-known people to add “politician” to their list of accomplishments on their resume.

Antonio Inoki

Many celebrities turned politician make a beeline for the House of Councilors, the Upper House of the Japanese Diet. The Upper House was created to act as a check on the House of Representatives, or Lower House, where the real power lies. The inaptly named Lower House has the sole authority to select the prime minister, set the budget, ratify treaties, and initiate legislation. The framers of Japan’s constitution seemed to want more mature people to serve as Upper House MPs—they serve fixed terms that are longer than those of their Lower House counterparts, and they have to be older to run for a seat.

That’s the way it is in theory, but that’s not how it turned out in practice. Perhaps because it so seldom exercises real power, the Upper House continues to attract people from outside politics and gives them a pulpit to espouse their pet causes, get free publicity, or both.

One was professional wrestler Antonio Inoki (more here), a very popular figure nationwide at the time of his election. Inoki, shown in the first photo, formed the Sports Peace Party (comprised primarily of Antonio Inoki), which later merged with the Democratic Socialists. He was known for his various holds, including the Reverse Indian Death Lock, marrying and divorcing Baisho Mitsuko, one of the most shapely Japanese women of her generation, and getting charged with tax evasion and election law violations. He still shows up on TV occasionally, often putting announcers in some painful wrestling hold or just whacking them outright.

The Upper House also seems to attract former Olympic athletes. It didn’t take long for former Olympic speed skater and bicycle racer Hashimoto Seiko to jump into politics, and Ogiwara Kenji, who won two gold medals as part of Japan’s Nordic combined skiing team, was elected a few years ago. Both are members of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party.

The body now has another former professional wrestler serving in its ranks—Onita Atsushi, whose claim to fame was being the first wrestler to participate in a “no-rope barbed-wire electric-explosive death match” (which he won). That sounds like just the background one needs for political trench warfare. He also was known for screaming “Fire!” at the top of his lungs. And when you come right down to it, isn’t that the chief occupation of politicians? (Try this for his professional wrestling curriculum vitae.)

Elected to his first term in 2004 was Okinawan roots musician Kina Shokichi. Kina has some goofy ideas (and he also once ran a nightclub called the Chakra), but he seems to be a sharp observer of the political scene:

Some DPJ members, however, look askance at their new colleague, given that some of his views and ideas run counter to DPJ policies, particularly his advocacy of independence for Okinawa.
But Kina shrugged off such criticism, saying, “The DPJ is by nature a party of contradictions.”

Presiding over this group of zanies is Ogi Chikage, a former member of the Takarazuka troupe, movie actress, and the Transport Minister in Prime Minister Koizumi’s first Cabinet (the above photo is from her younger days).

But the most well-known celebrity politician in Japan is a man who is no longer a member of the Upper House and is not known overseas for being a celebrity—Ishihara Shintaro, the governor of the Tokyo Metropolitan District.

But before Ishihara became known overseas as the man who co-authored The Japan that Can Say No with the late Sony President Morita Akio to call on his countrymen to be more assertive, or the man who, with dismaying regularity, delivers breathtakingly blunt statements that denigrate women, Koreans, the French, or Mickey Mouse, he was already famous in Japan as an award-winning author and Richard Branson-type adventurer.

Shintaro Ishihara poster

Two months before being graduated from college in 1956, Ishihara skyrocketed to the upper reaches of Japan’s celestial celebrity stratosphere when he won the Akutagawa Prize—the foremost literary award in the country—for his novel Taiyo no Kisetsu, or Seasons in the Sun. The book created a sensation because it heralded the emergence of a new generation in a Japan just starting to recover from the war years.

The novel was made into a movie, and Ishihara’s younger brother Yujiro made his debut in the film. The movie did for Yujiro what the novel did for Shintaro—it was his springboard for becoming the most popular Japanese male actor of the postwar era. It’s a mantle that no one else has assumed in the 20 years since his death. (Yujiro may be most familiar to overseas audiences as the Japanese pilot in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.) Thus, Shintaro is not only a celebrity in his own right, but also basks in the considerable light that still emanates from his brother’s seemingly immortal glory.

Ishihara later continued his career as a novelist, and dabbled in directing, running a theater company, exploring the North Pole, sailing yachts, and traveling through South America on a motorcycle. He also served as war correspondent for the Yomiuri Shimbun in Vietnam in 1967-68.

On his return, Ishihara took the celebrity path into Japanese politics and won a seat in the Upper House, but later was elected to the more important Lower House. He retired from politics in 1995 after 25 years in the Diet, but resumed his career in 1999 when he ran in the election for governor of Tokyo and won. He still holds the position today, and plans to run again in the next election.

Outside observers hear of Ishihara’s outrageous statements and his huge margins of electoral victory in the sophisticated city of Tokyo and sometimes see this as evidence that a particularly virulent strain of ultra-rightwing nationalism continues to lurk in the Japanese soul. (Either that, or they find it sexier to bash rightwing fanatics than leftwing fanatics.)

The explanation is much simpler. There are two reasons for Ishihara’s political success. The first is his outspokenness, which, contrary to conventional wisdom, the Japanese love in a politician. The second and more important factor is his celebrity.

If you don’t believe me, ask Arnold Schwarzenegger. If it weren’t for celebrity, how else could a Republican win two gubernatorial elections in the Democratic Party stronghold of California?

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One Response to “Japan’s celebrity politicians”

  1. Paul said

    Three of California’s four most recent governors have been Republicans, and I don’t know that they were all celebrities. The lone Democrat of the bunch was successfully recalled. California is left-wing, but it’s not Massachusetts or Hawaii.

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