Posted by debito on February 2nd, 2009
Hi Blog. What follows is an interesting (and in places deliciously irreverent) essay by Jon Heese, newly-elected naturalized Tsukuba City Assemblyperson, who encourages others to join him as elected local officials in Japan. He shows in this essay how he did it (he even looks a lot like Bill Clinton), with an important point: As long as you do your homework and figure out how your local system works, it should be possible for any number of people with international backgrounds (such as Inuyama’s Anthony Bianchi) to get in office and start making a difference. Enjoy. Arudou Debito in Sapporo
Some background links, courtesy of Jeff Korpa:
Jon Heese Running for City Council « TsukuBlog:
Jon’s Stunning Victory « TsukuBlog:
ヘイズジョンの「愛してる、つくば」 Jon Heese -Aishiteru Tsukuba-:
Yes you can. Yes you should. -jon heese
October 26, 2008 was a very satisfying day. I woke up around the crack of noon, went to the local polling station to vote in the city election and took my family to the park for a beautiful afternoon. Dinner was a relaxed affair. All in all, it was quite a change from the previous seven days. The week beginning the previous Sunday was rather more hectic since I was quite busy kissing hands and shaking babies as I began my campaign for city councilor in Tsukuba-shi, Ibaraki-ken.
The election was the culmination of years of plodding…(plotting?). Four years before, after a few gin and tonics (four parts gin, one part ice and a whiff of tonic) in my favourite bar, I happened to mention to the barkeep how if I had half a mind, I should run for city council. Clearly, he believed I did in fact have only half a mind since he immediately became extremely excited and began to encourage me to take the plunge. He went on for awhile, trying to explain the election system to me, but as I had had at least 3 of those gin and tonics by that time, I was rather befuddled. What I did understand was that he believed I could win, if I ran. I had more than a hangover to think about the next morning.
It was one thing to convince myself that running for office was a good idea. Convincing my wife, Nori, was rather more arduous. Fortunately I had subjected her to many a crazy idea in the past so didn’t really need to convince her per se. She listened to my rant and more or less wrote off this latest plan as just another harebrained scheme. That said, she was willing to help do the necessary paperwork to get me started, the first step on the long road: citizenship.
I had quite a few obstacles to pass to get my citizenship, least of which was the actual application. My first task was to get my taxes paid off. That was not as easy as that sounds since I owed considerable sales taxes from a business that went south. I also needed to get birth records for my large family from various local governments. In any case, I finally managed to get all the required records together at the same time and applied.
The actual citizenship process wasn’t so difficult. My case officer was a friendly guy. No one in his office had ever processed a Canuck before so I believe he was rather excited by the challenge. Other than providing endless copies of paperwork, there really wasn’t much for me to do, with the exception of writing the requisite essay in Japanese. This essay was the one real challenge, the one actual test in Japanese-ness. The original request was for a one page essay written in pencil. At the next meeting I presented my case officer the essay and he claimed it was good enough. Now please rewrite it in ink. Could I just copy over the existing essay and erase the pencil after? Sure, no problem. I presented the ink version the next week. Ah, Heese-san, that’s great. Could you please make one more copy in ink? No, a photocopy was not good enough. Well, I didn’t choke the snivel serpent on the spot, so I guess I passed the “gaman” (patience) test. From start to finish, the process took about 6 months. This meant that the tax documents needed to be renewed and resubmitted since official docs expire after 3 months. More “gaman”.
On June 5th, 2007 I officially became Japanese. By this time pretty much anyone who bothered to listen to my blathering had heard of my political ambitions. Curiously, getting my citizenship did not convince many people of my seriousness. Even my wife still thought that the whole citizenship hoop-jump was a big step forward, but when push came to shove, I’d chicken out or find some excuse not to run.
Fast forward to spring of 2008. By then most of the candidates who were planning to run already had their flyers and campaign posters designed and their meishi printed. They had their political support clubs already registered and were gathering funds. Nori had been emphasizing for months I should stop my candidacy, since she felt that to lose would be a severe blow and not worth risking. True, many a losing Japanese candidate also loses vast amounts of face. I, however, was not afraid of losing since that would imply I had some pride (Bzzzz, wrong answer). In fact, the way I saw it, to run and lose would still prove to be a plus. In spite of the many foreigners in our city the principals have never really had anyone they could approach for advice whenever serious issues arose. Sure there were a few of the usual suspects that attended the various advisory boards and panels, but no one was really seen as a definitive voice for the foreign community. Worst case, by stepping forward for the election and losing, I would still become the go-to guy for any future dialogue. That couldn’t be bad.
When I approached my barkeep in July 2008 to see about selecting a campaign manager, he pretty much bit my head off for being so slow off the mark. OK, well, I had no answer but “Gomen nasai.” Still, I give barkeep a lot of credit since once he saw I was serious about running, in spite of my slow start, he started to make a few calls to a few of the movers and shakers around town. The first heavyweight to show up was Mr. O, a real firecracker. He’d spent his youth hitching around Europe and Asia, a true English speaking internationalist. That first meeting was just to satisfy him that I really was serious. Some days later, I got a call from the challenging mayoral candidate, and would I be interested in meeting? Mr. F is a sweet old guy, 72 in 2008. Would I support him in the coming election? Sure would, especially as his group promised to distribute 20,000 of my pamphlets throughout the city for free.
Ah, shit, those pamphlets… Ever notice that whenever you procrastinate for a long time, suddenly you get that feeling that everything needs to be done at once? Nori, my lovely and supporting wife, now had me over a barrel. As the designer-in-chief, she knew that if she was to get her best deal, that was the time. Working full time 6:30 AM to 11 PM in Tokyo, she was not at all interested in having even more work thrust on her because I needed something translated or designed for free. If she was going to support me in the campaign, it would be as an advisor only. She would not campaign with me, knocking on doors and generally bothering others. More importantly, if I won, she would not read the voluminous documentation, the many bills or other paperwork. She had her own job and I was on my own. But yes, she’s do the necessary design work for the election only. She sat down at the Mac and whipped up both my meishi and the pamphlet, sent everything off to the the printers in time to have everything back 3 weeks before the election and just in time for the challenger’s campaign supporters to stuff into mailboxes. In the meantime she also managed to get my web page up. And just 3 days before the actual campaign started, my posters arrived. Whew, safe.
By now the buzz was starting to happen. The pamphlets in the mailboxes were having an effect. People were approaching me and mentioning they’d seen my flyer in their post. Was I really going to run? YES PEOPLE, DAMMIT! I’M SERIOUS!!! The reactions were naturally varied. Many of my Japanese friends were all very supportive. The strangest reactions tended to come from my foreign friends. One guy even had the temerity to say his wife, a doctor, was a member of the Pink Ribbon society, a breast cancer awareness group. Since I was going to get my ass thumped in this first election he didn’t want his wife to use up her sway in the group for this election, but perhaps during the next election she might bring me around and introduce me. Well f*** you very much, friend. Generally, the only negative responses came from my foreign acquaintances. And when I say negative, I mean there was a lot of disbelief that I stood any chance. But “E” for effort Jon. Gambatte!
October 19th, the official start of the campaign. All my paperwork was done, posters ready and all the candidates gathered at the city office for the official kickoff. The atmosphere was more gold rush than election. Every candidate had his paperwork re-examined (we’d all had the paperwork gone over by the election officials the week before). As soon as the candidate was processed, out the door they raced, ready to stake their claim. The reality is that we all had to get our posters put up on the official boards erected throughout the city. This was no small feat as there were 450 locations, many in the middle of nowhere. The maps provided by the city were crappy photocopies at best. Fortunately I had made another connection to a group of like-minded candidates who divvied up the locations. My poster team would put up the posters of 6 other candidates at 30 locations and they would do the same for me around the city. Score.
Nori’s advice now came into effect. Number one: NO LOUDSPEAKER CAR. Yes, we all complain about it. The other candidates claimed that they too hate the damn cars and the grief they cause the voters. Well, I had to walk the walk. Number 2: forget about the train stations, especially in the early mornings. Everyone is in a rush and no one wants my damn meishi or flyer. If I want to catch the morning rush, stand outside the daycares and kindergartens and greet the mothers as they drop off their kids. The mothers will encouraged their husbands vote for me too, those same husbands rushing off to work on the trains. Number three: put a pole with my poster on the back of my bicycle and ride around town to my campaign stops. All good advice.
That first Sunday was rather special. It was the first day of campaigning so my manager and I went downtown and greeted the shoppers. As the other candidates were driving around and making a ruckus, I shouted “My name is Jon Heese and I’m running for city council” to all and sundry. A lot tougher than it sounds. After a couple of hours, my voice was thrashed. Towards the evening, we moved to another location and canvased local businesses until around 8 PM. Officially, campaigning can only occur between 8 AM to 8 PM. One day down.
Weekdays my manager and I got into a rhythm. We picked a daycare, greeted parents (see above) until just before 9, moved to the nearby kindergarten and greeted the mothers who usually formed a gaggle around the entrance. Unlike daycare parents, kindergarten mothers often don’t have a job to go to so this presented a nice opportunity to talk briefly about what I wanted to do. My manager had a real job to go to in the afternoons so I went home, had a short nap and lunch and went on the trail by myself in the afternoons and evenings. I tried doing the door to door a few times, but realistically, that’s a losing strategy. The few people at home on weekdays usually don’t open their doors, using their inter-phones. As soon as they heard I was a politician and a foreign one to boot, they’d hang up, some more politely than others.
While the other candidates went around bugging everyone with their loudspeakers, I spent my afternoons and evenings bothering people in their businesses. The nice thing about a business is that the staff are all trained to be polite to everyone. No slammed doors, no rude gestures, no buckets of blood thrown in my face. I walked in, asked for the boss, introduced myself and left. At the beginning of the week the news that a foreigner was running still wasn’t generally known. Over the course of the week, that changed somewhat. I still surprised a lot of folk. I’m sure there were a few people who were wondering which comedy show I was working for and where the hidden cameras were. Day 2 ~ 6 done.
Saturday rolled around; last day of campaigning. No daycares or kindergartens so I went back downtown and accosted, uhh, I mean greeted people. By this time my candidacy was common knowledge. Pretty much everyone had seen my posters and/or heard stuff via the grape-net or the inter-vine. I had many positive responses, people coming up to me and wanting to shake my hand and encourage me. Many voters told me they had used the early voting system to vote for me already. By the end of the 7th and final day, I knew I had at least 50 votes. Eight PM rolled around I was delighted to be able to take off my sash and take a long deserved sauna. The campaign was officially over. I was very confident that I was going to kick ass the next day. For my friends who really wanted to know what I thought my chances were, I told them top five. Otherwise, I just espoused optimism. I didn’t want to come across as over confident.
Sunday came, polling started and I relaxed. Candidates traditionally spend election day on the phones, encouraging the folk credulous enough to give out a working phone number to go vote. Campaigning is verboten, but burning up the land lines is fair game. I only had a few phone numbers of Japanese friends or foreign friends married to Japanese. Five calls later I was done. Time to relax and enjoy the day with my family. Polls closed at 8 PM. Counting began around 9. Mayor votes are counted first. My wife and I went to Mr. F’s campaign headquarters around 10:30 PM. We were late. The results were already in and he’d lost again. Sucked to be him. We arrived to doom and gloom, some of the supporters in tears. I wasn’t surprised. F-san is really a sweet guy, but he just didn’t have the charisma of his opponent. Piss-pots of money yes, but his oomph was gone.
Around 11 we went to my campaign headquarters, my favourite bar, to await the outcome. The first results came in around 11:30. I had been told that the winning candidates, based on previous elections, needed at least 1,600 votes. Someone at the computer was hitting refresh every 10 second or so from around 11:15. Another was on the phone talking to someone at the counting station. A cheer from the computer brought the whole bar to the monitor. After 30% of votes counted, there I was, tied for 1st place with 1,800 votes. It was all over but the cheering, multiple rounds of toasts, hugs, pictures and a special present from my brother, a stack of bribe envelopes with a million yen as the minimum amount. By midnight the final tally was in. I’d moved down to 2nd place with a total of 4,011 votes. First came in with 4,500. Still, not bad for a beginner.
OK, a nice story. Yeah me! What does this have to do with you? Well, here’s the dope. All city elections are pretty much run the same, following rules set up by the national government. Ergo, if you understand the structure, my story is repeatable… by you! “Me?” you say. Yes you. Let me explain.
Most cities have between 25 and 30 seats in their council. Usually there are around 10 ~ 20% more candidates than there are seats in any given city election. In Tsukuba, I had 40 competitors running for 33 seats. That is worth considering on its own. How much easier for me, all things being equal, to place in the winning 33 than to place in the losing 7?
The remarkable characteristic about most of candidates is how they are mostly nice gray men in nice gray suits. They are all very amiable and, above all, competent guys but pretty much lacking in charisma. They are all looking to make the city a better place by keeping the mayor in check. I say good for them. I’ve gotten to know our winning clutch over the last few months and I think they are a nice bunch. My opinion may change in the coming years, but so far, very positive.
Let’s have a look at the voters. The nice gray men all have their support groups and the better ones have better machines. However, in any given election, there are about 30% independent voters. In Tsukuba, about 90,000 citizens voted, meaning 30,000 voters were not aligned to any organization. Here are the numbers needed to win. The winner of seat 33 garnered 1577 votes (the guy below him had 1,552). The numbers show that anyone who can get 5% of independent voters will win. Now add on the votes from your spouse’s family, friends, the shopkeepers where you are known, your students/co-workers/underlings and all their friends and pretty soon you are vying for top dog.
How do independent voters decide who to vote for? Well, we can assume they have no clue who to vote for or they’d already be aligned. In 2004, the first time I paid attention to a local election, the number one vote getter was a 26 year old who went around saying, “Vote for me, I’m 26.” Of course he had a pamphlet with all the changes he wanted to make but his real message was very clear. This year I came in a respectable second. I also had a policy-filled flyer but my underlying campaign message was, “I’m foreign, vote for me.” OK, I’m being cynical, but sue me!
My impression is that independent voters are attracted to different and new things. Figure out what your attraction might be and play it for all it’s worth and you will do just fine. Just your foreignness already makes you prominent. Elections are really just advertising campaigns and if your product is being talked about, you will get votes. Remember, voters unhappy with your candidacy can’t vote you off the islands. At worst, they can only not vote for you. Certainly the other candidates will not waste their breath trying to block you as mud slinging just makes you even more famous.
OK, so you’ve read this far and maybe even have a dreamy “What if” look as you imagine the possibilities. Here is a brief overview of what you’ll need: 1. You need to be Japanese. Get over it. It is not that hard to do. The biggest obstacle will be giving up your previous citizenship. Chances are you are already here for the duration. Why not let everyone else know too. It will be cathartic. 2. If you have been a good boy or girl you have not only learned to speak Japanese fairly well, but can even read a significant amount of kanji. Everything else is just details. Is that brief enough?
Things you won’t need: lots of money, lots of friends. Both help but are not deal breakers. As for money, campaigns are funded by the city. The nice gray men need to spend the big yen over and above the city funding to get their “Look at me!” message out. I was stupid and wasted Y400,000 of my own money. If I’d procrastinated less, I could have been elected for free. As for friends, they are useful. That said, I have no clue who cast most of the 4,000 votes I got. I’ll never know and it’s not important. One advantage you have already that I did not is my help and experience. Contact Debito if you need my e-mail or phone number (don’t call before noon).
The fact you are reading this on Arudou Debito’s blog tells me you are a concerned inhabitant and hopefully future citizen. You are interested in the way Japan is being run. That you own a computer and are net literate already makes you exceptional when compared to the nice gray men running your city. Consider this, Tsukuba is hailed as Japan’s Science City, it’s Palo Alto. And yet, fewer than 30% of the candidates even had an election home page. Doesn’t that strike you as more than just odd, but disastrous for this country? When the country’s smartest city (highest average IQ) elects a majority of its councilors with no net presence, that is worrying. Chances are it’s worse where you are.
In spite of all of the negative shit you read on this blog, there is another side to Japan that Debito freely recognizes. There are so many super kind and generous Japanese out there who will gladly support you in your efforts, should you decide to try to be the next foreign candidate. The silent majority in Japan are just keeping their heads down and trying not to get singled out. However, there is an active minority who really do believe in Japan’s place in the fabric of humanity, that Japan should honour their pledges to the world.
Debito’s blog often points out where Japan is falling down on their commitments because good people do nothing. However, there are plenty of people out there who are doing great things but don’t have the charisma to get into politics. You’ve met them, your spouse knows them. This is a fifth column that is just waiting for you to stand up and be counted. They will stand behind you and find the resources you need to win.
I praise Debito for his work in poking the establishment in the eye for their lack of backbone and I hope my story provides a little balance to Debito’s efforts. Now imagine what will happen when Debito, and yes, I do mean WHEN Debito takes his scrotum in hand and changes Hokkaido forever by becoming Sapporo’s first western politician. Can you imagine the changes that will take place when Japan’s biggest pain in the ass foreigner starts to point the spotlight on all those politicians who are not living up to our obligations because they do nothing? Oh Happy Day! Now imagine, 30 of us throughout the nation. This is not a dream, this is very doable. The election system is designed with you in mind. Take advantage of it. Yes you can. YES YOU SHOULD!
January 30, 2008