Canvassing political parties in Japan
By Arudou Debito

(Originally sent to Friends, The Community, HIBA, UMJ lists, Issho, and Shakai April 15, 2001)

This report is a personal view of what it's like to raise political awareness of a social problem in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. As a preliminary series of findings and impressions, it focusses upon one particular lobbying drive (April 16, 2001) by one person visiting the offices of Japan's four major political parties. It is not meant as a definitive guide to the atmosphere and attitudes of Japan's elected political networks, but rather as one person's attempt to make sense of what he saw, moreover possibly provide guideposts for others who anticipate raising social problems with their local representatives. Organized thus (click if you want to skip down):

QUICK BACKGROUND: Why I'm bothering to do this

Why I'm bothering

Japan is, ostensibly and constitutionally, a democracy, with elected representatives going to a bicameral legislature (the Diet) modelled much on the British Parliament. As a long-term resident of Japan with voting rights (thanks to naturalization), I decided that one particular social problem warrants consideration for a law: racial discrimination in Japan. After experiencing racial discrimination firsthand at a series of Hokkaido bathhouses and other enterprises (full background at http://www.debito.org/otarulawsuit.html), who for years have refused service to customers they view as foreigners, many people, human rights groups (such as Issho Kikaku, http://www.issho.org) and I decided from 1999 to increase local awareness of the problem and bring administrative pressure to bear. Unfortunately, the bureaucrats' mantra has been, "discrimination of this type is unconstitutional but not illegal", meaning that there is no national (or local) law in Japan forbidding exclusion by race. "Take it to court," they said, and we have, but court decisions are case-by-case judicial rulings, not laws, and thus do next to nothing to prevent further discrimination against other individuals by different establishments. So the push for a law continues. After our lobbying of local legislatures resulted in their refusal to pass (or even draft) our proposed anti-discrimination ordinances, I decided the next step would be lobbying the political parties in general, to see where their sympathies lie. I hoped that by pointing out the spreading problem in Hokkaido, the fact that Japan is the only OECD country without any anti-racial discrimination law, and that our country has been under UN treaty obligation to establish one since 1996, impetus might overpower inertia. Nothing ventured...

Now, why choose local (as opposed to national) offices of political parties as the target audience? I confined lobbying efforts to Sapporo, Hokkaido's largest city, because: 1) Exclusion by race is a national problem, but its local egregiousness warrants local attention. 2) It has been receiving that attention: local press coverage of our court case and its ripples has been widespread, thorough, and increasing. My contacts at the TV networks indicate their ratings jump (once by a factor of seven for that time slot) any time they feature the onsens problem, and subsequent feedback in both their electronic and paper fora is heavy. Consequently, people know who we are, and that opens more doors and grants audiences. 3) We are local residents, which gives us some degree of added legitimacy; some critics, looking for any axe to grind, have said they dislike activists from outside Hokkaido parachuting in and pontificating for their own interest group's publicity. The fact that we live here and our families are affected strengthens our voice. Moreover, 4) we simply don't have the wherewithal to fly down to Tokyo and lobby the Diet. Other Tokyo-based groups, like Issho Kikaku, IMADR (http://www.imadr.org), and Tokyo Alien Eyes (http://www.annie.ne.jp/~ishn), have already visited national Diet members and given lectures on the subject. Bravo. But technically speaking, a representative system is structured to allow people to lobby their national representatives locally ("all politics is local", remember--even in porkbarrelling Japan)--which is why they have offices up here. Most of these offices are supported by the four major political parties. Thus, even with a naive and Frank Capra-esque hope that influencing party policy may influence all levels of government--local, regional, and national--I set out to talk to each party headquarters in Sapporo. You have to start somewhere.

A week before going, I let my networks of activist friends, supporters, and reporters both overseas and domestic what I was planning, inviting them if they had time and inclination. It would be completely voluntary, the only expense being shoe leather. I got a number of "ganbattes" but predictably few takers (April 16 was a Monday, a work day, but the party offices would be open). I did however receive plenty of press inquiries, and kept them appraised of a schedule as it firmed up. I also received permission from Issho Kikaku to present a model anti-racial discrimination bill (houan, at http://www.issho.org/kinshiho-modelbill.html (English) and http://www.issho.org/kinshiho-modelhoan.html (Japanese)), and would state as per their request that I was presenting as concerned individual, not an Issho representative.

I also called each political party one week before dropping by, told them my business, and made an appointment. Things quickly fell into place. As I said, they knew who I was, and of course the reception I received was quite different (or indifferent) based upon what I perceived as party sympathies.

MONDAY, APRIL 16, 2001, 11:30 AM

This party gave me the most runaround. Throughout the month of March (March 3 to 23, to be exact), I negotiated to meet Minshutou's party leader, Mr Hatoyama Yukio, who just happens to represent Hokkaido. Contacting his office is not difficult--it's in the phone book--but talking to one of his aides (a Mr Okuno) was a pill. I requested to see Mr Hatoyama next time he came up to Sapporo (sometime in March), but twice the aide did not keep his promise to respond to my requests within a week. Turns out he wouldn't even pass the proposal on to Tokyo. It wasn't until a couple of journalists with inquiring minds started phoning that he started to take me seriously, and give me a serious rejection. Not a good start.

When I gave up on Hatoyama and called to meet Minshutou in general, things understandibly got a bit easier. Still, the party was uncertain with the unusualness of my request (how many citizens show up on their doorstep with a law for them to consider?) to whom to hook me up with: the Sapporo City Council people, the Hokkaido Government people, or to our Diet rep and former Hokkaido Governor Mr Yokomichi (they chose Mr Y). This melee of disorganization ultimately turned out to be a providence, because after a few days of them playing catch-ball, they asked me to show up right after a general meeting that just happened to be on that Monday, and in attendence would be Diet Shuugiin (House of Reps) Nakazawa Kenji.

It is amazing how fast these things happen. On April 16, I showed up early with two local TV networks, HBC and TVH, and gave a couple of preliminary interviews in front of their building. Reporters from Jiji Journal, Doshin, and Mainichi Shinbun also showed. At 11:20 (which was a pity, for about five minutes later a couple of supporters came and couldn't get in), one of the party's junior secretaries came down to escort me up to the spanking-clean offices of Sapporo Minshutou. The cameras slurped up as much atmosphere as possible before a number of political aides surged forth, ran me through a meishi gauntlet, and escorted me into a meeting room which just minutes before was filled with smoke-filled negotiations. It was a squeeze: well over half of the floor space was taken up by a square of connected desks, and people had to walk the perimeter single file just to get about. I was plunked at a table facing Dietman Nakazawa, who was flanked by two Hokkaido Assemblymen and a party general (what a coup!). Everyone was within tackling distance, but even the basic formality of a handshake had to wait as we couldn't get to each other--the flanking cameras blocked all access (glad we didn't have a fire drill). We struggled to pass meishi across the central no-man's land between the desks, and with that, the cameras whirred as I spoke for about fifteen minutes.

It was a well-oiled speech you've probably already heard in various spins. And while I don't mean to sound like I'm "talking up" the receptiveness of the audience, I must say that I got a lot more nods and questions than I anticipated. When I broached the subject of our not receiving so much of as a response to our anti-discrimination "chinjou" (petition for the establishment of an ordinance, see http://www.issho.org/BENCI/hokkaidochinjou.html), submitted to the Hokkaido Assembly exactly a year ago, they said Minshutou had never received it and would investigate. When I showed a photograph of sandwich man, advertising the Gold Coast Casino in Shinbashi, Tokyo as "Japanese Only", I think Mr Nakazawa got an idea of just how widespread the problem is (he made sure to photocopy the pic). And when I mentioned our kids, I think that was where he understood our motivations (which matters if you ever want these people to emote). For what parent would want his kids to suffer inequities like these? To me individually afterwards, and to the cameras in a postmortem interview, Mr Nakazawa stressed that this problem is serious and must be dealt with--probably with legislation.

It was, in the end, a very lucky and reassuring meeting. I had seen just how disparate the views within Minshutou were when we lobbied their Otaru Assemblypeople in April 2000 (they would do nothing to help us, and were irritated that we even bothered to ask). As Minshutou is these days a polyglot of Liberal Democrat and Socialist Party defectors, we can only wait and see where this highly-fragmented party will take the issue.


The Liberal Democrats (LDP) seem far more organized. No wonder. Having been the ruling party for almost all of the postwar years (save some confusing times during The Occupation when SCAP was rigging things, and a brief interlude in the 1990's), they have enjoyed the longest essentially unbroken party leadership in the industrialized world. With that has come insider relations, pork, staying power in a society which places high value on precedent, and access to the Americans' M-Fund to slush and shush up their accounts (See Norbert Schlei, in ASIAN PERSPECTIVE Vol 24, No 4, 2000). The point is that despite their "liberal" moniker, I would classify them as "conservative" (in the sense of "desiring to preserve the status quo"), because it's in their interests to keep things just as they are.

Now I was going to chat with them. After a lunch of kaiten sushi (Note to activists: never eat sushi when canvassing--the soy sauce makes you too thirsty to talk, and any attempts to quench your thirst just distract you later on when you really gotta go), I met a young Mr Imai in the genkan of Doucho. Its PR machine was efficient, for when I called LDP HQ the previous week for an appointment, it was granted after only five minutes of explanation--the first fixed star in my schedule. The party seemed on top of things. They also seemed on top of the issue.

The cameras (again HBC, TVH, and this time STV) showed and I was brought upstairs to the office of LDP Hokkaido Prefectural Assembly Rep Satou Tokio. It turned into a very unexpected encounter.

With the cameras spinning I spun into my speech again, but five minutes awhirl later I could see he was not interested. He interrupted with his own take on the problem (all paraphrased from a hazy memory). "What do you want to do today?"

Me: "I want to give you a model anti-racial-discrimination law for your party's consideration."

"Quite frankly, I'm not interested in establishing a law against this. It's not racial discrimination anyway. It's a matter of communication breakdown."


"You foreigners, those Russians, those people who don't know Japanese customs and bathing rules. They made all this trouble and it's no wonder why Japanese customers stay away and why bathhouses forbid them. No law is going to change those attitudes until you foreigners learn how to follow our rules."

"I'm sorry, Mr Satou, but I am not a foreigner. I am a Japanese. I am also not a Russian sailor. Nor are our children. But we are being barred based upon our looks and not our behavior, and..."

He was not in a listening mode. "And look at the behavior of those Russians. They're smuggling in drugs and guns, getting drunk and running wild around our towns. It's the Russians that are the problem, and the laws you want aren't going to fix that."

"I repeat, I am not a Russian sailor. I have no connection to those people whatsoever. The onsens are having problems, yes, but by shutting us out they are punishing innocents."

The conversation went on like this for about 30 minutes, with both of us talking past one another: him firmly seeing it as a problem that better communication, not laws, would and should fix, and me saying that the future of our country is multicultural and multiracial and laws must exist to protect us. It was fascinating for the cameras, which I could see out of the corner of my eye recording all of this like spectators at a tennis match, bobbing back and forth. The best smash from Mr Satou, which I let pass without comment, was:

"Japan doesn't need laws. Once our country didn't have laws. Everything was done on mutual understanding. That's the way this problem should be fixed. We don't need laws."

That caused bent necks all around, even from Mr Imai sitting next to Mr Satou, and the cameras got it. At the end, I managed to get his acknowledgement that this activity was "discrimination" (although later he tried to backpedal on that too), but that he didn't feel that race had anything to do with it. He also was uncertain why his party should be concerned.

Me: "Because you are the legislative branch. If it's discrimination as you just admitted, it's a social problem. Dealing with social problems by making laws is your job. Please take this law and consider it."


Believe it or not, Mr Satou and I parted on amiable terms. As we shook hands, I likened this exchange to "Asa Made Nama Terebi" (the occasional debates in the wee hours of the morning on controversial topics), which he laughed at. I (quite honestly) told him that I enjoyed our frank exchange of views, and hoped that we could debate this again sometime. Because it is only when people drop the tatemae and really have their innermost views debated and answered are things going to get moving, I believe. And he did formally receive the model law, for whatever reasons.

Walking out, I decided to check up on unfinished business, stopping by the Sougou Iinkai Jimushou where we had been told to submit our Hokkaido Assembly chinjou last year. Buttonholing to the only remaining secretary there who remembered me (a bureaucrat in his late forties), I heard him say:

"Your chinjou is still being deliberated upon. Sorry we didn't notify you. We don't usually."

"But the political parties say they haven't received it."

"No, they wouldn't have. Individual members on the Sougou Iinkai have, though. They will be deliberating on it." For how long? "An indefinite amount of time."

"And how long does this session have before this bill gets thrown out?" Two years, he said, until the next election.

"So this chinjou has, in effect, been buried in committee. Right?"

Both the secretary and the laughed at the directness. "I wouldn't say that. But it's not up to me. Just doing my job." And we said our goodbyes there.

Me, to Mr Imai: "Tough job, this politics. Winners and losers everywhere."

He smiled. "It's a pity this onsen problem has gotten to the point where laws are necessary."

KITA 6, NISHI 7, 2:00 PM

The Japanese Communist Party (JCP), believe it or not, is the oldest continuously-running political party in Japan. It was founded on July 15, 1922--not long after the Russian Revolution! For thorough details on the JCP's origins, history, party machinery, and sympathies, see the Japan Policy Research Institute's Working Paper No 67 (http://www.jpri.org/jpri/protected/wp67.html-- passworded, sorry) by Peter Berton. So if anything, I was visiting a political party more "traditional" (as opposed to "conservative") than the LDP. And it was visible from the first moment I laid eyes on the Sapporo JCP HQ.

Tucked in behind a huge building that looked about maybe 10-15 years old (i.e. old for an office building in Japan) was an much older four-story rainbleached grime-mongering edifice straight out of a Dostoyevsky book. The JCP HQ. It certainly hadn't been painted in my lifetime, and the only reason it looked reasonably bright was due to the backdrop of battleship-grey concrete JR rail flyovers. It was a banner's length from a low-rent neighborhood, where even the rail overpass land is so far away from any train station that it's unmarketable even for parking--so the homeless sleep under there in tents. The JCP (and most labor union buildings in Japan, for that matter) sticks to their traditional paradigm of dinginess and un-opulence for political reasons. It Roskolnikovs the atmosphere very quickly. It was only after I found the doorside JCP plaque (with rust beards dribbling down the corners and the walls), behind trucks servicing the political printing company next door, that I knew I had come to the right place.

Walking in, I found a person in half-mufti sitting behind a corner-glass security booth, who took my details down and dialed upstairs (rotary phone, of course) to my appointmenter, Mr Itakura. Meanwhile, I asked to use the loo and soon regretted it (the toilet was visibly cleaner than the sink). And it wasn't until I was escorted into the drab, featureless conference room (with a trickle of sun through a greasy-feeling window that kept out light but let in cold and noise) that I would really take in what kind of a party the JCP was.

No press had bothered to attend, so I gave my speech rather unceremoniously to Mr Itakura, who was accompanied by some other gent who didn't bother to bring a meishi. They agreed with me, in toto, and took the model bill. No bones in this ice cream. That was it. Nothing more to say. Except for the fact that when I asked, Mr Itakura would offer no sense of when the JCP would begin to draft or push.

"All we can do here from Sapporo is send this to the Central Committee (yes, "chuo iinkai" in Japanese) and report that this was received. We need a decision from them before we can do anything. But please understand that there is no guarantee that this will be taken up as a topic."

Really, that was it. I walked out of the JCP wondering exactly what it was up to. And the next few days would would truly confound and affirm some niggling doubts.

My impression of the JCP had been good and hopes high. For many years, I had respected its ability to make arguments which made logical sense. To get votes, the lawyerly and scholarly reps within would appeal to reason and principle, not nationalism or just plain warm-fuzzy sound-truck "yoroshikus". I thought the Communists were the Devil's Advocate the Japanese polity needed. Moreover, it seemed to be on our side. The JCP was the only party which voted "yes" on our Otaru City Assembly chinjou before it got buried in committee. And they never made any bones about this problem being racial discrimination.

However, the more I began asking JCP types to participate in other pushes, the greater things diverged. Let me digress a little to make my point clearer.

Last week, April 16-22, was a busy one. After this Monday lobbying session, I had a Thursday speech at a local city Internationals Relations Committee, a Saturday roundtable with our town councilors, and a Sunday speech in Otaru on the onsen mondai. All went just fine, but it was Saturday's doings which required the most preparation. For I was hosting our biannual symposium on town issues, as chair of the Nanporo Chihou Bunken Forum. As such, I was trying to get all sixteen of Nanporo's councilors to attend and give their impressions on two big problems currently facing our little town of Nanporo (http://www.nanporo.com): 1) the Nanporo golf resort (http://www.debito.org/d3s.html), and 2) government-run housing developer Juutaku Kyoukyuu Kousha (whom our town is actually subsidizing to the tune of 20 million US dollars a year, giving them a loan without collateral and absurdly paying 0.25% of their interest cost. The organization is technically bankrupt, and if it goes under so does our "loan". It's a long story. Let me know if you want a separate report on this.)

Anyway, we got the mayor to attend and a sparse two councillors to show up (we still had a great time--see newspaper article with photo at http://www.debito.org/doshin042201.jpg if you don't believe me). But as chair it had my job to coax more to come. I wound up calling each and every one of the councillors once, some even twice or three times, just to find out if they were coming and to poll their views. I've been doing this for three years now, and even now that they know who I am, after I finish talking to some of these unctuous and slippery lips I just want to take a shower. They still don't seem to grasp that as reps they are accountable to their electors, and that at least answering "yes" or "no" to an invitation from an established citizens' group is just good manners.

But here's where the JCP comes in. Only three of the town councillors are affiliated with political parties (getting elected to a town doesn't usually require a party machine--here you only need 200 votes, so most people would rather remain unaffiliated and get elected by their friends). One is the Koumeitou "Clean Government Party" rep (who was at least friendly in his refusal this time, since some of my friends are Souka Gakkai and are making it clear they regret voting for him). The other two are from the JCP.

When I called Mr Kumaki, the male JCP councillor, he said unequivocably that he would come. But when I finally reached the female JCPer, Ms Nanbu, she said, "The JCP has already made our stance clear in writing at the last town assembly. We have nothing more to say. We should listen more to the voice of town citizens and get their input before saying more."

That begged the question. So I said, "That is why you should come to this meeting. This is where the voice of town citizens can be heard. We've had two other meetings of this type before, and you have never attended. We'd like to hear what you as assemblypeople have to say about what should be done."

She said, "I have nothing to say as an individual. I can only speak as a JCP party member. We have made our voice clear in writing in the last assembly. I will not speak in public otherwise."

"But I am asking everyone's views about these two topics. Others have answered. What are yours?"

"I cannot give you my views over the telephone."

"If you prefer writing, won't you give me a FAX stating your views? We will read it at the meeting."

She said she would but never did. The next day, Mr Kumaki called my wife (he wouldn't talk to me directly) to say that neither he or the JCP would be attending the forum. Reasons left unknown. When I called the Nanporo contact number for the JCP (provided me by our town hall), I found it had been disconnected.

This was where I realized that these people really were following one of the worst excesses of Leninist-Stalinist ideology: "democratic centralism" (essentially, where ideas are channeled upwards, but when decisions are made from above, they are expected to be followed by people below without further question). This reliance on Central Committee decisionmaking is precisely what squashes individuals from taking any individual actions, and it is arguably one of the more intolerant measures ever fostered by Communism. Very disappointing indeed. With these and other public displays of unity redolent of North Korean Kims, I think I finally understood why many Japanese don't trust the JCP.

But I have been watching this pattern emerge for about a year now. Last May, we asked each political party in a pre-general-election survey (http://www.issho.org/BENCI/seitouchousa.html) how they viewed the onsen mondai and what measures they would take against racial discrimination. I found it suspicious when the JCP responded by saying that anti-discrimination legislation must be left to the localities. That is precisely how these things get snagged in committee. The situation I see is that the JCP just doesn't want to alienate voters with a blanket policy or national law. Same as all parties, but the JCP had hitherto always seemed to be claiming otherwise. So much for principles. And if these principles moreover muzzle members from giving their opinions without central permission, it begins to feel, well, deeply undemocratic.

KITA 1 NISHI 19. 3:30 PM

It was the last whistlestop on my tour, so I walked the three kilometers to the Koumeitou HQ in the glorious sunshine which fellow plaintiff Olaf would claim God provided me specially for my trouble. It was an opiate for my mass. Now that I was out of the anti-media zone, HBC and STV TV cameras reappeared to lift me out of my funk, filming me walking down the streets and expending shoe leather (they seem to find Frank Capra inspiring too). It would be a pleasant way to round off the day, for Koumeitou was simply not going to ruin it.

The Koumeitou is the political branch of one of Japan's "New Religions", the Souka Gakkai ("Value-Creating Association"--to me, highly nutshelled, the Japanese equivalent of the Mormons). Described by Reischauer in THE JAPANESE (1981 version) as "by definition disadvantaged urban dwellers" and "a nucleus for a protest vote" (pg 318), Koumeitou is also a party with "strong centralized structures" and "slightly totalitarian overtones in the manipulation of its faithful religious support by a closely organized leadership" (pg 321). Now, this may be the Cold War talking, since Reischauer was quite politically aware when serving as Japan-handing interlocutor to the West. But I generally agree with him when he says (when inter alia referring to the JCP) that "such tight organizational skills are also frightening to the average Japanese, who see signs in the party of Japan's authoritarian past" (ibid).

But Koumeitou in the 2000's was doing its best to dispel that image. In the nice sitting room with nice chairs over a nice cup of tea, I met a Mr Aokiyama, a senior aide in the Hokkaido HQ. His sweater and elderly manner made me feel like I was talking to Fred Rogers of Mr Rogers' Neighborhood. His manner during my standard speech was nice, his platitudes were nice, his response was nicely in complete agreement, and his lack of any promises at all were nicely understandable. Things were so nice the cameras didn't bother to stay to the end. I handed the law over and our meeting was over in fifteen minutes.

It was clear that Mr Aokiyama's job was to make people feel like they were being listened to--not alienate a potential voter or league of supporters. "And I bet if you said you would change your religion and bring in lots of new members", said my joking neighbors over beers a few nights later, "their ears would really have perked up." Sure enough, the record demonstrates Koumeitou has been one of the more ardent supporters of voting rights for Permanent Residents--since many of them are Souka Gakkaied. But to me it is unclear whether this will extend to a nicer law for a nicer society for everyone, regardless of religious convictions.


Y'know, I don't really know what to conclude from all this; I feel like Director David Fincher trying to choose an ending for his movie SEVEN. I have had an interesting glimpse (but again, only a glimpse) into the attitudes of four major parties, and yes, to be honest, I don't know whom I can trust. If the next general election were held tomorrow, I would feel the same confusion the average Japanesevoter, who hasn't been told by his relatives or employers whom to vote for, must feel. In a political domain where tatemae is seen as atarimae, where being too honest is a show of unintelligence (cf. "baka shoujiki"), where the disenfranchised really are so and those enfranchised enjoy long traditions of smoke, mirrors, and strings, it is disappointing to think that our legislative futures are up to people who feel this unaccountable to the electorate. To be sure, some of these elements are in every advanced industrial country, and it is far worse for most of the world's population. But it's just hard to believe in Capraism and "one person making a difference" at this particular juncture.

However, the press has been very supportive. The defanging nature of the Japanese Press Club system notwithstanding, it has been an extensive network of local journalists, who believe that we are doing the right thing (and have found a way to market it), that has truly opened the doors and brought some accountability into the equation. It started in September, 1999, when five years of Otaru City complacency towards discrimination in their precinct was shattered by a group of foreign friends, their families, and one talented journalist who got things past his editors. Now it has expanded to include all facets of the media and a large pool of trust and press hounds--a social miracle I as a foreign-blooded citizen never envisoned happening.

This is the only real avenue for the activist I can see. Since very few people up here see the need or justification for street demonstrations, citizens-group lobbying, or even the politicization of issues where political avenues are supposed to exist, the only way to get the public talking and to bring pressure on the veto gates is to get it in the Japanese press. Make no mistake--when the Japanese press decides to be a watchdog, it can topple giants as big as Tanaka or Takeshita. But convincing it of its watchdog role (especially when the biggest newspaper in Japan is the Yomiuri--which ignores problem after problem and seems to see criticism of Japan as counterproductive) for one issue after another is an enormous task. Not one that Frank Capra could easily direct into a two-hour movie.

I very rarely end an essay on a downbeat note, but let's be realistic. I can see that this is going to be a long, long road that I will have to map, and the destination is unclear indeed. I will keep you posted and compassed as far as I can. I still believe that one person can make a difference. We shall see if I am right.

Arudou Debito
April 25, 2001

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