|

Japan’s fiscal firebrand

Upper House Diet member Renho has made her name with her abrasive budget interrogations of bureaucrats. However, her ideas for change throughout the nation go far beyond mere balance sheets

by Tomoko Otake

Renho, a first-term Upper House member from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, shot to stardom in Japan last November when, as a member of a government committee tasked with screening ministries’ budget requests, she had several fierce, face-to-face battles with bureaucrats.

While the 42-year-old politician is certainly not the first or only one to point out wasteful spending of taxpayers’ money, she has been among the most intense, relentless — and publicly combative — in doing so.

In particular, her comment on the nation’s next-generation supercomputers — “Why should Japan be the world’s No. 1 (in the speed of supercomputer processors)? What’s wrong with being the world’s No. 2?” — drew huge public attention and was repeatedly aired on national TV.

The budget-screening process, made public for the first time under the new DPJ administration, has been one of the very few political victories won by the party since it swept to power in August 2009 promising changes — but whose ratings have plummeted to critical levels of around 20 percent in recent months.

Indeed, Renho, an ex-swimsuit idol turned TV journalist who won a seat in the Upper House of the Diet in the summer of 2004, has been a target of fierce criticism herself. Leading scientists and some politicians loudly protested her “supercomputer” comment, calling the committee’s decision to freeze the project — a decision later reversed by the government — as “absurd.”

It was also shortly after her sudden rise to prominence that some people started making snide remarks about Renho’s background as the daughter of a Taiwanese trader in Tokyo who had dual nationality until the age of 18, when she opted for Japanese nationality.

One of those was Takeo Hiranuma, a hardcore conservative who served as a trade minister in Liberal Democratic Party administrations that held almost unbroken power for more than 50 years prior to 2009. While slamming moves to downsize the supercomputer project, Hiranuma blurted out at a speech in Okayama Prefecture in January: “I don’t want to say this, but she is not originally Japanese. She was naturalized and became a Diet member.”

Renho, who goes by her first name only, doesn’t flinch at such attacks, saying “I don’t care at all.” On the contrary, buoyed by her success with the first round of budget screenings, she is currently wielding the ax against a bundle of dokuritsu gyosei hojin (independent administrative institutions) and koeki hojin (public-interest corporations), which are either subsidized by the government or authorized by it to undertake various projects.

The second round of screenings — led again by Yukio Edano, the minister in charge of government revitalization — started on April 23 and continued through Wednesday. It will resume at the end of May. The outcome of the waste-cutting proceedings could sway not only the fate of the struggling administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, but also the personal career of Renho, who is toward the end of her term and will be seeking re-election in the Upper House race this summer.

Renho, who lives with her Japanese freelance-journalist husband, their twin children and her mother in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, recently spared 30 minutes out of her superbusy schedule to talk with The Japan Times. At her Diet office in Nagata-cho, Tokyo, the trim politician, donning her trademark white jacket, displayed the same sharpness she has shown on TV. On a variety of questions covering such topics as her upbringing, her parenting tips and her short-lived but well-remembered career as a swimsuit-clad “campaign girl,” she kept firing crisp, cut-to-the-chase answers back, wrapping up the interview in 30 minutes and 34 seconds — just 34 seconds behind schedule. What kind of child were you when you were growing up? What were your parents like? How did they raise you? Well, my father is Taiwanese and my mother is Japanese. I was born and grew up only in Japan and have never lived in Taiwan. I have an elder brother who is one year older than me, and another brother who is two years younger than me. So I played like a boy . . . climbing trees. I was a very active child and I loved sports. My family was very strict about discipline, like how I shouldn’t break promises or not tell lies, and even on such things as how to hold chopsticks.

What were your childhood dreams back then? What kind of career, for example, did you envision having in the future?

I had no such ideas.

You mean you had no dreams about your future?

No. I was a very realistic child. I was constantly told by my father to always think of what I would be doing five years later, and to plan for that. Many children, when they are asked to think about their future, they think far far off, so they tend to come up with unrealistic visions like running a flower shop or becoming a professional athlete.

I wasn’t thinking like that at all, so when I was in the first grade of my junior high school, I was thinking how I would be living right before college, what I would want to do in college, and what I would need to do every day to prepare myself for my college life. That way, I was able to see what I lacked at that point. And again when I entered college, I tried to envision myself five years down the road — which would be right about the time I was getting a job. I was thinking how I would live and work when I entered the job world. That’s how I was able to see my future realistically.

You studied law at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo. How did you imagine your future five years from then?

First, before entering college, I was thinking I would want to work, using my skills. I wanted to make money myself. My parents had very clear ideas about rights and obligations. So they told me that it was their obligation to put their kids through college, but after that I would have to stand on my own feet, being well aware of my rights and obligations. So I never thought of getting married and becoming a housewife. My mother was working, too. I thought that, if I studied law in college, I could perhaps get a lawyer’s license, and even if I didn’t, I would have no problems finding jobs at lawyers’ offices, which are everywhere in Japan.

And I figured that Japanese society would have a lot of legal disputes in the future and that Japan would have an Americanized justice system.

But you ended up in the showbiz world.

Yes. When I was a sophomore in college.

Wasn’t that move driven by your desire to buy a new car, not so much by any interest in show business?

The price (of the car I wanted) was ¥3 million.

Then, as a TV idol, didn’t you make appearances in events across Japan?

Well, the job of “campaign girls” — and that of the “Clarion Girls,” in particular — is to make visits to various retailers dealing in car audios made by Clarion. So I traveled around Japan.

I understand it was around then that you started to appear in picture books, often wearing swimsuits. How did you feel about that work?

It was my mission. As long as I was being a campaign girl, I had an obligation to wear swimsuits. I had also agreed to going on a tour of regional retailers. In return, I got what I wanted, which was my car. It was all included in my yearlong contract. There was nothing wrong with that.

Then you got a break into journalism, and you became a TV anchorwoman. At that point, did you have any intention of seeking a future in politics?

Basically, up until March 2004, when I decided to run for office, I had had no intention of becoming a politician.

Really? You married Nobuyuki Murata, a freelance journalist, in 1993, and in 1995 you went to Beijing to study. What made you decide to go to Beijing?

In the TV world, female broadcasters have a very unstable career path after a certain age. Even now, it is really difficult for female broadcasters to get a job after they turn 30. So when I was a broadcaster myself, I was thinking of five years later and was not sure if I would be able to continue being a broadcaster then. I thought that, if I didn’t acquire something unique, something that nobody else had, I wouldn’t be able to stay in the media — whether as a journalist or anything else. So I thought hard what would be my weapon. My roots are Chinese, or rather Taiwanese. My father advised me to go to mainland China instead of Taiwan, so I went to study in Beijing.

What did you study in Beijing?

Chinese. I was raised in Japanese.

So you have mastered the Chinese language?

I have no language problems being there.

You said earlier that you never thought of entering politics until the last minute. What changed your mind?

I was persuaded by Mr. (Yoshito) Sengoku, (minister in charge of national policy). Instead of airing my views in the media about today’s children (over whom I have been very passionate about changing existing policies), he told me it would be more efficient to get inside the Diet and legislate the changes.

I understand you became concerned over the future of children in Japan. What concerned you the most?

What concerned me is the worsening of the environment surrounding children, when we have fewer and fewer children in society due to the declining birthrate.

Could you cite some examples?

Well, it’s hard to say in a few sentences. For one thing, children’s communication skills and their relationships with crimes are getting worse.

I remember you saying in a magazine interview that you were deeply impacted by your firsthand experience of reporting on an incident where a 13-year-old boy in Tochigi Prefecture killed his teacher using a butterfly knife.

Yes, that was one of the big reasons. I did a lot of reporting on children after that as well.

While you have reported on these topics, you have also raised two children at the same time. I understand that they entered junior high school this spring.

Yes.

How do you juggle all this? How do you divide household chores and school duties with your family?

My husband or I make breakfast every day. At night, either I stay home or get the help of my mother and babysitters. I use whatever help I can get.

How do you spend your weekend?

I go bowling with my children, and go to see movies. My children have grown up now to be able to see movies for adults. Apart from that, I go to Tsutaya (video/music rental store) and put music onto our iPods together, for example. It’s quite normal.

You have a boy and a girl who are twins. Don’t they have different interests?

True. My daughter wants to go to Harajuku, and my son wants to go bowling and play baseball. (laughs) Then I divide my time into the morning and afternoon sessions.

Let me ask you about the parenting environment. What do you think is good and bad about parenting in Japan?

Well, I think the good part is that, although it is declining, Japan has a lot of community-based parenting culture. Unfortunately, that culture has faded most in Tokyo. But if you get out of Tokyo, I think there is a culture of communal parenting. It could be part of the nagaya (a row of houses on a back street) culture. I think the beauty of Japan’s parenting is that whatever happens to a family, somebody in their community will take care of their children.

On the other hand, what’s bad is that, due to the declining birth rate, we have fewer children, so the children have six pockets (their parents and two sets of grandparents) to spoil them.

At the same time, many children grow up with little interaction with each other, so they tend to form very shallow relationships with others. And due to the lack of community, we run a risk of having a lot of children with poor social skills.

How are you trying to foster a sense of community in your own children as they are growing up?

Taking part in matsuri (street festivals) in our neighborhood, eating out in a local shotengai (shopping arcade). That’s it. Matsuri are part of community life. We try to go to the local eateries instead of famous restaurants somewhere else. If we get to know the locals, we get to know the faces of local children, and vice versa. If we all know the faces of all the children, they aren’t going to be able to commit crimes, and outsiders will find it hard to get to them.

Changing the subject to your work. You rose to prominence last year during the open screening of budget requests. You are famous for saying, “What’s wrong with being No. 2?” Is it true that you didn’t actually mean that you were satisfied with Japan being No. 2 in the world in terms of supercomputers?

Absolutely. If you examine the media reports in detail, you would be able to tell that my comments immediately before that, and the bureaucrats’ response to my question, haven’t been reported in the media.

In June, two months before ministries compiled budget requests in August under the former administration led by Taro Aso of the LDP, a committee of experts on next-generation supercomputers issued an interim report. The report said that the committee judged that Japan would not be able to achieve the No. 1 status (because it became known that the world’s fastest supercomputer would soon be developed in the United States, so outranking Japan). But the former administration made the report confidential. And under that mistaken premise of becoming No. 1, (the Education Ministry) requested ¥30 billion for the project.

I think it was wrong to claim that Japan could be No. 1 when it was known that it couldn’t. Furthermore, I was expecting bureaucrats to say something like, “(With the supercomputers), we would be able to create tailor-made cancer drugs,” or “We would be able to predict earthquakes more quickly than any other nation,” or “We would be able to prevent tsunami from affecting people in Indonesia because we would be giving tsunami warnings beforehand. That way, we would be able to contribute globally.”

But instead, all they said was: “(The project is) for a dream.”

Well, I wish this country had a ¥30-billion budget just “for a dream.”

I wouldn’t have asked that question if we were living in the rapid economic growth era (of the 1960s), during which our revenue rose every year by ¥1 trillion.

What I’m discussing with three Education Ministry figures (the minister, the vice minister and the parliamentary secretary — all political appointees, not career bureaucrats) is the idea of making Japan the world’s first — not No. 1. We are saying, “Let’s change our thinking.” The world’s No.1 is a temporary status. If we become the world’s first, we would be able to claim copyrights for the technology. We have talked about all this in the actual budget-screening sessions. None of that has been reported.

I assume you spent a lot of time preparing for the open screenings.

I hardly slept back then.

I see. You once told an interviewer that you received so much flak for your grillings that you almost gave up. What pained you the most?

It’s difficult to say what pained me the most. Some bureaucrats said that it is difficult to be in the public spotlight all the time, but we (budget screeners) shouldered the same amount of risk (by opening the proceedings to the public). Back then, we aired the sessions live on the Internet, but we had had no tools through which we would provide “stock” information to people who didn’t have access to the Internet, or people who could not see the broadcasts live because it was aired during normal working hours.

My office received quite a number of slanderous comments and criticisms from people who only saw the “processed” video images aired by the media.

Among the criticisms was one by a Diet member (Takeo Hiranuma), who said you are “not originally Japanese.” I assume that was not the first time you have been on the receiving end of those kind of discriminatory remarks.

I am proud of my Taiwanese blood. I’m proud of being Japanese as well.

What is your stance on suffrage for foreigners?

I’m against it.

Why are you against it?

For one thing, when it comes to suffrage for foreigners (a hot topic in the Diet and the media), the current debate is about their right to vote in municipal elections only.

I think that, if foreigners are to be given suffrage, they should be given not only the right to vote in municipal elections, but also the right to be elected in them — and the right to vote and to be elected at the national levels as well. I wonder if it’s possible for a nation to divide electoral rights into four parts. This is my reason for objecting.

Would you support giving foreigners suffrage if they were given all of the four rights?

We should debate that. We haven’t had any debate on this.

Partly in relation to that topic, since Japan’s population is aging fast, the question of whether Japan should open its doors to immigration may soon become a major issue. What is your stance on immigration?

Again I’ll have to be cautious, but we need to have a debate to gain the understanding of the public. We have not had an immigration policy, and in the areas where we have welcomed foreigners, such as caregivers from the Philippines, we have given them qualification exams using kanji. We haven’t even debated whether it’s really alright for Japan to use foreigners’ help in such limited, haphazard ways, or whether we should prioritize building systems through which the growing (providers of foreign labor) — such as Brazilians, Filipinos and Chinese — can blend in better with society. We need to debate again what a nation is.

Why do you think Prime Minister Hatoyama’s support rate has dropped to 20 percent from really high figures at the outset following the election on Aug. 30 last year?

I think it comes down to politics and money. In the minds of people who had expected a new style of politics and a new, clean image of a political party from the DPJ, our party’s leader, who is the prime minister, and the secretary general and central figure (Ichiro Ozawa) have not made convincing explanations about their relationships between politics and money. They say they have, but there is criticism that they have actually dragged the old style of politics back in.

So are you saying that, without resolving that issue, support for the DPJ will not recover?

I don’t know if resolving that will help boost the support rate, but we must resolve it. Not for the support rate, but for people’s confidence in this country’s politics in general. At least our generation of politicians, and those who are about to enter politics, should never do what’s happening (to those two politicians) now.

If you become the prime minister of Japan one day, what would you prioritize?

Information disclosure, I would say. More transparency. And public participation. I think what (U.S. President Barack) Obama is doing can be done in Japan, too.

What do you applaud Obama for most?

He built a system in the White House through which all of the taxpayers’ money the government spends on budgets can be accounted for and made visible on the Internet — down to the last yen. This is remarkable. He laid the foundation for a system in which citizens participate in nation-building. This is something that present-day Japan lacks the most.