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The reluctant politician reflects on a life less than ordinary

by Toshi Maeda

NAGOYA — Toichiro Kuno is as ordinary a person as can be.

The 64-year-old has few ambitions. He is somewhat introverted, maybe even bashful. He gets nervous speaking in front of large audiences.

Former Lawmaker Toichiro Kuno relaxes at the cafe where his political career began.

But until last year, Kuno spent a melancholy 10 years in Tokyo as something he had never in his life sought to be: a politician.

“Somewhere in my heart, I always had the feeling of wanting to make my parents happy by obeying their words and doing what they wanted me to,” he said during a recent interview. “They loved me so much in my childhood and always gave me what I needed. I never thought I’d have to make my own desires known.”

Having observed his father Chuji, a former Posts and Telecommunications Ministry chief whom Kuno said would spend every spare minute courting voters’ support, Kuno swore never to become a politician and instead lived the life of an ordinary “salaryman.”

However, his twist of fate came one January morning in 1988 when his father, then an 80-year-old Lower House member of the Liberal Democratic Party, said: “Son, can you drive me to Nagoya station?”

At the station, Kuno saw a horde of police officers guarding Cabinet ministers on their way back to Tokyo after their traditional New Year’s visit to Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture. Then Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita was among them.

Kuno accompanied his father to greet Takeshita in the station’s VIP room. It was the first time in his life that Kuno, then 50, had seen a prime minister so close up.

“So, you want to do it?” Takeshita abruptly asked, putting out his hand. Shaking it, the words Kuno uttered were: “Yes, please, sir.”

“That’s what I said, instantly. Face to face with such a distinguished figure, I just could not say anything but ‘yes’,” Kuno reminisced.

“I later figured that (the meeting) may have been a trick set up by my father, who was preparing to retire and probably wanted me to succeed him.”

That evening, Kuno confessed to his wife and children that he would have to run in the next general election.

“A few days later, they left me. I had to go to my wife’s parental home to apologize and beg for help,” Kuno recalled, adding that he had promised his bride he would never become a politician when they married.

But the younger Kuno had no difficulty winning supporters, as those who had backed his father automatically shifted their support to him. Thanks to this backing, Kuno was elected to the Lower House three consecutive times.

The highlight of his political career came in 1995, when he was appointed the head of the government’s local headquarters to support victims of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

But upon returning to Tokyo, Kuno again started asking himself whether his job suited him.

“I am not the type of man who shoves other people out of the way to get what he wants, but that’s how you have to act to survive in the world of politics,” he said.

As he struggled over his aptitude as a politician, his father died in October 1998. His elder sister, Seiko, who had served as secretary to both him and his father, also suddenly passed away in April the following year.

Around the same time, a local mayor who won an election against a Kuno-supported rival launched a negative campaign so that the Diet lawmaker would lose his seat in the next Lower House race.

That was the last straw. After several failed attempts to make his supporters believe that his intention to resign from the Diet was no joke, he officially announced to the media in July 1999 that he would not run in the following year’s election by declaring: “I am not cut out for politics.”

The former politician now enjoys his life as an ordinary citizen, walking around downtown Nagoya in geta, or Japanese clogs, and taking computer classes at a local culture center.

Reflecting on his own “lost decade,” Kuno now has these words of advice: “Do not be at somebody’s beck and call, think for yourself and do what satisfies you.”