Since last September when Shinzo Abe became prime minister, no event has had as powerful an impact on Japan’s political landscape as the January election of Hideo Higashikokubaru to the governorship of Miyazaki Prefecture. Many see the former comedian’s victory as a harbinger of what to expect not only in gubernatorial elections taking place throughout Japan this month, but also in the Upper House poll this summer.
Media pundits say Higashikokubaru’s win is evidence that people are acting on their disillusionment with party politics. For years Miyazaki was characterized as a “kingdom” of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, but Higashikokubaru, running as an independent, handily defeated the LDP’s candidate in the special election called to find a replacement for former Gov. Tadahiro Ando, an LDP member who resigned because of his involvement in a bid-rigging scandal.
The media knew that Higashikokubaru would win before election day. He offered a clear alternative to what one young blogger called “30 consecutive years of the same thing” and he was famous, having been television personality Sonomanma Higashi almost his entire adult life. In the past, the only candidates who took on the LDP in Miyazaki were sacrificial lambs of opposition parties. Higashikokubaru flaunted his “unfettered” status, but he could only do so because everyone already knew who he was.
The new governor has been covered, especially in the foreign press, as the latest in a line of TV celebrities-turned-politicians, but the categorization is less than helpful in Higashikokubaru’s case. Showbiz icons enter politics simply because they can, and their built-in name recognition appeals to political organizations who expect them to toe the party line once they’re in office. But even iconoclasts who want to make a difference often end up disappointed. Superstar producer-emcee Kyosen Ohashi and women’s studies professor-cum-talk show fixture Yoko Tajima quit their Diet seats once they realized those seats offered them less opportunity to show off their opinions than television did.
Local politics offers more hands-on opportunities, but many of the celebrities elected to local office have had narrow agendas. The late Yukio Aoshima easily won the Tokyo governor’s race due to his fame as a writer and performer, but his only reason for running was to stop the World City Exposition, which he deemed a waste of taxpayer money. Once he accomplished that, he just occupied a chair.
Higashikokubaru, on the other hand, is both ambitious and accommodating. He returned to university at the age of 42 to pursue a degree in political science, specifically local government, and afterward made it known that he wanted to serve his hometown of Miyazaki in some sort of capacity. Ando’s resignation was a gift from God, since it gave Higashikokubaru the opportunity to aim for the top right away. When he decided to run, he quit the production company of his comic mentor Beat Takeshi, leaving show business behind for good.
If one had to compare Higashikokubaru’s situation to that of another celebrity politician, a better example would be Yasuo Tanaka, the novelist dandy who was defeated in his bid for a second term as governor of Nagano. Like Higashikokubaru, Tanaka ran with the intention of changing the status quo and making the prefectural assembly more responsive to the people’s needs. However, he quickly discovered how fickle his constituents were. Though they initially appreciated his intentions, they resented his style, which was seen as being elitist. Tanaka’s celebrity and lofty ideals got him elected, but they also got him unelected.
Because he sees himself as a real politician and not a white knight, Higashikokubaru understands that he has to work with what he has, and, like Tanaka, what he has is an assembly of old boys who don’t want to be reformed and special interests that may not have the best interests of the prefecture at heart. Tanaka also knew that the biggest advantage of his celebrity was that he could use it to be a “salesman” for Nagano, a concept that Higashikokubaru has taken to the bank. One ad agency estimated that during his first two weeks in office he brought Miyazaki 16 billion yen worth of PR coverage.
There’s no doubt that Higashikokubaru’s career as a comedian has helped in this regard, but perhaps even more helpful has been his experience as the central figure in a number of scandals, including one where he was accused of receiving sexual services from a 16-year-old girl which reportedly prompted his career switch. His well-publicized self-reinvention as a public servant thus takes on the aura of personal redemption. In fact, watching the serious but by no means humorless Gov. Higashikokubaru in action, I find it increasingly difficult to remember what he was like when he was Sonomanma Higashi.
And while the media seems to be in his corner, old habits die hard. Several weeks ago some weekly magazines tried to stir up a scandal when it was discovered that reporters from other magazines had stayed overnight at Higashikokubaru’s house, prompting gossip about journalists being in bed with the governor, both figuratively and literally. Higashikokubaru treated the matter lightly, meaning he didn’t get defensive, and it died from lack of interest.
The media continues to look for the comedian in the politician, and it’s obvious that these not-so-strange bedfellows are feeling their way through the relationship. Higashikokubaru’s occasional clumsy comment — questioning the existence of sex slaves or philosophizing on the “evil necessity” of bid-rigging — and a tendency to rise to the bait of journalists fishing for jokes show that the governor is still learning. In the process, maybe the press can learn something, too.