The turning point in Junko Mihara’s life came two years ago when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had to have her uterus removed.
Now a lawmaker, the former actress and singer said the experience had a profound impact, opening her eyes to shortcomings in the health care system and prompting her to take an active role in looking for ways to improve it.
But after working with various nonprofit organizations to promote early checkups and vaccination programs for cervical cancer, Mihara said she realized the central government needed to take the initiative in protecting women from a form of cancer that kills roughly 3,500 each year.
“I’ve come to realize that it is essential that the government offer free vaccines for all,” Mihara, 45, said Monday during an interview with The Japan Times. “Somebody had to become a Diet lawmaker and make that appeal.”
Mihara is a first-term Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who won a seat in the July 11 Upper House election, which saw the Democratic Party of Japan-led ruling bloc lose its majority grip on the chamber.
But being something of a celebrity — Mihara’s show business career spanned nearly four decades since she first appeared on stage as a child actress — didn’t make campaigning easy.
Running as an LDP proportional representation candidate, Mihara said it took great effort and hard work to convince voters she was a serious candidate, not a typical celebrity running for a Diet seat.
“Being a former actress actually worked against me — it took . . . months before I could actually get voters to listen to what I had to say,” she said.
And living up to her campaign promise to retire from the entertainment scene if elected, Mihara now plans to concentrate all of her energy on pushing her agenda.
Although the health ministry approved the new HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine for cervical cancer last October — already years behind other developed countries — Mihara said many municipalities have difficulty funding the roughly ¥50,000 required for three injections per person.
The cervical cancer rate could be reduced by 70 percent if the vaccine is administered to all women, and to nearly 100 percent if multiple screening is also conducted, Mihara stressed.
She said her call for the government to subsidize the vaccines has received a positive response from Prime Minister Naoto Kan and health minister Akira Nagatsuma during the recent extraordinary Diet session. As both are in the DPJ, she believes the issue could progress across party lines.
But Mihara’s bout with cancer also opened her eyes to other pressing concerns facing a graying nation, including the poor situation surrounding elderly care facilities.
“My father had a stroke 15, 16 years ago, and I’ve witnessed firsthand the difficulties my mother went through taking care of him,” she said, adding this brought home the realization that many families are undergoing similar struggles.
“And once I had cancer and was being cared for, I felt as if I was on my father’s side, and understood how those being cared for were also going through great pain,” she said.
Mihara used her cancer insurance benefits to establish her own care facility for the elderly. It opened earlier in the year.
From her experience running the institution, Mihara said it is essential that the government invests in improving the wages of caretakers as well as educating and increasing the number of young caretakers.
“A caretaker is an extremely tough occupation, and it doesn’t help that their wages and working conditions are poor,” she said.
The high turnover rate of caretakers also makes the elderly feel more insecure and unable to rely on any single caretaker for any length of time, Mihara said.
As a cancer survivor, she emphasized the need to provide an adequate working environment for cancer patients.
“Many patients are forced to quit their jobs once their employers discover they have cancer,” she said.