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Kaoru Yosano, liberal patriot

Some people have a strong personality and traits that are not recognized for a long time, even by those who are close to them. One such person is Kaoru Yosano, a 75-year-old former Lower House member.

He has long been known for his profound knowledge of policy matters. Since he is fond of playing mahjong and golf, he was regarded as a happy-go-lucky kind of man and was thought to have climbed up the political ladder primarily because of his fame as a grandson of two prominent poet/authors in Japan’s modern literary history — Tekkan Yosano (1873-1935) and his wife Akiko (1878-1942).

He stirred up a lot of surprise when he revealed in an article — contributed to the June 2012 issue of the monthly Bungei Shunju — that shortly after his first election to the Diet in 1976, he had a malignant lymph tumor. He started battling the cancer, which subsequently spread to various parts of his body. His heroic fight had not been known even among close political associates, bureaucrats and journalists. It must have taken much mental and spiritual strength for him to combat the deadly disease as he commuted to a hospital without letting anybody know about it.

His health was perhaps why, after making public he had cancer, he started seeking high political posts as a means of implementing his policies, ignoring whatever others around him might say. He served as chief Cabinet secretary in the closing days of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first tenure (2006-2007), and was named minister in charge of economic and fiscal affairs by Prime Ministers Yasuo Fukuda (2007-2008) and Taro Aso (2008-2009).

When the Democratic Party of Japan took control of the government in 2009, Yosano deserted the Liberal Democratic Party, for which he was accused of being a “traitor” and “power hungry.” After being handpicked to a Cabinet post by Prime Minister Naoto Kan in 2011, he worked tenaciously and built up his reputation as the controller of the government’s economic and fiscal policies until a throat cancer surgery prevented him from seeking re-election to the Lower House in a December 2012 election.

He sowed the seeds of the consumption tax rate hike and of reform of the social security system, which were pursued by DPJ Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and now by the current Abe administration. Presumably he now feels proud of what he has accomplished, although he has not yet completed his tasks.

When asked recently what he thought of the current administration, Yosano’s answer was not one of praise as many would have expected. Instead, he bitterly criticized the prime minister’s economic policy (dubbed “Abenomics”) as not worthy of being called a policy. He went on to denounce each of the “three arrows,” the three principal elements of the policy, adding “It is shameful for anyone to attach one’s name to one’s own policy.”

Even more worrisome to Yosano is the right-leaning stance among Abe and those close to him. He said, “All legislators of the LDP are like members of Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth)” — a paramilitary organization of the German Nazi Party. He also said: “Abe is a man of a good character and seldom makes controversial statements. But those who surround him are like Internet rightists making all kinds of noise.”

Yosano doesn’t see the right-leaning trend as peculiar to the Abe administration, but rather as a global trend. He points to two main currents: One, he says, is the rise of neo-conservatism and neo-nationalism, as represented by the tea party group among Republicans in the United States and the ultra-rightist National Front Party of France headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen.

“This force has appeared not only in the free world but also in China and Central Asian countries,” he says. “When nationalism starts gaining power, we have to start worrying about unpleasant things like restrictions on the freedom of speech.”

The other current he points out is the widening disparity between the rich and the poor in the world. “Tea party members,” he says, “are not only rightists but also thoroughgoing advocates of the principle of self-responsibility. They say it is not good for individuals to rely on financial aid from the state. But there are people who cannot live without such aid.”

“The number of nonregular employees in the Japanese labor force has sharply increased, and the principle of equal pay for equal work has collapsed,” he says.

“Now is the time for the LDP to become the party that looks after the working class. The territorial disputes with China over the Senkaku Islands or with South Korea over the Takeshima islets cannot become an election campaign issue.”

Under the prevailing circumstances, politicians would do well to undertake a proposal he offered when the DPJ was in power: make 4 million nonregular workers eligible for kosei nenkin (corporate pension) as part of a program to rectify income disparity. Because of the lack of financial resources, his proposal was reduced to cover only 400,000 workers under the DPJ government, then to 200,000 after the LDP returned to power under Abe in 2012.

Yosano doesn’t think the Abe administration is up to the task of redistributing income as a means of redressing the widening gap between the rich and the poor, which he thinks is a hotbed for the escalation of nationalism.

He says liberal forces within the LDP must move on the problem, such as Koichi Kato, who served as a member of the Lower House from 1972 to 2012 and as LDP secretary general. “Unfortunately all LDP lawmakers have been domesticated by the party’s top brass,” he says. “The root cause of this is the existing election system based mainly on single-seat constituencies.”

He also takes issue with Abe’s pet theme of putting an end to protracted deflation, saying it would benefit only the wealthy who are in debt and would not benefit ordinary citizens. “In that sense, the present administration is made up of a bunch of aristocrats,” he argues.

Yosano lost his vocal cords to cancer of the larynx but regained his ability to speak from an operation known as the broncho-esophagological shunt method and from the rehabilitation that followed. He now speaks while holding his hand to his throat, and his words are no less clear than when he was active in politics.

His attack on right-leaning tendencies is also aimed at the publishing industry. “Newspapers are not putting up a serious fight against the state secrets law,” he says. “Their fight is half-baked. It must be remembered that they thought that nothing adverse would result from the enactment of the 1925 Public Safety Preservation Law.” His words then took a radical tone: “I would like to stand up with a samurai sword and kill all those who want to make money by selling books that fan nationalism.”

Perhaps Yosano has inherited the blood of his grandmother, Akiko, who wrote “Thou Shall Not Die” in 1904. The poem was addressed to her younger brother who had just been drafted into military service at the height of the Russo-Japanese war.

In Yosano, one finds a true liberal politician full of patriotic fervor.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the March issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.