A friend of mine once happened upon a former Japanese prime minister. This English teacher was sitting on a riverside bench in Kyoto when Junichiro Koizumi came strolling past, accompanied by two security guards. The former prime minister (in office from April 2001 to September 2006) was immediately recognizable from his wavy, Richard Gere-esque hairstyle.
Koizumi is one of the few Japanese prime ministers to become easily recognizable to people outside of Japan. He played catchball with George W. Bush, and did an Elvis impersonation in Graceland. At home, he courted controversy by sending Japanese Self Defence Forces to Iraq, privatizing the postal service and regularly visiting Yasukuni Shrine.
Part of the reason Koizumi was so recognizable may have been because of the length of his time in office. It is hard to be colorful or make a mark outside Japan if you aren’t in office for long, and that has tended to be the case with many Japanese prime ministers. The recently departed Yoshihide Suga, for instance, lasted just over a year (September 2020 to October 2021). And before Shinzo Abe took power in 2012, there were six prime ministers in six years — all men of a certain age.
Most people would recognize Angela Merkel, given her long stint in power, but it is rarely worth the effort of trying to remember the latest, brief incarnation of the Japanese leader. Perhaps new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will buck the trend.
For my English teacher friend who got unexpectedly close to Koizumi, it was like taking a drug and experiencing a fleeting high.
“I felt suddenly powerful,” he told me. “I wanted to run over and say something to him. Maybe if I could say the right thing, I could influence world events. Or at least I could make the news.”
It’s a nice thought. “Don’t do it that way, Mr. Prime Minister! You’ll never make it if you do it that way!”
Given that voting, even in local elections, is restricted to Japanese nationals, it would be arguably more understandable for a foreign resident of Japan to heckle politicians than for Japanese nationals to do so. I mean, how else can we get our concerns across?
“Mr. Prime Minister? Mr. Prime Minister! Can you change the day my burnable garbage is collected? I like to lie in on Saturdays. … Don’t look at me like that. I’d express my opinions on local politics through elections if I were allowed to vote.”
There was another English teacher who, unlike my friend, seized the moment to express an opinion on Japanese politics when the chance presented itself.
In April 2011, The Japan Times reported that a teacher by the name of Edward Jones, then 34, interrupted a Japanese politician’s public speech. He reportedly grabbed the microphone while the candidate was speaking in public in Tokorozawa, Saitama. The Briton then shouted his own political message to stunned observers.
Jones was arrested, since it is a criminal offense in Japan to obstruct the election process — including through interference with political candidates’ speeches and defacing political posters. Those convicted can be heavily fined or even imprisoned.
So what was the defiant message my fellow Briton shouted into the microphone? Was this a suffragette moment for Japan’s foreign residents? Did a brave soul do the equivalent of throwing himself under the king’s horse, demanding voting rights for permanent foreign residents?
Jones reportedly grabbed the microphone and shouted, “Japanese elections are noisy!”
Well, at least he made the news.
I don’t condone Jones’ actions, but in some ways I can’t help but sympathize with this non-Japanese resident of Japan. If you cannot vote, then elections are just loud noise and color. And, actually, there’s not even that much color.
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