Joji Yamamoto: Time to serve


Joji Yamamoto was a young, idealistic politician with a bright future — but all that promise dissolved on Sept. 4, 2000, when he was arrested on suspicion of fraud.

Soon after the arrest, Yamamoto admitted his guilt. He had, indeed, pocketed more than 25 million yen of the salary paid to him by the state for a Diet secretary who didn’t exist. Duly convicted of fraud, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Yamamoto’s life could hardly have taken a more dramatic turn away from his student days at Tokyo’s top-flight Waseda University, when he was burning with passion to change the world.

Then, he had been involved in numerous human-rights activities, including campaigns for belated justice for victims of the Minamata mercury-pollution scandal back in the 1950s, and support groups for the homeless. He also made a visit to India to study the caste system and the position of “untouchables.’

Yamamoto entered politics after graduating in education in 1985, when he became a secretary to Diet member Naoto Kan of the Democratic Party of Japan. From that springboard he dived directly into the fray four years later, when he was voted on to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. Finally, in 1996, Yamamoto was elected from Tokyo constituency No. 21 to a seat in the House of Representatives — a seat to which he had just won re-election in 2000, a few months before his arrest.

On June 25, 2001, the gates of Fuchu Prison in Tokyo slammed shut behind Yamamoto, who three weeks later was moved to Kurobane Prison in Tochigi Prefecture. Altogether, he spent 433 days behind bars.

During that time, just like the other inmates, he had to face the harsh reality of what went on inside the prisons. For Yamamoto, though, perhaps the harshest reality was to realize that many of his fellow prisoners clearly suffered from physical, mental or intellectual disabilities. Once these people have finished serving their time, he soon learned, they are thrown out into the real world with usually nowhere to go and nobody to turn to for help.

After his release on Aug. 9, 2002, Yamamoto wrote his first book, “Gokusoki (Through a Prison Window),” which chronicles his jail experiences and his interaction with disabled inmates. Yamamoto won the Shincho Documentary Prize for this book, which was published by Poplar Publishing in 2003.

Instead of returning to politics, since his release Yamamoto has immersed himself in social-welfare activities. At present, in addition to writing books and doing volunteer work for the homeless, his packed schedule sees him traveling all over Japan to lecture on prison reform and the plight of inmates and ex-convicts with mental or physical disabilities.

In this recent interview with The Japan Times, Yamamoto speaks frankly and with feeling about the crime he committed, the dirty world of politics and the truth of what happens in prisons.

Looking back on your days as a politician, what was appealing about the world of politics?

Honestly speaking, it was not very appealing. I was just so busy all the time. I like and am satisfied with what I am doing now much more. I had big dreams and a sense of justice, but I began to realize that you can’t survive in the world of politics with just that.

This is especially true at election times. When I was talking to a voter, I would be thinking how to win the approval of that person or calculating how much I might receive as a donation. I had a balance sheet inside my head all the time. It was dirty, and a part of me knew that it was dirty — but I still continued that way.

Then before I knew it, I had lost my zeal for politics. I became numb and lost my sense of being a member of the general public, whether I was a Lower House member or a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. It’s all about power. And you become drunk on power, just as you would with alcohol. I was drunk on power.

Do you think that is what made you commit the crime?

Yes. I think it all led to that. That action reflects not only myself as a politician, but also my whole life. I did not just break the law — I think it was a warning signal to me, of the way I was living my life.

Recently, there have been so many scandals involving money and politics. What do you think of this situation?

I am in no position to talk like an insider about present goings-on, so I will speak from my own experience.

First of all, when talking about politics and money, you have to consider whether an action clashes with the law — although I think the political system that passes the laws has itself become numb.

Recently, we often hear the words “wakari-yasui seiji (politics that is easy to understand),” but as a result, I think that politics has become shallow.

The issue of state pensions is a good example. Instead of just focusing on pensions, social security should be considered as a whole — where is the social security system going from now on, beginning with the basic philosophy. Instead, it is being discussed by politicians who are thinking of their own gain or loss.

Scandals involving politicians like me are endless because the law that supposedly prevents them is shallow. It’s like the game of whack-a-mole where similar issues keep coming up again and again but nothing fundamental changes.

Your prison sentence was not suspended, but other politicians convicted of similar offenses have escaped prison by being handed down suspended sentences. How do you feel about that?

I am glad I got what I did. Imprisonment was a very good experience for me. Of course, there are people who are handed down suspended sentences and remain in society and reflect deeply on their actions. I don’t think there is any point in thinking about why some get suspended sentences while others are imprisoned.

At first, you appealed against your sentence and so you weren’t sent to prison immediately. But then you withdrew your appeal. Why was that?

Yes. There was a rumor that I wouldn’t get arrested, but I did, and then lawyers and the media were saying that I would get a suspended sentence. But I was handed a prison term. When you find yourself in the middle of such a thing, you realize there is no turning back — you fall to the bottom. A lot of politicians, including myself, are optimistic. But at that time, I think I was purposely being pessimistic, and I had prepared myself for the worst.

But I have to admit that I felt a bit faint when I heard the sentence read out. That was because my wife was in her final month of pregnancy, and she was not feeling very well. So it was for a very personal reason that I appealed, then withdrew it. I felt bad about it, but I didn’t want to leave her all alone. In that way, I was able to witness the birth of my child, and then I went into prison.

How did imprisonment change you as a person?

I became a person who wasn’t seeking to exploit people’s weak points anymore. I mean, in prison I was surrounded by people who had failed. On the other hand, in Nagatacho, at the Diet, we slander other party members or bureaucrats, fussing over the tiniest flaws. But since my experience of imprisonment, I have become more broad-minded about people.

In what ways did those 433 days in prison affect your life?

In terms of time, it was only 14 months of my 41 years until now. But it was surreal, and gave me the opportunity to stand still and reflect on my life. When I was a politician, I was almost always engaging in unbridled Machiavellianism for the elections and for the honor. I am thankful to prison for giving me a time when I didn’t have to worry about the next day. Furthermore, I am also thankful because it gave me the experience of spending time with inmates with disabilities.

In your book, you talk about the horrible treatment these inmates with disabilities received. How did you feel witnessing this?

I actually felt sorry for the prison wardens. They were not the ones who brought the disabled inmates in. The wardens have no background or knowledge of welfare matters, but suddenly they are in charge of them. The courts also hand down penal servitude, not just imprisonment, even to those who cannot fulfill labor duties. The wardens then had to make them work.

What kind of jobs must such inmates do?

Basically something that just passes the time. They sort candles by color, and then the wardens mix them all up again so they have to repeat the same activity the next day. During their period of imprisonment these inmates receive no medical or welfare care.

But doesn’t it state in the Penal Code that those with mental or physical disabilities will not be imprisoned?

That’s what I thought too, but I was wrong. Since I was released I have attended various trials, and I realize that people are not recognized as mentally or physically disabled in most cases. The prosecutors determine whether or not the defendant is fit to stand trial. For instance you may have a personality disorder but still be considered fit to stand trial.

I am not saying that the verdict should automatically be “not guilty.” I just want the trial to be fair, and for the suspects and inmates to be provided with the necessary treatment and assistance, including when they are released. And I think that it is the government’s duty to establish this. Heavier punishment is not the answer, because once their term is served, those people are tossed out on the streets again and will reoffend. And the degree of gravity goes up each time and leads to murder.

Many of these disabled inmates go back into the real world wanting to return to prison.

Why would they want to return?

Because they have nowhere to go. They have a hard enough time just being disabled, but with a criminal record, almost no welfare facilities will accept them. So they end up dying on the streets or committing another crime and landing back in jail.

One misunderstanding is that it does not mean that just because they are mentally ill, they will commit a crime. Many of them are gentle and peaceful, following the orders of the wardens earnestly. But one thing that can be said about all offenders is that their lives are chaotic and full of difficulties — their family background, poverty, and so on. And the fact that there are so many disabled offenders in the prisons means that so many of them have been in a worse living environment on the outside.

Your book was very descriptive about the wardens using highly abusive terms to inmates. How did you feel?

Actually, I didn’t really look at is as a violation of human rights, because I had been prepared to have my human rights ignored once I went through the gates of the prison. Of course, when you’re stripped down naked by someone years younger and checked everywhere, even your anus, you begin to shed your pride, one layer after another.

It was only really when I first started writing and reflecting on my life, which later got published, that I realized how I was treated. Looking back, I realized that the prisoners themselves are the most oblivious to their own human rights. And the wardens call you names whether you have mental or physical disabilities or not. These wardens think it is their duty to punish offenders on behalf of the Japanese people. That is their sense of justice.

Did you have any plans about what you wanted to do once you were released?

Actually, I was just anxious — What does the world think of me now? How will I raise my child who has a father with a criminal record? And so on. In fact, the happiest day was probably the day before the release. After that, I got depressed, which I’m sure happens to everyone.

Even now, I still feel depressed. I went to rent an apartment and was told to pay a full year’s rent and to get many guarantors because I could not hand in a tax-deduction certificate. When I visited the park with my child, people would whisper about “the politician who did bad things.” I tried to be positive, but the negative side kept winning.

Still, I wanted to use my experience in prison to become involved in social welfare, so I decided to earn some kind of government certificate in that field. But as it turned out, I couldn’t for two to five years because of my criminal record. So instead, I started writing and visiting welfare facilities for the mentally disabled. That is where I am now.

Do you think that the law preventing ex-convicts from obtaining government certification for a number of years after their release should be revised?

Yes, it should definitely be revised, because you can’t even become a guard on a construction site. I am, however, in no position to say so (laugh).

But I don’t think the general public will see it that way. Right now the public wants harsher punishment for crime. I don’t know whether it’s coming from the police or the media, but everybody seems to be concerned with “the rising crime rate.” But that is not true. It’s not that different from before. The media creates sensational, gripping stories out of each crime and prints or broadcasts them every day. So of course, people are going to start thinking that crime has gone up. That’s why I think it will be difficult to change that law.

But on the other hand, human-rights activists are saying that this is a violation of human rights toward ex-convicts. True, this law is very discriminatory. These people have served their time. But it is very difficult for ex-convicts to stand up for themselves, and at the same time, issues concerning ex-convicts are taboo to people in the outside world. It was the same thing with prisons. But when those prisoners in Nagoya died tragically [after being beaten and abused by prison guards] a few years ago, people’s awareness changed and that reached the Justice Ministry, which is now working on revising the prison law.

In this way, neither the law nor the people will move until they reach a turning point.

Do you want to return to the world of politics in the future?

I can’t be a politician now because I am not interested anymore in bringing people down. Besides, it is much more satisfying to work on a single issue. Politicians have a wide variety of activities, but wide equals shallow. That is the frustration I felt in those days. However, I do plan to use the relationships I built in that world from now on, too.

At the Diet, politicians are busy criticizing one another, and then, they return to their electoral district where they go around puffing themselves up. Both these things leave a very unpleasant aftertaste, and I wonder how they can do it so easily. Whenever I meet up with Diet members, they are completely demotivated and disenchanted. I want to tell them “Why don’t you just quit and go to jail?” (laugh) And they could go to jail so easily! (laugh)

But I have another reason why I don’t plan on becoming a politician ever again — because I misappropriated people’s taxes. Therefore, I will never take a job that is funded by tax. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t, and that is a matter of principle.

What are your future plans?

People often say that I am doing welfare work, but what I am actually doing is working on a movement toward social revolution. I feel that my prison term will not end until I find a viable solution to the plight of these ex-convicts with disabilities.

I think there are many issues that the government has overlooked, but often those neglected areas need most care. I am embarrassed to admit that I, too, did not see it either until I was imprisoned. Right now, my main focus is on creating a shelter for ex-convicts with disabilities, but there are so many other issues that I became aware of in prison, and I plan to work in those areas as well.

Ultimately, I am hoping that the government will provide the financial back up for the shelter. But when that happens, I will step aside and let others run it because, as I mentioned earlier, I feel I should not have a hand in areas that involve taxes. I have no intention of asking for financial aid from the government from the start. I think that these activities should first be set up and run by people themselves. Then after a certain period of time, the government should start getting involved. Of course, money will be an issue for me, and for that, I will continue writing.

How does your wife feel about the changes that have happened in your life? And how was she treated after word spread of your crime?

It’s not that she didn’t enjoy those days when I was a Lower House member, but she sees how much happier I am now and has backed me up all the way.

There were some cruel remarks, but most of the time people were very kind to her. I was worried for her while I was in prison, but it wasn’t necessary at all. We are both very thankful to everyone who supported us.

I had expected people to treat me badly. Considering what I had done, I have no one to blame but myself. Instead, people were generally so warm and kind and I am very grateful.

But I will never forget the fact that I committed a crime.