On Feb. 18, the day before his latest CD was set to hit store shelves, lawmaker Ichita Yamamoto met Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at his official residence in order to hand him a copy of “Kaikaku no Uta” (“Song for Reform”).
A House of Councilors member of the Liberal Democratic Party, Yamamoto treads a maverick path within the chamber often referred to as the “House of Common Sense” and within a party where old-guard politicians still wield strong clout.
“You have to use all the tools you have to win over those old politicians,” Yamamoto said in a recent interview.
Since becoming a politician in 1995, 45-year-old Yamamoto has used the songwriting and singing skills he developed in a college rock band to convey his political agenda, especially to young voters who have little interest in politics.
His latest song ostensibly urges Koizumi to push through his reform initiatives, but the underlying message concerns the generational change in politics.
“The power base for the old generation is the money, posts and networks they built through political factions,” Yamamoto said. “But to our generation, it is policy that brings power to a politician.”
In one gambit aimed at changing the political culture from a faction-driven affair into a policy-oriented one, Yamamoto is leading four other LDP politicians — Taro Kono, Kenichi Mizuno, Hideaki Omura and Hiroshige Seko — to draft a manifesto, a British-style list of policy pledges featuring specific numerical, budgetary and timing targets.
Under the planned manifesto, Yamamoto is looking to revise the government’s interpretation of the constitutional ban on participating in collective defense and to conclude a free-trade agreement with South Korea under a fixed timetable.
Yamamoto also advocates a future consumption tax hike and allowing Cabinet ministers to appoint their own vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries.
He concedes, however, that his group’s manifesto will be difficult for the LDP to adopt. “There are rivalries and different opinions in the party,” Yamamoto said.
“We will take it directly to the prime minister. If he takes up some of the items as part of his reform drive, I believe it will still be worth it.”
Yamamoto said that if he became prime minister, the first thing he would do is draw up his own manifesto.
A book compiled under Yamamoto’s supervision and published in November, “Watashi ga Sori ni Nattanara” (“If I Became Prime Minister”), features a promise by the lawmaker that his Cabinet would be made up only of politicians in their 30s and 40s, and all of them would be allowed to name their own vice ministers.
Due to his unorthodox political style and zeal for reform, Yamamoto has many foes as well as friends within the LDP, said Kono, a House of Representatives lawmaker and Yamamoto’s closest colleague. Kono has known Yamamoto for more than 20 years, the pair having studied together at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. in the 1980s.
“Yes, he is considered a bit weird and he clashes often with party leaders,” Kono said.
“But it’s better to be that way because there are 100 things he wants to do as a politician and he’ll be able to do 50 if he breaks up the current system. But if he butters up the elders like other politicians, he’ll only be able to do just two or three.”
Like many others in the political arena, Yamamoto is a second-generation politician.
His father, Tomio Yamamoto, was an Upper House member who served as farm minister over a decade ago in the Cabinet of then Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.
“Actually, I wasn’t going to be a politician,” said Yamamoto, who was elected from a Gunma constituency.
After graduate studies in international relations at Georgetown, he pursued a developmental-aid career at the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the United Nations Development Program. But he abandoned this path when his father passed away in 1995.
Kono, who is also a second-generation politician, said Yamamoto has adopted a defiant posture because he wants to erase any perception that he rode into the Diet on his father’s reputation.
Kono fully believes that Yamamoto should run in the Lower House, whose decision-making powers supersede those of the the Upper House. Yet Yamamoto himself has rejected this notion, stating that he wants to maximize the policy opportunities afforded by the guaranteed six-year Upper House term.
Yamamoto served as parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs in 1999 and 2000. On foreign policy issues, he calls himself “pragmatic.”
He believes the threat posed by North Korea constitutes the principal reason that Japan should support the U.S. military offensive in Iraq, even without the backing of the U.N. Security Council.
“If North Korea launches a Nodong (ballistic missile) against Japan, it’s the United States that would counterattack for Japan,” he said. “If we jeopardize the bilateral alliance (by not backing the U.S. position) on Iraq now, it would be naive to assume the Japan-U.S. alliance would still be viable if North Korea hit us.
“We have to hedge against the risk of the American public asking why U.S. soldiers should die for Japan.”
Yamamoto heads a group of politicians aiming to submit bills during the current Diet session that will make it possible to halt money transfers to North Korea and curb Japanese port calls by the Mang Gyong Bong, a cargo-passenger ship that travels between Japan and North Korea.
The underlying idea is that Japan should be allowed to impose its own sanctions against Pyongyang without a U.N. resolution to this end.
“In diplomacy, you have to have both dialogue and deterrence. But there is no mechanism of deterrence toward North Korea,” Yamamoto said.
But the government reaction to Yamamoto’s initiatives has been muted.
“We understand the efforts of Mr. Yamamoto, but it doesn’t seem the time is right to revise or make new laws for sanctions,” one senior government official said on condition of anonymity.
“We could level sanctions without changing any laws if there is a U.N. resolution. I’m not sure if Japan going it alone with sanctions would be effective or even wise.”
Behind the government’s hesitation is a belief that taking such action would further sour relations with Pyongyang, with which Tokyo still hopes to normalize ties.
Yamamoto is fully aware of the position. “The government can be cautious. But in the Diet, we have to raise our voice and take one step further,” he said. “Showing this kind of resolve itself would work as a deterrent.”