Until Hiroshi Yamada took control of Tokyo’s Suginami Ward in April 1999, local government activity proceeded at a predictably slow pace.

Ward officials would never have dreamed of taking the initiative in introducing new policies ahead of other municipalities.

“We had never considered being the first out of Tokyo’s 23 wards when it comes to new projects. Suginami had always been around the 10th or so to launch new projects because we wanted to see how the other municipalities dealt with them first,” said Yoshiaki Kobayashi, deputy mayor of Suginami, which has a population of around 520,000.

“But since Mayor Yamada took office, we have pioneered many new policies.”

Yamada, now serving his second term, usually requires assignments to be completed within a week, or sometimes two if the task is difficult, said Kobayashi, who has worked for the ward for the past 40 years.

“His working style is that of a real politician,” he said, comparing Yamada with the mayor’s predecessors — most of whom were longtime ward officials who got elected to the top post after serving as deputy mayors.

The 45-year-old mayor is full of ideas. During his first four-year term, these ideas led to a raft of reforms as Yamada sought to trigger a nationwide revitalization.

Under Yamada, the ward refused to supply residents’ information to the nationwide resident registry network, which was launched by the central government last August, because it felt the protection of privacy could not be guaranteed.

Taking its cue from Yokohama, Suginami in May decided to let each resident choose whether to join the controversial network.

Suginami also introduced an ordinance banning its mayor from serving more than three terms, an idea proposed by Yamada that initially met staunch opposition from assembly members.

Some argued that voters should be the ones to decide how many terms a mayor serves, because that is their right under a democratic society. Others said Yamada should not bind his successors with such a rule, adding that if he really believes it is the right thing to do, the rule should only apply to him.

But he managed to prevail.

“After becoming mayor, I realized how powerful the position can be,” he said during a recent interview at his office. “Imagine serving as mayor for more than three terms. Everyone around you will become a yes-man. This will create a hotbed of corruption.”

In fact, Yamada, who served in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly and the House of Representatives before becoming Suginami mayor, is well aware of the authority a municipal government chief can wield.

“A mayor can do things Diet members cannot. I can allocate a budget to get measures carried out,” the Lower House member-turned-mayor said. “You have to be the head of a government to put policies into practice.”

He also said Diet members, who are always surrounded by fellow politicians, bureaucrats and journalists, are far removed from the ordinary public and thus fail to see what policies are really necessary for the people.

This conviction apparently sank in with some of his former Diet colleagues.

Yokohama Mayor Hiroshi Nakata and Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa, both close friends of Yamada, gave up their House of Representatives seats and became local government heads in the past few years.

“People at the top have a huge responsibility, and it is tough to stay there, just like standing on the summit of Mount Everest in a strong wind,” he said. “But once you reach the top, there is so much you can do.”

The son of a salaryman, Yamada as a child never thought of becoming a politician. But when the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was arrested amid the Lockheed bribery scandal in the 1970s, his eyes became glued to the political scene.

“I was not naive, so it was no surprise that some politicians were corrupt. But what made me furious was their subterfuge. Many of them tried to evade scandal by blaming their aides,” Yamada said.

Believing Japan needs a good leader, his interest in politics grew while he was studying law at Kyoto University.

Upon graduation in 1981, he joined the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, which was established to nurture leaders.

In 1985, Yamada at age 27 ran for a Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly seat, becoming the youngest elected in Tokyo’s history. In 1993, he won a House of Representatives seat, running on the now-defunct Japan New Party’s ticket, and after that, he served another term as a Lower House member.

Shinji Tarutoko, a Lower House member of the Democratic Party of Japan who entered the Matsushita institute a year after Yamada, described the mayor as “a man of action who is always running forward at full speed, just like a rugby player.”

“He tries to move too fast toward his policy goals without stopping, so some people may not follow him. As a leader, that can be both positive and negative,” said Tarutoko, who has known Yamada for nearly 20 years. “But if he has someone close to him who can cover this drawback, he can be a leader of matchless strength.”

Among Yamada’s numerous reform initiatives was his call for an environment tax, which set Suginami apart.

Although store owners and some 40 percent of Suginami consumers opposed the tax, the ward assembly passed an ordinance in March last year to introduce a 5 yen levy on each plastic bag handed out at local stores in an effort to curb their use. The tax, however, has yet to take effect, because a supplementary resolution requires that no enforcement date be set until other efforts to curb the use of plastic bags have been exhausted.

The ward plans to discuss the tax again after viewing the results of a survey this month on how many people bring their own shopping bags to stores in Suginami. A poll last July found that 24 percent of shoppers brought their own bags. The ward hopes to see 33 percent in the latest survey.

The unprecedented ordinance, however, didn’t come easy. At one meeting, Yamada spent several hours explaining the measure to a group of shop owners who strongly opposed the tax out of fear of losing customers. It was a make-or-break time for the junior mayor.

“I asked them ‘Do you really think it is right for people who engage in business to keep giving away plastic bags that will never return to dust? We need to rid our living environment of so many plastic bags, and the quickest way to do that is to tax them,’ ” he said, recalling the confrontation.

Yamada said he was trying to share a common value with the people and not merely shove a policy down their throats, and noted his message ultimately moved them.

“It was a first. Suginami could propose a local tax independently from the central government, at a time when politicians are reluctant to push an added tax burden on voters,” Yamada said. “I think it is important for the people to understand they must shoulder certain costs if they strive for an ideal society.”

But Yamada is not always absorbed in serious administrative pursuits.

Singing along to a Southern All Stars hit at a karaoke bar, his face softens as he mimics the group’s lead vocalist, Keisuke Kuwata. Yamada enjoys getting together with friends and former colleagues for drinks and chats. He said he has no frustrations because he enjoys his work.

“Everything I say and do pertains somehow to the future of Suginami and can be realized if I work hard,” he said. “Since my promises are not empty pledges, I no longer feel the frustration I had when I was a Lower House member.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.