National / Politics

Tsuyoshi Hoshino, the Heisei Era's last maestro of Japan's Diet formalities

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

When at home, Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Tsuyoshi Hoshino wouldn’t dare let the hours pass without a humidifier on. The whole time the device is humming, he is also wearing a neck gaiter. Whenever he goes out, he makes sure his bag contains a constant supply of cough drops.

To understand why this junior legislator in the ruling party takes such painstaking care of his throat, look no further than what he’s been tapped to do in the Diet over the past several months.

On a typical day, Hoshino stands up suddenly in the middle of a session, takes a deep breath and addresses Lower House speaker Tadamori Oshima by his title in a blaring voice.

Gichoooooooooooooo!” he says at the top of his lungs, distinctly elongating the last syllable.

He then reads a motion peppered with legal jargon and complex kanji that can often strain his public speaking skills.

“It’s an extremely high-pressure job,” Hoshino said in an interview with The Japan Times. “The first time I did it, I could feel my legs shaking.”

Hoshino, who was tapped to be giji shinkō-gakari (facilitator of Diet proceedings) for the Diet’s regular session this year, will be the last person to carry out this unique, century-old vocal performance in the Heisei Era, which will end when Emperor Akihito abdicates on April 30.

“Seeing as I’ll be carrying over this tradition from one era to another, I definitely feel its historical weight,” he says.

Lore has it that the tradition dates back to 1894, when a lawmaker on the floor, in the absence of a decent microphone in what was then known as the Imperial Diet, called out to the speaker in a loud voice to drown out the din of altercations around him, thereby screaming his way into introducing a motion.

This reading of a motion — and the unique intonations that accompany it — have since become a unique fixture in full sessions of the Lower House.

Today, the job typically goes to junior potential stars in the ruling party, providing a clue as to who might be tapped for a Cabinet portfolio or a high-ranking party position in the future.

Official records show about 90 people have performed the role since the Diet entered the postwar era in 1947, including Noboru Takeshita, Toshiki Kaifu and Yoshiro Mori, each of whom became prime minister. More recent names include LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, former internal affairs minister Seiko Noda, and Yuko Obuchi, former minister of economy, trade and industry.

Still, despite the whiff of future glory associated with the role, Hoshino says he wasn’t so much excited to hear news of his appointment as he was sobered by it.

His trepidation was for good reason. After all, it is a task that has seen many lawmakers humiliate themselves in spectacular fashion with blunders that include shouting at the wrong time, stumbling over words and running out of breath in mid-sentence.

Hoshino takes those stories to heart.

A day before he is scheduled to perform, the third-term lawmaker says he practices reading out his scripts “at least 50 to 100 times,” jotting down pronunciations of difficult kanji and making annotations reminding himself to “speak slowly.”

To keep his throat in optimal condition, he also refrains from drinking or going to karaoke on the night beforehand, he says.

Under the tutelage of his personal voice coach, he also has trained himself to emulate the voices of professional performers, including opera singers and rakugo (comedic storytellers) or kabuki actors.

With his coach’s help, Hoshino is trying to perfect his delivery of “gicho,” the facilitator’s signature phrase, the second syllable of which must be sustained for at least for seven seconds, as per tradition.

“A person tapped for this position is nicknamed a ‘Flower in the Diet.’ To live up to that name, you need to perform with a certain level of dignity, in terms of tone of voice, articulation and posture. It’s pretty exhausting, though,” Hoshino says.

One of his pet peeves is motions on health-related legislation, which he says is often filled with obscure medical terms, including the names of diseases.

As he reads out a motion, he must also at times weather a relentless barrage of jeers from the party veterans seated around him — a rite of passage all who take the role must endure. “As I speak, I hear some ministers jokingly shout things like, ‘Hey, no screw-ups today!’ or ‘Try not to trip over your words!'” he said with a laugh.

Hoshino is determined to beat expectations. “The key to success is for you to think of yourself as an actor on stage and go at it like you own the place,” he said.

“You can’t survive the pressure of standing up alone and shouting at the top of your lungs under the gaze of nearly 500 lawmakers around you if you’re embarrassed about what you’re doing, even just a little.”

As outlandish as these vocal performances may seem, Japan is not alone in retaining archaic rituals in its parliamentary system.

In fact, things are far more ceremonial in the U.K. Parliament, where a myriad of medieval practices are still religiously adhered to, according to Rica Shinobu, a France-based journalist who has written books on British politics and lifestyle.

The annual opening of Parliament, for example, is marked by officials decked out in medieval attire, not to mention a ritual that involves a door to the House of Commons being slammed in the face of a senior House of Lords official known as Black Rods — a practice that signifies the Commons’ independence from the monarchy, she says.

The unabashed display of these traditions from a bygone era, she says, gives Parliament an atmosphere that is at once both “mystical” and “lyrical,” an effect she likens to that given to the Hogwarts school of wizardry from the “Harry Potter” series.

“It is these theatrical qualities that make the British Parliament so fascinating. It makes you feel as if you’re watching a movie,” Shinobu says.

Based on this impression, Shinobu says the unique declaration of a motion in the Diet deserves more public attention.

Japan could use more of these ceremonial traditions to raise public interest in politics, she says, especially given that the televised debates here are seldom as riveting as the Question Time exchanges in Parliament, where the U.K.’s politicians often captivate the public with their flair for rejoinders.

“I think this kind of ceremonial tradition will make the Diet more fun and probably pique the public’s curiosity about what’s going on there,” Shinobu said.

Hoshino agrees.

“Of course, microphones are of much higher quality today so there is no practical reason why we have to keep shouting like this,” he said. “But this practice, in a way, is a one-of-a-kind performing arts tradition in the world of the Diet, which otherwise tends to be uninteresting to the general public.”