A new anti-establishment group led by actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto made a surprisingly strong showing in the Upper House election Sunday, reflecting a sense of stagnation and growing public frustration with vested interests in the country.
Reiwa Shinsengumi candidates Yasuhiko Funago, 61, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease, and 54-year-old Eiko Kimura, who has cerebral palsy, won Diet seats by priority in the group’s proportional representation list.
In an unusual twist, Yamamoto, 44, won more votes than any other candidate in the proportional representation segment of the election but was unable to retain his seat in the House of Councilors because the group only won two seats.
“Taro Yamamoto may have lost his parliamentary seat, but Reiwa Shinsengumi made a huge advance,” a smiling Yamamoto said at a news conference early Monday, noting the grassroots group now qualifies as a political party eligible for subsidies as it won at least 2 percent of the votes cast nationwide.
It is the first time since the current electoral system debuted in 2001 that a group unqualified as a party has won a Diet seat via proportional representation.
Yamamoto couldn’t stay as the two seats Reiwa Shinsengumi did win went to Funago and Kimura, who were given top priority by the group under a special new candidate quota for proportional representation lists.
In the election six years ago, Yamamoto won a seat in Tokyo with 660,000 votes.
“I am full of emotions that this moment has arrived,” Funago, who uses a wheelchair, said in a statement read out by his helper. “I may appear weak, but I have more guts than others as it has been a matter of life and death for me.”
Funago, the first person with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to be elected to the Diet, was diagnosed with the progressive neurological disease in 2000 while working at a trading house. After completely losing mobility in his limbs in 2008, he started using a special sensor that detects biting motions to control a computer to help him communicate.
Kimura has been disabled since she was 8 months old. She is a longtime activist who has called for integrating people with disabilities into society.
“Each and every vote from people with disabilities in harsh conditions has pierced my heart, and they have made me feel I must work hard,” she said from her wheelchair.
The Diet must now modify its facilities and rules to accommodate the pair, who require the help of assistants, because the chamber has never had members with disabilities so severe that they cannot press the voting buttons on their own.
In 1977, the chamber altered one of its seats to accommodate the wheelchair of new member Eita Yashiro, 82.
It has also prepared documents in Braille for lawmakers with weak eyesight.
“The people wanted someone to breathe new life into politics,” said Yamamoto, who has been described by some political analysts as “Japan’s Bernie Sanders.”
“Nothing will change unless ‘bothersome’ people join the Diet,” he said.
Making active use of social media, Yamamoto drew more than 970,000 votes — the most by an unsuccessful candidate since the new system took effect in 2001. The previous record was the 445,000 votes won by Komeito candidate Tomoko Ukishima.
Reiwa Shinsengumi drew large crowds during the campaign as Yamamoto stumped in a T-shirt and jeans, calling for abolition of the consumption tax Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party plans to raise in October. He also called for increasing the minimum wage to ¥1,500 ($14) nationwide.
The group raised about ¥400 million in donations after its launch in April and at least 3,500 volunteers helped it campaign.
Advocating the creation of a “society that doesn’t cut anyone off,” it fielded candidates deemed among the overlooked in society, including sexual minorities, single parents and part-time workers.
“We will win big in the Lower House election. We aim to win the leadership,” Yamamoto said, adding that he himself would also run. “We will create a society in which no one is cut off.”
Yamamoto became known for his anti-nuclear activism after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis. As an independent Upper House member in 2013, he was reprimanded for handing a letter on the Fukushima disaster to then-Emperor Akihito at a garden party, triggering criticism that he was attempting to politically exploit the monarch.
Toru Hasuike, 64, the brother of former abductee Kaoru Hasuike, who was returned from North Korea in 2002, also ran for Reiwa Shinsengumi but did not win a seat. The former employee of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., which manages the disaster-hit power plant, told reporters in May that he shared Yamamoto’s stance against atomic power.